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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Different, to say the least--
Dean Moss' johnbrown, interdisciplinary art on the stage at The Kitchen in NYC

Dean Moss
Last week (28 Oct.), an article by Tara Sheena in the online newsletter, Hyperallergic (a forum for radical perspectives on art and culture),  noted the performance of Dean Moss' interdisciplinary performance, johnbrown.  The program was featured at Manhattan's notable non-profit arts forum, The Kitchen, from October 16 through 25th--commemorating the 155th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.      According to The Kitchen's website:According to website of The Kitchen, a nonprofit space in Manhattan devoted to the arts, last month Dean Moss: johnbrown was
"Presented in seven semi-autonomous segments titled after individual articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858, johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception. johnbrown premieres in New York on the 155th anniversary of the radical activist’s raid on Harper’s Ferry."
The Kitchen also describes johnbrown as the product of three years of research "to create johnbrown, a dark, wry meditation on the legacy of the white 19th-century abolitionist."  The creator, multidisciplinary artist, Dean Moss, is a  2014 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow and Doris Duke Impact Award in Theatre recipient.  "Steeped in a childhood of grassroots organizing and pitched campaigns, multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss draws from an intimate and varied history with activism," notes the website.  As Sheena reports further, johnbrown was presented in seven semi-autonomous segments, each titled after various articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858: “Vacancies,” “Treaties of Peace,” “All Must Labor,” “Irregularities,” “Crimes,” “Voluntaries,” and “Oath.”  Dean Moss is the son of Harold Moss,  the first black mayor of Tacoma, Washington (1994-96) and a civil rights activist who has also served as an official for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Moss senior reportedly provided the material for his son's production. The Kitchen website describes the production further:
"johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception."
The program promo below is posted on Vimeo, which includes scenes from the performance, featuring an audio of the producer interviewing his father.

JOHNBROWN (promo) from Dean Moss on Vimeo
I gotta say, I'd don't connect to this kind of art very easily.  I don't like free jazz or abstract painting either, so chalk it up to my simplicity.  The Kitchen site says:
"It is a testament to Moss’s handle on the worlds he creates — complex, multilayered, fantastical, and intimate — that he is able to have the memory of renegade abolitionist John Brown loom over the entire piece. However, we are all aware it is Moss’s John Brown we are seeing. His is a lowercase, no spaces, one-word “John Brown”; johnbrown is a euphemism, a reference, and an ever-evolving metaphor. Brown is so much more than historical matter or biographical trope in Moss’s world; he is an ideological framework, able to produce a compelling, albeit densely layered, performance work."
The performance also included the video-play below, featuring Pete Simpson as John Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili as Frederick Douglass, Aaron Hodges as Watson (John Brown's son), and Tymberly Canale as Helen Pitts (Frederick Douglass' second wife).  The script, written by Thomas Bradshaw, is at once interesting, irreverent, outrageously and grossly inaccurate, certainly risque, undoubtedly quite funny at points, and not without some thoughtful salutations to the unspoken aspects of the story.

Certainly it was common for widowers to remarry younger women in the agrarian 19th century, so the joke about Brown having a thing for young females freshly arrived in womanhood has no grounding in fact.  Bradshaw is judging Brown by contemporary standards; he also disregards that fact that Mary entered marriage at (actually) seventeen years willingly, and they seem to have had a good marriage despite the many difficulties they faced in life together.

In contrast, Bradshaw does poke at a truth in Douglass' relationship with Helen Pitts, his second wife, though certainly not the first white woman that the superlative orator took to bed.  Douglass loved his first wife, Anna Murray, but she was the wife of his youth.  He outgrew Anna quickly, and his sojourn in abolition brought him many places and put him in the company of many admiring women in the United States and Great Britain.  That he married Helen Pitts later in life resulted in a great deal of hostility and flack for Douglass, including from his adult children.

While the fictive "ghost" of John Brown haunts Douglass out of jealousy, there is a resonant truth that Bradshaw recovers from the proper insinuation of history.   His Douglass rebukes Brown, telling him that he had made his choice against his advice about attacking Harper's Ferry.  This is exactly the case.  Brown chose to lay down his life for the slave, while Douglass chose to save his life, believing he could do more good alive than dead.  But Douglass also disappointed Brown, somewhat inteferred with his recruitment efforts, and ultimately proved an "unreliable" associate (to use Brown's term).   Yes, Brown's "ghost" in the video-play is also correct: he and Douglass are forever paired as allies in radicalism, but Douglass enjoyed a long life to match the horrible oppression of his youth.  He loved and made love time and again, and he ultimately won status quo acceptance as an "American hero." Brown devoted his life to the antislavery cause and then gave up life for it, and he has been rewarded by being called mad, fanatical, and terroristic. You can count the number of statues of Brown on almost one hand in this country; the number of tributes to Douglass are numerous.  Not that he doesn't deserve it.  For my money, Douglass' image belongs on our money.

Still, Bradshaw's risque dialogue has some elements of truth, although it largely is a caricature of imagination--playing with the jealousies and fates of human nature and history. You can't help but laugh at points--the performance is good, although Simpson's Brown sometimes reminds me of Will Farrell playing John Brown.  Still, the only reason I took the time to even consider it is because its easy to watch a video.  Watching a video is a passive experience.  I wouldn't have read Bradshaw's text if it were offered me as a script or a novel, which is why I have no interest even in reading last year's acclaimed humorous novel about John Brown and a runaway slave who dressed like a girl. It's too much work for nothing.  I'm interested in the man who lived, not every other artist's imaginary John Brown.  Sic semper ineptias.

You can check out the video-play yourself if you want.  If you know anything about Brown, it will annoy you at points, but it will also make you chuckle.  However you react, don't take it seriously. Art often imitates life very badly, and artists can get away with it since art is often its own justification for misrepresenting the truth.--LD

johnbrown (video-play) from Dean Moss on Vimeo.

Here's an interesting interview with Dean Moss by Young Jean Lee for Bomb magazine (2012).
Here is Dean Moss' page on the website of the Foundation for the Contemporary Arts

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