'Come Home Charlie Patton'
Dancing around the color line
by Holly Messitt
October 26, 2004 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York
Near the beginning of Ralph Lemon's "Come Home Charlie Patton," the third part of Lemon's Geography Trilogy, this time evoking images of lynchings and the civil rights movement, Lemon appears in a documentary film focused on him wading through a southern swamp. Looking occasionally at the camera but more focused on holding a book in his hands and balancing a teacup on the book, he offers to read us his favorite story. In the film we don't get to hear much of the story. Instead, we watch Lemon tripping through the water; the teacup rocks and rattles. Alongside the screen, a dancer inside an open, box-like sculpture by Nari Ward climbs to the top of a folding ladder. As the dancer gets to the top of the ladder, he falls directly to the floor and lies still.
Just as he did in the first two installments of the Geography Trilogy , Lemon mixes media and crosses genre. Here, he juxtaposes dance with documentary, the writings of James Baldwin (who appears in the work as an animated character wearing a lemon-colored suit jacket) and Arna Bontemps, autobiography, and popular music from Nina Simone to Nirvana and the Smiths.
These pieces with various accompanying motifs weave in and out of each other, pick up and leave off, throughout the hour and thirty minute piece with images increasingly gaining in significance. The falling dancers in the Ward sculptures are references to lynchings, not just in the south, but also lesser-known ones in the north. A documentary short in the piece shows Lemon standing at the street corner where northern lynchings took place. There is no memorial, nor recognition of the space's significance. The only thing that stands there now is a yellow street lamp.
Other important images include the teacup, which becomes a symbol for physical fragility, while references to birthdays seem to symbolize renewal. There is also the image of the horseshoe - a symbol of luck, a game that people play, and when Okwui Okpokwasili, one of the dancers who moves gracefully through "Come Home" populating the different sections with characters as various as her own younger self to those from an Arna Bontemps story, wraps three horseshoes around her neck, they could represent the noose or the heaviness of oppression while at the same time they could reference necklaces worn by African women.
Such is the nature of Lemon's Trilogy. The exciting thing about watching Lemon's work is seeing these references develop and multiply. The piece is highly talky, however, and at times the dancing feels disconnected from the rest of the piece, a sort of filler in between the more important moments of talk. In the first two installments Lemon searched across cultures in Africa and Asia . In this installment, Lemon poured through his own racial history. The material is still raw. He did his research in both his hometown of Deluth , MN , and throughout the South; as he worked out pieces of "Come Home," he performed them in the intimacy of his subjects' living rooms.
Still, the complexity of image and structure do lead to poignant moments of movement. One appears near the end of the piece. Throughout many of the dance sequences, dancers use a loose-limbed, shuffling southern slave vernacular. At times, with their falling and standing up over again, they resemble black-faced vaudevillian minstrels. Lemon, however, takes this motif to its conclusion when the stark white backdrop he created for the stage lifts to reveal a separate, small stage lined along the back with clear plastic shower curtains. As Lemon begins to dance, two of the men aim a police hose in his direction. The force of the water knocks Lemon down; he gets up and resumes dancing, but the force continues to knock him down each time he stands.
When the company dancers appear on stage again, their movement has no aim. Their placement on stage has no structure. The dancing has no center, which may be the point. The Baldwin character clarifies, as Lemon replays a 1974 lecture from Baldwin in which he observes that the world has become more aware of Africa. With this awareness, the center of the world has shifted, and shifting with the center is the definition of man. While the comments cannot be taken as an underlying statement for Lemon's work, they do leave the audience with questions to ask.
[This review has been re-printed from the December 2004 issue of Ballet-Dance Magazine -- ed.]
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