Middle Passage in Twenty Minutes: The AFROFUTURISM Series

Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” – Mark Dery, Black to the Future

I hardly moved during the opening night of The AFROFUTURISM Series, a performance project of Brooklyn-based Renegade Performance Group (RPG). While Artistic Director, choreographer, and performer André M. Zachery performed Digital Middle Passage, I sat entranced: my back hunched, shoulders up to my ears with anticipation, hanging on his every, calculated move.

Before I get any further, what is Afrofuturism? Don’t hold too hard to any one definition, but Afrofuturism uses art and literature to explore themes of the African Diaspora and the creation of alternative futures for people of color. Ytasha Womack, author of the celebrated book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-fi and Fantasy describes Afrofuturism as “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too. It can be expressed through film…art, literature and music. It’s a way of bridging the future and the past and essentially helping to reimagine the experience of people of color.” So yes, it’s pretty much the coolest thing ever.

The cultural critic Mark Dery is credited with originating the term in his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future,” but black artists such as Sun Ra had been embodying the concept for decades prior to the official definition. For a more in-depth primer, you’ll want to read this incredible interview (complete with mixtape!) with Ytasha Womack, in which she draws on the work of artists like Octavia Butler, Janelle Monae (squee), and, oh my god, ‘the 5,000 year old’ icon Grace Jones. Culturebot recently looked at another piece infused with Afrofuturism here.

Like Afrofuturism itself, the performance series cannot be categorized in any one way. It integrated three distinct elements – dance movement, epic sound design, and out-of-this-world digital multimedia – which ebbed and flowed throughout the evening to create one full audience experience. The structure of the performance was also a series of three: two ensemble pieces opened and closed the show, with one center piece performed by one individual dancer. The repetition of threes in the show reflects the three parts of time travel (past, present, future), a theme inherent to Afrofuturism. While performers traversed the stage, crossing through eras of the past, present, and future, The AFROFUTURISM Series explored the process of re-imagination as power and a re-creation of what is possible to come.

But back to André Zachery. From playing roles as Co-Founder of RPG, Artistic Director, multimedia designer, choreographer, and performer, the Series was clearly his incredible brainchild. Indeed, in his liner notes he writes, “The Afrofuturism Series was built from a desire to understand how my voice could be expressed through a variety of mediums; dance, visual media, sound, and conceptual ideologies, to create landscapes where Black ‘life’ is expressed fully and completely.”

As the center point and apex of the show, his piece, Digital Middle Passage, drew focus to the experience of the life of an individual while relying on the framing of the collective, the two performances of the ensemble before and after. Digital Middle Passage so beautifully put to movement this idea laid out in the liner notes by Neon Cross (the first piece shown in Program A) composer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste (Ivonne K. Paredes composed Digital Middle Passage): “I am no more or less important than she whom is no more or less important than he whom is no more or less important than they whom are no more or less important than us.”

In twenty minutes, Zachery moved across the stage embodying the horror of the Middle Passage, displaying signs of power and agency and later, struggle and capture. His dance performance was backed by digital multimedia projections on the wall behind him. Like a kaleidoscope, the projections reflected Zachery’s dance, but were mirrored and multiplied by four, creating a distorted view of his journey. As the performance progressed, Zachery’s movements became less powerful, creating the illusion that he was being moved by something other than his own agency, an incredible feat of choreography. While the display repeated his movements on screen, Zachery led the electronic sound designer and cellist in their performance, creating a human chain of action and reaction.

The performance of the entire ensemble was noteworthy, but Zachery commanded the show with his outstanding choreography, innovative multimedia display, and artistic direction. In his note he writes, “At this crossroads/carrefour/kalfu at which we find ourselves, let our decisions to move forward be based on fearlessness of change and the possibility of the fantastic.” The AFROFUTURISM Series was just that.

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