The Whispers of Angels

David Rousseve/Reality

at the Athenaeum Theatre, September 28-30

The Whispers of Angels tells the story of a young black man dying from AIDS, but the word “AIDS” is never spoken. It is sumptuous dance theater, with stunning dancing and marvelous stage pictures, but its dances express isolation and clinging. David Rousseve has written quirky, interesting characters, and his presence as a narrator is always engaging, but the story’s climax rings hollow. The Whispers of Angels is almost a masterpiece–a lilting work with a sure touch–but it does not have the hardheaded thoughtfulness of Bill T. Jones’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land.

Rousseve engages us immediately, walking out to a microphone and telling us that when he was a boy he wanted to be a superstar like Diana Ross, flashing a megawatt smile as Ross’s voice comes booming over the speakers. We know instantly that Rousseve’s character is the kind of gay man who loves the campy star power of female pop singers. But Rousseve also explains why, saying that as a boy he was “sorry,” which is Southern English for being a wimp–one step above being a punk. This meant, Rousseve says, that he was always “gettin’ my ass whupped”; superstars never get their asses whupped. Rousseve baits his hook with a combination of colorful language and vivid setting, disarming humor and honesty, and that megawatt smile.

When the sorry boy’s mother dies, he moves to New York City with his father, later graduating magna cum laude from an Ivy League school. Deciding that soap operas need token blacks, the young man sends out “a whitewashed resume” and manages to land an acting job within a few days on One Life to Live, only to be consistently cast as a domestic servant. His dreams of stardom dissolve after an episode set in the Brazilian jungle, a cocktail of B-movie cliches. When Rousseve explains that the episode’s plot involved a virus that infects the blood and causes a dreaming death, we know instantly which virus he really means. With a deft hand, he paints a shadow across an already mad world.

Most of The Whispers of Angels is concerned with the young man’s voyage “into the enchanted forest of my soul, to slay the dragon at its heart,” learning to smash his fears so that he can achieve his dreams. Two women–his massive, honey-colored grandmother and a vision of a woman in white (the gospel singer B.J. Crosby)–give him the recipe: a cup of faith, another cup of hope, a pinch of wisdom, and heaps of love. The young man plunges into the past, of African Americans and of his own family. In one section Rousseve sits in a chair counting down the years since 1665 as three pairs of men and women dance. A man tells in voice-over about making his son eat a mouthful of West African dirt before the son is taken away as a slave; the father explains that he wanted the boy never to forget the earth beneath the baubo tree.

When Rousseve arrives at 1964, he cackles, “I know where I am: a playground of angels.” He hears Diana Ross, and realizes that he wanted to be her because his embittered father’s love of Nina Simone was the only chink in his armor. The father–whose sole steady work up north was being Santa Claus at the local department store–enters screaming and swearing from the aisle in a Santa suit while the dancers suddenly appear in long wigs like soul singers, tussling with each other like out-of-control kids.

Such shifting, imaginative sequences frequently appeal to many senses at once; Rousseve also uses 12 Chicagoans as a movement chorus to anchor his stage pictures. Some of these are stunning. At the end of the first act a line of naked dancers, lying facedown on the floor, lead to a standing naked man (Rousseve) with hands shielding his face and crotch. He groans, then cries like a baby, saying, “Hold me.” As his torso contorts and he sinks to the floor in tiny jerks, he says, “Hold my hand, I’m dying.” The dancer closest to him reaches out her hand.

Problems begin to appear toward the end of the first act, however. An extended dance sequence representing the young man’s dark night of the soul is well done by Rousseve and the six Reality dancers: the movement is loose-jointed, with swinging arms and legs carrying the performers in a variety of turns, and the lifts are imaginative. But the movement, taken from a monochromatic palette, becomes repetitive. The tempo–a breathless, almost hysterical pace–is too even. Most significant, the dancers don’t really move across the floor forcefully. They seem trapped within their own circle, unable to conquer the space of the world around them. Their connections with one another are touching, but eventually a little pathetic. The movement makes the dancers seem already defeated.

More problematic is the work’s climax, when the young man, ill and dejected, finally discovers hope: he hears someone call his name “through a tube that holds my blood,” sees a vision of a child in a door frame, then feels a part of himself come alive. He hears birds and children for the first time as things apart from himself that will survive his death. The next moment brings his death rattle, a horrifying sound, and the man slumps in his chair. Gospel music bursts from the speakers, and a gospel vision of heaven is revealed behind a scrim, containing the man’s beloved grandmother (Yvette Glover), the woman in white, and the angel who reached out to hold his hand. This is a tacky but glowing heaven of plastic lawn chairs, hubcaps decorating a wire fence, and plastic windmills shaped like flowers. Crosby sings the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”; the young man awakens in heaven; his father appears and embraces him; Crosby and Glover sing about “the impossible faith that can conquer anything.” It just seems a damn shame that the young man can conquer his fear only in the last moments before his death, and can realize his dreams only in heaven.

Another shadow that hovers over the show is–well, not AIDS so much as people’s response to AIDS. Dance theater about AIDS has, curiously, followed the reactions to death described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. After a phase of rage, epitomized by Jones’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, dance theater in the last year or two has entered the bargaining phase. Rousseve bargains for otherworldly salvation. Last year Bill T. Jones said explicitly about his Still/Here that it accepts death, but that seemed to me a false claim, a wild bargain with death. I know it’s cruel to mock the desperate bargains of dying men; I can only hope that a cool statement–that their bargains seem false to me–is not mockery but kindness.

Rousseve’s 1992 performance here, Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams, was presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College, not by Performing Arts Chicago, as Laura Molzahn erroneously stated in her critic’s choice for The Whisper of Angels.

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