floating a queer celestial in Ni’Ja Whitson’s “Oba Qween Baba King Baba”

May we all see and know ourselves as the Divine beings we are, and in simultaneously futurist and ancient ways. – Ni’Ja Whitson

Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Ni’Ja Whitson, Paloma McGregor, and Kirsten Davis (l-r)
Ni’Ja Whitson | The NWA Project, Oba Qween Baba King Baba, Danspace Project, 2019.
Photo: Ian Douglas courtesy Danspace Project.

Ni’Ja Whitson‘s recent Oba Qween Baba King Baba, co-presented by Abrons Art Center and Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, offered cosmological meetings amidst a swirl of lineage, legacies and streaming star scapes. The title queers the Yorùbá word “Oba,” a genderless term that has come to be used for “king.” Whitson’s exploration of masculinity and divinity, set amidst transcendent video designs from Gil Sperling, featuring art works by Wangechi Mutu and Gavin Jantjes, fathers many progeny into a realm full of multiplicity, spirit and some sweeeeet ass line dancing from The NWA Project: Kirsten Davis, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Paloma McGregor, and Whitson.

Oba Qween Baba King Baba was initiated in 2018 during the Reggie Wilson curated Danspace Project Platform “Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches and Downtown Dance.” One of the seeds for that Platform was the ongoing rumor of the church’s “slave gallery.” In spring 2018 and again last month, Whitson offered the audience a chance to attend to the ritual of separated selves, by placing us in the balcony where northern slaves were segregated during mass at the church. As we inhabit a space once shared by humans treated with absolute inhumanities, there is a folding in time and space, a connection to intersecting pasts and futuristic paths. As centuries collapse upon us and explode into new infinite realities, there is space for exponential renewals. Some of us spend decades recovering from the spiritual violences righteously delivered upon little selves from the mouths of pious men, reconciling the spirit from the dogma. Raised strictly Catholic, I might (lo ki) call mine a fraught relationship with the church… but once again in this very particular sanctuary, congregated amongst kindred souls, bathed in Douglas R. Ewart’s pre-show music and filled up from Djola Branner’s invocation and well calm into “this holding, this land, this resting place, arresting place,” I was ready to receive the spirits rising.

Ni’Ja Whitson | The NWA Project, Oba Qween Baba King Baba, Danspace Project, 2019.
Photo: Ian Douglas courtesy Danspace Project.

This queerly divine dominion is populated with divinely queer celestials. Early moments in the work follow a stately procession of parasols trailed by a projected glowing tail. Soon after, radiant nobility shifts into hot grinds and fierce rhythms, bringing Ni’Ja’s program notes (quoted above) into clear manifestation… this field digs deep into ancient ways to sprout fresh buds with flourish and a burning futurist flame. The sound design for the evening curated by Whitson with contributions by AJ McClenon and Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste includes the rousing 2017 Women’s March speech from trans activist Janet Mock:

So we are here. We are here not merely to gather but to move, right? And our movements, our movements require us to do more than just show up and say the right words. It requires us to break out of our comfort zones and be confrontational. It requires us to defend one another when it is difficult and dangerous. It requires us to truly see ourselves and one another.

I stand here today as the daughter of a native Hawaiian woman and a black veteran from Texas. I stand here as the first person in my family to go to college. I stand here as someone who has written herself onto this stage to unapologetically proclaim that I am a trans woman-writer-activist-revolutionary of color. And I stand here today because of the work of my forebears, from Sojourner to Sylvia, from Ella to Audre, from Harriet to Marsha.

I stand here today most of all because I am my sister’s keeper

Other sound sources included tips and tools from #sharetheblack Black 2.0 creator Stuart Semple and bits of Kendrick Lamar, Sun Ra, David S. Ware, Jaydee, Mary J. Blige, Ledisi, The Melodians, Tupac, Big Freedia, African Bata Lebee Cultural Troupe, Sweet Honey and the Rock, Mt Moriah Baptist Church, and Jon Batiste. The dancers sing, clap each other in and speak with intimacy and power. During one sequence Whitson reads a letter from their father who as a former Baptist preacher calls out the absence of appreciation from his gender nonconforming offspring (that he insists on calling “daughter,”) while simultaneously seeming to erase the work of his child as a spiritual leader and healer. Against this contending of recognition and power, Kirsten Davis’s powerful vocalizations materialize a ferocious and dignified sovereign whose riveting command offers rousing experimental sermon that’s more fiyah than brimstone. Preach…

Ni’Ja Whitson | The NWA Project, Oba Qween Baba King Baba, Danspace Project, 2019.
Photo: Ian Douglas courtesy Danspace Project.

“Lord knows…” in getting right with god, Whitson gifts the audience with sacred ritual and blessed waters. The evening includes many references to fluidity with projections of ripples, the cast singing Rivers of Babylon and a self-baptism. Whitson kneels at a bowl of water and as they dip their head into it, the floor projection goes ochre and spreads out.  Tuce Yasak’s lighting design bathes the space in warm unity with the evocative videos so that when small containers of the water are dispersed to the audience by the various Spirit Marshals: Sara Abdullah, Nana Chinara, Aye Eckerson, Manny Rivera, Marýa Wethers the atmosphere is full of reverent sanctity. Heal…

And then and then, the dancers just get to wrrrk. With an extended ferocious footwork and line dance sequence, we see a convergence of many lifetimes and life lines. Here in this House of worship were four glorious home worlds spinning, orbiting, birthing anew and sustaining enduringly, triumphantly with exquisite skill and stamina. Joy…

Ni’Ja Whitson | The NWA Project, Oba Qween Baba King Baba, Danspace Project, 2019. Photo: Ian Douglas courtesy Danspace Project.

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