“Prophetika: An Oratorio” – Maura Donohue talks to Charlotte Brathwaite
Stage director Charlotte Brathwaite, composer/pianist Courtney Bryan and installation artist Abigail DeVille have assembled an Afro-futuristic spectacle with live sound designer Justin Hicks, actor/singer Jadele McPherson and harpist Brandee Younger for La MaMa’s Club Theater inspired by Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and Harriet Tubman. Prophetika: An Oratorio is running through this weekend. Charlotte and I both toured as members of La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company. I spoke with her earlier this week after seeing the work.
Maura Donohue: I enjoyed the entire experience, from the mysterious entry into a dark space and then having to negotiate an expectation that I should move around while noting my wariness of darkness. That felt deeply important to me. That I negotiate the desire to move around and catch as many aspects as possible, but acknowledge that I was in a space of unknowing and discomfort. I found that profound on a sensory level – to experience a way of existing in my body in wanting to move, but feeling uncomfortable and unclear at first. And, by the end I felt this celebratory desire to join in and enter the final procession. I wanted to be one of them. That was a fascinating personal journey from outside looking in to outside wanting to be in. In your shaping of the work, were you intentionally hoping to engage a reimagined viewership? One that understood the oratorio as installation and less as theatrical performance? Have you been satisfied by audience response?
Charlotte Brathwaite: I’m always looking for ways to engage and excite audiences who come to my shows. I most enjoy creating works of theater that live in strong visual and aural environments. I want audiences to have an interaction with the show that is fully experienced. Different people like to experience a piece from many vantage points, others prefer to find a corner to watch and listen. I think Prophetika has many focus points, space, sound, textual, light… Each audience member can choose what works best for them to focus on.
MD: Along with telling several people to go see it, I’ve been saying Sun Ra lives! I felt soaked in an understanding of time that pulls from past and reaches through now into what could be. What’s been your journey to this aesthetic? Landscape? Envisioning?
CB: Collaborating with Abigail, Courtney and all the collaborators of Prophetika have added so many layers of meaning to the work. I made propositions about what I thought the piece should be, should feel. They answered through their art and with their hearts. The work is a collage of experiences and points of view.
MD: I’m not an afrofuturist – but the convergence of sci fi and historic understanding is so rich and potent a space for play. The fabulous costuming, the butoh-ish, jazz, club personages, the energy, the pacing – it all seeps into the viewer. It felt transportive, otherworldly (of course) and extremely important as a methodology for investigating a lived experience. I’d love to know more about how you’ve found your way to this. I appreciate the way in which a free-wheeling, highly skilled, fantasy-based environment could also engage some thinking about darkness or blackness.
CB: The future is an exciting place, anything is possible. There is much inspiration and many life lessons to be learned from history. Connecting those is exciting. My directorial projects range in subject matter from the historical past to the distant future in order to look at and examine the complexities of the human condition.
MD: Perry Yung said it reminded him of the clubs on the corner in Oakland in the late 70s. I wonder if you had to have specific negotiations about how to reach the right audiences or any logistics of installation, oratorio versus theatrical presentation. Just to walk in and smell the incense… I think maybe because I was at a 6pm on a Sunday performance, I felt like I was riding the edge of theatrical versus happeningish. Like, it really needs to be late night for it to live it’s real life. Which leads to my enjoyment of the immersive experience. I credit my love of that to all of that time we were performing inside of “Trojan Women” as key to informing that desire. I wondered how you think that fed your lineage. The work feels like a prayer to Ellen Stewart (La MaMa’s founder) too and I found that so… I don’t have a good word. It makes me well inside with pride and gratitude. That in some way you are keeping a particular spirit alive or channeling… Were you? Are you?
CB: Ellen Stewart has been an incredible inspiration and source of power in my life. Performing with the Great Jones Rep, travelling all over the world, being exposed to different cultures, truths and ways of expression have played an enormous part to shaping who I am as a human being living on this planet and as an artist.