David Rousseve/Reality

at the Blackstone Theatre

September 18 and 19

I don’t know what to do with Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams. It’s too big to ignore, too well-meaning to write off. Blessed with a large, talented cast, it stands head and shoulders above most other “entertainments,” yet it doesn’t quite accomplish what it sets out to: create a new kind of understanding.

A few years ago David Rousseve, a 33-year-old Princeton graduate and faculty member, decided to write, choreograph, and direct a series of shows based on the life stories of his Creole grandparents, John and Thelma Arceneaux; Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams is the eighth and final installment, a kind of postmodern musical in the vein of Bill T. Jones’s Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which the Dance Center of Columbia College and Performing Arts Chicago also produced here, last spring). Rousseve has aimed high in every respect, in his wish to explore difficult issues like racism and homophobia and to unite disparate cultures, and in the forces he marshaled to realize his vision–his own six-member troupe of dancers, Reality; a local gospel choir, the Faith Tabernacle Voices; a pickup group of six local dancers; gospel great B.J. Crosby; and composers Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock) and Don Meisner.

In short, Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams is an event, an event with dancing of several kinds, with poetic and narrative texts spoken onstage and in voice-over, with live and recorded music, with mimed vignettes. There’s even stand-up comedy of a sort–in fact, the show opens with stand-up. While the grandma (B.J. Crosby in glasses, hideous blond wig, and chenille bathrobe) shuffles around sucking her dentures, Rousseve stands in a bright spot with a mike and talks about how he took his grandma for granted, with her cat’s-eye glasses missing all the rhinestones and her liking for cracklin’s and blood sausage. Eventually, however, he saw that she had something he wanted: in a time of trouble, when everyone he loved seemed to be dying, she had an unlimited supply of compassion.

The scene shifts a bit: the grandma moves to a kitchen table and begins paring something, and the dancers appear, several in a line upstage and two each in a couple of balconies, and begin a repetitive motion in unison–drawing their hands up their fronts, palms in and close to the body, then extending them, letting the hands float down. Meanwhile Rousseve continues the stand-up act, telling us about the ugly “‘flicted” rat he had as a child and how much he loved it, not despite its affliction but because of it. In many ways it’s not a funny story, but Rousseve tells it like a comic, playing the audience and finally drawing howls with an odd punch line about his “rat spot.”

At this point Rousseve the director has created a scene unusual for its contrasts and potential for emotion: we have his own enthusiastic but somewhat brittle presence as the comic; the dancers in their deeply inward, almost trancelike state; and the grandma in her island of peace and calm, paring. We’re set up, ready, already moved.

And what comes next? A diatribe about ‘flicted rats and ‘flicted people, about how no one cares about AIDS because only blacks, gays, and drug users get it. It’s not that what Rousseve says isn’t true–many people don’t care, and for just those reasons–but the rat metaphor was already transparent. His statement’s overkill. And when Rousseve talks about his anger and Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” comes up on the sound system and the dancers’ forearms and fists begin to shake convulsively, we feel we’ve been led to this point by our PC noses.

Especially in the first act of Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams, Rousseve sets up scenes in which the sparks fly–visual, aural, emotional sparks–then quashes his own effects. When a nursery rhyme/rap section begins, with the dancers teasing Rousseve as he chants “I wish I had a nickel, I wish I had a dime,” the stage seems to open up–there’s a palpable air of excitement and promise, later realized by a riot of tomfoolery. But then Rousseve tells us he’s going to rain on our parade, in a line that goes “Let’s pretend it’s all fine.” And gives us a fractured nursery rhyme/sermon, complete with shaking finger, about black Lucy and her baby with AIDS.

Most disappointing is the way the last section of the first act deflates the fine section that precedes it. Rousseve sets up a scene in a train station that fully dramatizes what it means to be a black porter hauling whites’ suitcases: the choir stands on three sides of the stage singing, in call-and-response style, “Johnny was a man / Johnny was a boy”; four dancers chug their arms; a white woman stands on her suitcase to address the tall black porter, who then crosses the stage with excruciating slowness, bowed under the burden of her suitcase. Rousseve creates an air of simultaneous jubilation and suffering that’s little short of miraculous, and builds the scene to an effective climax. But to close the act he tells a story that “explains” the scene, complete with sentimental details about how his grandmother and her daughter dressed in their Sunday best to go to the station, how they “back-of-the-bused it” there to witness his grandfather’s humiliation.

As a writer Rousseve is equally sensitive to detail and insensitive to how much we need. He’s witty, imaginative, but facile. As a choreographer he’s adept at poetic movement motifs. The introspective motion of hands pulled up the body and floated down only to be pulled up again, for instance, evokes the comforting repetitions of petting (remember the rat), praying, even cooking, perhaps rolling out dough. Fists and forearms shaken so violently they seem to vibrate, feet shuffling in tiny steps, recall trains and anger, saying good-bye and running away. Some of the motifs we understand only in retrospect, like the motions of the fingers that seem to pull something from the throat, explained at the end by the story of how the grandmother’s beloved cousin Bobbie lost her soul. Rousseve also uses nonverbal utterances in a remarkably sensitive and creative way–the performers’ squeaks and gasps, panting and high-pitched screams evoke both ecstasy and suffering. There’s a lot of talent here, an intuitive sense of what works onstage. Now Rousseve needs to find his own vision–and tell his audience something more than what they came to hear.

Near the end Rousseve tells another stand-up story, about his first day of integrated school in Texas, how terrified he was. It’s very funny, and very pointed in its observations about how fear creates hypocrisy. Rousseve closes the segment by revealing the lie he told his teacher, which she eagerly accepted. At that point, he says, he knew he’d hate this new world he’d entered–he was too good at it. And indeed he is too good at it. People in this country are confused and fearful about racial issues; they want answers, or at least reassurance that they have an enlightened attitude. That’s a situation ripe for manipulation and hypocrisy, even if it’s unconscious. And despite its air of passionate effort, despite its laudable aspirations, despite the many times it hits the mark, Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams manipulates us. Too often it also punishes us, not in the covert manner of great art, drawing us in to suffering, but overtly, brandishing a stick.