Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co.

at the Civic Theatre

March 11, 13, and 14

Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land is a sprawling, ambitious dance about racism, repression, faith, and sexual freedom. But unlike the family-saga novels sold in supermarkets that are invariably described as “sprawling” and “ambitious,” Jones’s dance is a work of intelligence and commitment whose radical aesthetics confront the audience. Simply said, it is a masterpiece. In our alienated time Jones actually offers a vision of a promised land. And his utopia does not have the harsh regulations that Plato, More, and Lenin found it necessary to impose; Jones’s promised land is the body, freed from the prejudices that sometimes seem society’s currency.

The performance is near definitive, with crisp, detailed dancing by Jones’s company, an extraordinary performance by the Julius Hemphill Sextet in a Bessie-winning score, and the enthusiastic participation of 46 Chicago dancers.

Jones starts by attacking racism, in a section called “The Cabin”–a topic done to death by pop music. It seems every hip-hop artist and white liberal singer has denounced racism, ending their songs with a plea for racial harmony. Jones instead looks at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose abolitionist message contributed to the Civil War. Jones delights in the stereotypes that fill the novel: the impossibly saintly Uncle Tom himself, who refuses to run away with the slave Eliza; the slave owner Haley, who takes pride in the fact that he only puts fetters on Tom’s ankles instead of on his ankles and hands; Haley’s slaves Sam and Andy, who interfere with his pursuit of Eliza by pretending stupidity; the gentleman slave owner St. Clare, who buys Tom for his daughter Eva but neglects to free him when Eva dies; St. Clare’s wife, Marie, who fears the black slaves and says they always steal; the abolitionist northerner Ophelia, for whom St. Clare buys the African slave Topsy to see if Ophelia can really love the Negroes. The variety of stereotypes Jones invokes establishes that everyone, black and white, is implicated in our widespread and variegated system of racism.

Jones goes through Uncle Tom’s Cabin at lightning speed, a technique that limits the novel’s melodramatic appeal. Most of the dancing takes place in a small, striped tent, as if it were part of a minstrel show. (Because the Civic Theatre’s proscenium is draped in the same striped material, the entire dance is like a coon show being offered for our amusement.) Most of the dancers wear cartoonish masks; Simon Legree’s looks like a gorilla face. Harriet Beecher Stowe (Sage Cowles) narrates the story from outside the tent, while guest artist R. Justice Allen both narrates and supplies a black man’s ironic counternarrative; in a telling moment, Justice stops one of Stowe’s abolitionist sermons. Because of the narrative focus of this section, Jones limits movement to gestures and to a “Jim Crow dance” like a buck dancer’s shuffle.

After the story ends, with Tom’s death, Jones puts the dance into retrograde; the dancers perform every movement backward but without speaking, so it looks as if we’re seeing a videotape being rewound. Jones “stops” at the scene where Simon Legree whips Uncle Tom; Legree then strikes every dancer in turn, as they line up. The dancers have removed their masks, so that we can see the people instead of the characters. For Jones, the whipping that kills Tom is the single physical image that condenses the novel.

In the fragmented narrative style typical of postmodern dance, Jones then turns from the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to explore the point of view of one of its characters. Eliza, the runaway slave, is the only slave who became free. He imagines the dogs that pursue her as men in black T-shirts, boots, and dance belts, wearing dogs’ muzzles. Like jar heads at boot camp, they run in place and do calisthenics. At first the muzzles are funny and the men’s bare buttocks are sexy, but as the connection between slave hunters’ dogs and Marines sinks in, the image becomes threatening.

The fragmentation of narrative continues in “Eliza on the Ice”: Jones casts four women as four different aspects of Eliza. They are first seen in silhouette, passing Eliza’s mask from “The Cabin” from one to the other. Andrea Woods, playing the heroic side of Eliza, dances gracefully and strongly to Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” Heidi Latsky plays Eliza the victim, with slashing, flinging movement as she speaks about how the men in her life have betrayed her trust. She is chased off by the men-dogs, who come onstage with the third Eliza (Betsy McCracken); like the men-dogs she wears ornamental chains, dances with them, and barks orders at them like a sergeant–she has been co-opted by the men. A passive Eliza (Maya Saffrin) surrenders to her fate; she never moves but is only flung about by the men-dogs, passed from group to group. Though the heroic Eliza tries to rescue the passive Eliza, the passive Eliza is carried offstage on the men’s shoulders. Sojourner Truth (Sage Cowles) then brings the passive Eliza back onstage, and the four Elizas dance the heroic Eliza’s dance, keeping the men-dogs at the back of the stage.

After the Elizas leave triumphantly, Sojourner recites her speech backward while dragging herself offstage. A skinny black man (Gregg Hubbard), who had been among the men-dogs at the rear of the stage, walks toward the audience; he is bare-chested and wears a bright red miniskirt and white high-heeled pumps. Here Jones eloquently links the oppression of blacks and of women: the triumphant feminists leave behind a man in drag who can only show himself when he is alone; the oppression of homosexuals has not been remedied. Jones often reverses elements in this piece–like the retrograde movement at the end of “The Cabin” and speeches read backward–to say that the first text, our society’s approved text, is wrong. The truth is the image he shows us in the reversal: a slave being beaten, a man in drag.

The next section, “The Supper,” is occupied with matters of faith; religion may be the only recourse of an oppressed group. Before the section starts, Jones comes in front of the curtain with his mother, an elderly woman who sings gospel versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Kumbaya”; she then preaches, calling out “Now’s the time” and asking for protection for the audience and dancers. Jones’s mother is the true Eliza, the woman who escaped the slave hunters’ dogs.

“The Supper” proper starts with a tableau of dancers clustered around a long table: a re-creation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. In the foreground Allen performs a rap song while company member Arthur Aviles sings the rhythm track. Allen’s rap is his own story, about getting hooked on heroin, stealing, and going to prison, where he experiences true enslavement. Meanwhile the dancers have brought the heavy chairs from behind the table and lined them up in a V shape. Many fleeting duets and trios occur within the V, including a slow-motion mime of dribbling and shooting a basketball performed by Allen and Hubbard. After arranging the chairs in a line the dancers begin a long section in which each performs a movement phrase, moves to the next chair, and repeats the phrase. The seemingly endless repetitions are enlivened by many variations, including embraces, kisses, and CPR on a prostrate man. When a dancer finishes the variations, he or she goes back to the “Last Supper” tableau. Jones sings “Wayfaring Stranger,” emphasizing the lines “No sickness, no pain, in that place to which I go,” then starts preaching himself, saying “In the beginning there were no penises or vaginas, no viruses, no meaning or lack of meaning in art, there was no Bill T. Jones.” Before Allen takes his place in the tableau, he again mimes shooting a basketball, this time with sound effects.

Though the constant movement keeps our interest, this is the weakest section. The material suggests conventional religious ideas–the relentless repetition of the chair dance suggests death’s relentlessness, basketball suggests boyhood innocence, Allen’s rap suggests God’s ultimate justice–but they are not new or interesting ideas. The final image is Jesus’s resignation in the Garden of Gethsemane: man’s injustice to man is an implacable force.

Jones’s resignation dissipates in the final section, “The Promised Land.” As Chicago minister Willie Taplan Burrows preaches the story of Job, Jones improvises an effortlessly creative solo that mixes classical ballet’s controlled feet and legs and modern dance’s precise line with buck-and-wing, hip-hop, and many other dance styles. Both of Jones’s religious images, Gethsemane and Job, refer to a moment of trial that can either destroy or free a man; while “The Supper” suggests destruction, “The Promised Land” clearly chooses freedom.

In the interlude that follows his solo, Jones sits down to debate the nature of faith with Burrows. Jones admires the solidity of her faith but shows that it’s really a belief in certain rules; and since Christian rules have no place for homosexuals, Burrows is left with no other option than to try to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Though Burrows has many great one-liners, such as “A condom is only a pinprick away from AIDS,” her ignorance can be terrifying; consider her statement that one of the mysteries of the world is that “only God can answer why brown cows give white milk.” The tremendous risks Jones takes, conducting an unscripted debate about religious belief before hundreds of people and winning it, demonstrate beyond doubt his courage, intelligence, and commitment. It tried the audience’s patience dearly, but most stayed with it, despite the late hour.

The audience’s reward comes at this point. The curtain rises on 60 dancers in black and white formal dress. Allen and Andrea E. Smith recite Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as Aviles and Lawrence Goldhuber dance a duet. With a yell the formal groupings dissolve into a party–clashing lines of dancers make the stage look as if the childhood game Red Rover were being played on it. A solo by Hubbard follows. It suddenly ends, the crowd disappears, and Allen and Smith fight as they say something backward about Alabama tobacco. The party changes into a minstrel show; Sean Curran tap-dances barefoot as a procession of dancers carrying African masks passes before him.

Right into the middle of this overstimulating mix jumps a nude white male (Aviles), who dances his duet with Goldhuber again. Then Goldhuber whips the nude Aviles while Allen and Smith repeat the “I Have a Dream” speech backward and a crowd of dancers come from the wings clapping and stamping through one of the man-dog dances. Aviles dances a solo on the “Last Supper” table surrounded by the crowd. When he falls into them they support him, pushing him back up. Then the lights dim. The minstrel show, the backward speech, and the table all reiterate symbols from the previous sections, but they appear only as details in the dance’s forward momentum. It feels as if Jones has thrown the previous sections into a blender and hit “liquify.”

When the lights rise again, a scene from The Dutchman, by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), is played on the table; Lula, an older white woman (Sage Cowles), tries to seduce Clay, a young black man (Allen), in Jones’s ultimate power struggle between blacks and whites. Lula calls Clay an “Uncle Tom” because he won’t have sex with her; Clay replies, “If I’m a middle-class fake white man . . . let me be. And let me be in the way I want.” As 30 dancers pound out a rhythm on the floor, Allen comes directly to the audience to say “You never see the pure heart, the pumping black heart. . . . I sit here, in this buttoned-up suit, to keep from cutting all your throats. I mean wantonly.” The violence of Clay’s speech at first seems excessive, but the pounding rhythms seem to justify it as an exemplary literary expression of black anger. Of course, Lula kills Clay and turns her attention to an even younger black man.

The young black man dances a short solo before he’s joined by other men; a plump, nude black woman runs to them and tries to kiss them, then runs to the front of the stage and lies there, facing the audience. This starts a long striptease, as line after line of dancers cross the stage wearing less and less each time. Jones develops both the lyric and comic aspects of nudity. A nude Valerie Williams dances a lovely duet with an older man (John Cowles), as Sage Cowles recites a religious poem of her own composition. A line of nude or seminude men pass a handshake down the line. The handshakes develop into embraces and then passionate kisses, though some men carefully insist on only a handshake. All the seminude men ignore the nude men in the line. A few women force themselves into the line, demanding the men’s attention; some men ignore them while others embrace them. When the men couple up, either romantically or in friendship, a plump nude man (Goldhuber) is left onstage facing 20 seminude women; they advance toward him until, in a moment of panic, he turns and runs offstage. This segment builds naturally out of the men’s feelings for each other and easily expresses the variety of relationships among men.

Jones clearly intends to confront his audience with this mass nudity, as if to say “You say you hate racism, sexism, and homophobia, but what do you really feel? Do you feel a shock when men kiss each other, or when a white woman wraps her legs around a black man?” I certainly felt a few shocks. I was also titillated by the nudity. I resented the shock and titillation, because I felt I was being emotionally manipulated; but then confrontation is a manipulative business.

The dance’s conclusion offers a welcome release from any sense of manipulation. The almost-nude dancers form vertical lines that break to form other vertical lines. And suddenly everyone onstage is completely nude. The vertical lines change into waves; each wave comes forward and stands before us. We are struck by the simplicity of these bodies, their beauty, their ordinariness, and their variety. None of the dancers mentally put their clothes on; in their solidarity they cease being sex objects and become just bodies, those things that we carry around with us every day. This release from society’s sexual obsessions is Jones’s intimation of utopia, a time when we will be released from the obsessions that cripple us.

Jones uses dancers in different ways than other choreographers. He likes compressed spaces, such as the tent in “The Cabin,” the V of chairs in “The Supper,” and the overcrowded floor of “The Promised Land.” Many choreographers use dancers to make us aware of the space they move in; they then create dances in this pictorial space. Jones has little use for pictorial space, however–he uses movement dramatically, to delineate character, so he favors gestures over classical dance movements. Even in his pure dance sections we have the clear sense of a body making a shape. For Jones, body is truth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carol Rosegg.