November 8, 2021 – By Ifa Bayeza
Director and curator Carl Hancock Rux. Photographer Ifa Bayeza.
Carl Hancock Rux is a tour de force. We first met at a Theatre Communications Guild panel in 1998. That day, he invited me to his concert performance which launched Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater on October 16. I did attend that day, and I’ve been following Carl’s creative career ever since.
That first event was a concert reading of his opera, Blackamoor Angel, about the Sub-Saharan African Angelo Soliman, who in 1727 was kidnapped and enslaved at the age of eight and brought to Vienna, Austria. There he rose in stature to become tutor and chamberlain to princes, colleague to Mozart and Haydn, and confidante of the emperor. Yet, upon his death, his skin was flayed from his flesh and stuffed for display among the other African “beasts” in the imperial natural history collection, where it remained until destroyed by fire fifty years later.
Elements emblematic of Rux’s later style were evident in the opera’s embryonic performance. As librettist and leader, he had assembled a powerful collaborative team, including composer Deirdre Murray, director Karin Coonrod, a full chamber orchestra with a chorus of powerful singers. The story of Soliman’s anguished history was conveyed with a sonorous lyricism that revealed a mind equally intellectual and poetic, as well as one keenly aware of environment. In this case, the loud cacophony and excitement of a club opening seemed to evoke the atmosphere surrounding Rux’s woeful protagonist in both his glory and ignominy. The space became part of the drama.
My next encounter was his musing on James Baldwin for New York City’s 2014 Year of James Baldwin, a celebration of the pioneering writer. Rux’s tribute imagined an encounter between Baldwin and iconic musical genius Dinah Washington, played magnificently by Marcelle Davies-Lashley. A byzantine crystal chandelier lay on the floor while, at the nadir of her career, the famed blues singer talked to her reflection in her backstage dressing-room mirror. Then, in a documentary video clip of a contentious interview between Baldwin and an assaultive interlocutor, Baldwin riddled every question in a percussive, high tenor staccato, precise as artillery. Interwoven were scenes with prose spoken in Rux’s hypnotic baritone, delivered with his signature stillness. While the parts remain nebulous in memory, the impression of the whole lingers still.
Since that time, the two of us have had numerous collaborative adventures. On the eve of the publication of my novel Some Sing, Some Cry, co-authored with my sister Ntozake Shange, Ntozake and I gathered some friends to read sections of the book in her Brooklyn garden. Rux read a passage of mine. Upon discovering that a jolly bachelor party descends into a gang rape of the house maid, Rux expertly shifted his delivery with such profound abruptness, it took one’s breath. A few years later, as Distinguished Visiting Artist at Brown University, I invited him to direct two of my plays, String Theory and Welcome to Wandaland. More recently, in 2018, when I was Resident Artist in New Iberia, Louisiana, Rux came down to help mount my musical, Bunk Johnson. . .a blues poem, which made its debut the week after my sister died. Given the circumstances, it was the last place I wanted to be, but so many people were depending on me, I powered through, learning how to swallow my pain and exhale joy. That was Bunk’s story and mine, too, that week. Rux with his electric energy and insanely funny antics off-stage—so different from the gravitas of his stage persona—kept me buoyant. These prefatory remarks should serve as full disclosure: when it comes to Carl Hancock Rux, I am both a friend and fan.
It was with great anticipation that I made plans to see his production celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19, 2021 at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. By divine serendipity, only two days before, the date had just been declared a federal holiday and signed into law by President Biden. The declaration was sprung upon the nation so fast that there was little time to absorb the significance, let alone the facts behind the date: the final triumph of the Union in the Civil War, the acknowledgement, if not acceptance, of defeat by the rebellious Confederacy, and, in the “land of the free,” the liberation of four million people from state-sanctioned human bondage.
While the state of Louisiana and parts of South Carolina had been under Union occupation since 1862 and ’63, respectively, and though Robert E. Lee had signed the treaty of surrender to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865, Texas—long cultivated as a laboratory for the slavocracy’s imperial ambition—was the last hold-out. Desperately clinging to their dream and “property,” slaveholders aplenty from Louisiana to Arkansas had fled with their caravans and coffles of Africans to the far reaches of the state. On the island of Galveston, just off the Gulf Coast, Union General Gordon Granger got around to announcing our emancipation to a small cluster of Black folk on June 19, 1865, two months after the war purportedly was over. On the balcony of the Alton Hotel, he read from a handwritten note, just ninety-three words:
The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
Banished to the post by General Grant, who disliked him, Granger seemed to have no grasp of the moment’s significance. While there is no record of the crowd’s response, such is the poetry of Black folk that someone put our jubilation into a contraction—Juneteenth! Ever since, African Americans have marked the day with celebration. First in Texas and then nationally, it has become a date of memory—collective joy—when we as a people may commemorate both triumph and deliverance, and if a bit qualified, the declaration of our independence and “absolute equality.” To mark the date, Carl Hancock Rux’s Juneteenth exposition at Mr. Lincoln’s Center was a Happening, in all senses of the word: a multimedia, multi-genre performance, traveling across space, time, and history.
As I arrived, a medley of pre-show guests gathered under a huge white tent, pitched on the 62nd Street side of the Center. Though the sky threatened rain, Lincoln Center Executive Director and CEO Henry Timms, standing at the entrance, greeted everyone with elation. Rux’s presentation was to be part of the re-envisioning of Lincoln Center, democratizing the vast concrete plaza as the new public square. The repurposed environment, he explained, would include a voting center/vaccine center and the newly created green space—which, even under the ominous, greying skies, was filled with young families and children frolicking on the man-made hills. The Juneteenth program was one of Lincoln Center’s first public events, post-Covid, and though the attendance would be limited, the sense of release and relief defied even the few protean sprinkles. Everyone carried an umbrella tucked away. We weren’t going to miss this.
In short order, Rux appeared, wearing a white summer tuxedo of his own design, with a red and black floral shirt, the pants Bermuda-length—Frederick Douglass meets Patrick Kelly. (A characteristic of Mabou Mines, where Rux has been a long-standing member: when the director arrives, the show begins.) His tailored white jacket’s breast pocket was emblazoned with the words “REFUSE, RESIST, REBEL, REVOLT,” and wound round the jacket sleeve were double black armbands of mourning. On the back of the jacket were silkscreened images of a quartet of photos from Carrie Mae Weems’s 1995 exhibition, mounted in response to “Hidden Witness,” the Getty Museum exhibition showcasing antebellum images from their archives of Black lives. Among her creations were four re-treated photographs originally made in Columbia, South Carolina in 1850 at the behest of Louis Agassiz, the celebrated father of American natural science. They are among the earliest known photographs of Southern slaves. In his dogged effort to disprove the fundamental equality of man, Agassiz had the four subjects stripped naked and posed, vulnerable and powerless. Weems overlays each image with plexiglass tinted a dense, fresh-blood red.
Director and curator Carl Hancock Rux and guest at
pre-show reception. Photographer Ifa Bayeza.
As Rux moved about greeting guests—Carrie Mae, herself, Lynn Nottage (who contributed lyrics for the event), colleagues from Mabou Mines—this quartet of Africans silkscreened to Rux’s back in that field of white, stood as sentinels, both shielding the wearer and silently alarming and assaulting viewers with their dignity, sorrow, and rage: their humiliation brimming from eyes glazed with tears.
His shoes spoke of another era: Platform, patent-leather with crepe ties, they were Cotton-Club-Cab-Calloway-Josephine dancerly! The pre-show costume was an overture, a condensed highlight of what was to come. The pain, the joy, Black taps and Taps.
A stunning young African-American couple arrived late to the gathering, dressed in matching white quilted fabric: the woman in a flowing sheath with an irregular hem cut on the bias, and the man in loose knee britches and tunic, their hair African crowns of natural spirals. They turned out to be our guides for the evening: Jamel Gaines as “Emansuh Patience, an escaped slave man” and Valerie Louisey as an “Anonymous Woman.” Later joined by veteran actor Stephanie Berry, playing “Ain’tGotNuhPatience,” the three together, through dance, gesture, and improvised prompting, would usher us through the multi-tiered event.
There was no printed program. The evening would demand our undivided attention without distracted glances at the page. Background information provided later allowed me to contextualize what I had experienced. In the moment, though, the absence of a program was part of the event. Untethered, I became kin to thousands of my forebears, freeing themselves by fleeing toward the Union lines. Largely nonliterate, for centuries as fugitives, they had made their way by reliance on the signs in quilts and nature, the coded lyrics of a song, patterns in the sky. Could they read the stars on a grey night such as this?
The evening was to be a sort of “station drama,” most often associated with both the medieval mystery play and German expressionist theatre. The clandestine stops of the Underground Railroad, commonly referred to as “stations,” also came to mind, as random parties of the audience moved sometimes warily from space to space, unsure of what was to come.
Rux’s work has enjoyed an ever-shifting traveling band of extraordinary collaborators. The Juneteenth Project was comprised of an ensemble of about fifteen performers and a dozen crew members, among them, in addition to Nottage, Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Famer Nona Hendryx (better known now for her new age experimentation), singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon, and again Marcelle Davies-Lashley. Rux conceived the event and served as curator, researcher, and director. The evening, however, seemed a creative collective. Each of the component parts had a distinct flavor and scale. All possessed the vivid and intense sounds and colors of Blackness in simultaneous mourning and celebration.
The performance spread over three distinct settings across the center’s vast campus. One setting to the north would occupy the Hearst Plaza and the Olympic-size Paul MiIlstein Pool. Another performance area would run alongside 62nd Street and abut Damrosch Park. In front of the opera house on the walkway connecting the north and south campus sat a giant trapezoidal platform at least a story-and-a-half tall.
Constructed by Diane Smith, the tower was skirted with undulating waves of ruffled paper that spilled onto the granite at its base. Atop sat the torso of a diminutive human, Helga Davis as “Statue of Liberty? (One Tall Angel),” her exquisite ebony face framed by the twilight and a very animated cerulean wig. She completed the ensemble with mismatched red and white evening gloves. In front of the opera house, she was delivering an absurdist Dada-inspired aria of the National Anthem. Beckoned by “Aintgotnuh Patience,” I proceeded to the next installation.
Read the full article by Ifa Bayeza for The Massachusetts Review here.