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An intergenerational tale of legacy versus futurism, The Clothesline Muse, which combines art, dance, and theatre, was also intergenerational in its conception: a daughter, her mother, and her mother-in-law joined forces to tell a story about valuing both the old and the new being passed down through a single family. Dr. Kariamu Welsh, a dance professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, originally conceived The Clothesline Muse as a dance performance but was inspired to collaborate with her daughter-in-law, artist Maya Freelon Asante, and Asante’s mother, Nnenna Freelon, a six-time Grammy Award nominee. The overall feeling of this collaboration supports the message of the production itself: while feminism, futurism, and civil rights are incredibly important to understand and exemplify, our true legacy lives on through our family.
This eighty-minute production, which premiered in March of 2014, combines African-inspired music with blues, gospel, and techno music all composed by Freelon. Interestingly enough, Freelon was the first artist to sell out the Cary Arts Center stage, so it was fun to see her here at another sold-out performance. Freelon was definitely the focus and draw of the production, although Asante's art used as set design is gorgeous yet raw and organic, especially when the dancers use sheets to stir the air, making all of the installation ripple with color and light.
Freelon stars as "the muse" Grandma Blu who is attempting to pass on a legacy of storytelling and family to her granddaughter through her life as a laundress -- the "best laundress in three counties," in fact. Blu's granddaughter Mary Mack, played by Tyanna West, however, doesn't want to have anything to do with all of her grandmother's clutter and ratty old junk, so she is attempting to clear it all out using "a sorting system" she found on the Internet.
Freelon's passionate, raw jazz vocals surged through varying emotions, from the traditional working song of "Wash It/Shake It" to the blues ballad "Balm in Gilead." Her scat singing and improvisatory syllables were particularly impressive, showing a depth of skill and passion for not only music but the subject material. West sings several contrasting songs opposite Freelon, including part of "This Is Mine," in which she sings about her techno "Nu Black" life focused on moving forward into the future. She also performed a passionate, soul-searching ballad titled "Who Am I?" West's tone and diction paled in comparison to Freelon's, which seemed a little unfair, though her portrayal of a millennial trying to acquaint her grandmother with the Internet, video chat, and the future of African-American culture was spectacular.
Dancers Jessica Featherson, Stephanie Padilla, Matia Johnson, Sakarah Hall-Edge, and Sophiann Moore were stunning pieces of visual art themselves, providing visual poetry to match that of Freelon's music and Asante's art. They serve as a sounding board for Blu's spiritual musings, supporting characters to Mary Mack's flashback and dream sequence in "Shake It Señorita," and spiritual beings that represent the circle of life, including the mysterious Ancient Washer Woman (Hall-Edge). The modern dance works choreographed by Dr. Welsh draw from African tradition, step-dance with clapping and stomping, contemporary modern, as well as motions adapted from "the washing vernacular," as described in the playbill. Some contrast the songs, while others provide illustration or action.
The show's extended metaphor of laundry as representative of humankind's deepest "stains," or sins, touched on subjects like segregation in "Whites and Colors," the 1881 labor movement in "Dear Sir," and even lust in the hilarious "How to Iron a Gentleman's Shirt." This last number was particularly entertaining, as the lyrics were literally ironing directions from a 1930's laundry manual, read in a seductive tone while one of the dancers pantomimed an overtly sexual caricature. Another comparison was made in the song "Online/Online," which continued the laundry metaphor -- how can the things we "hang on the clothesline" reflect us to others? -- but paired it with Mary Mack's "online" life of video chat, Instagram, and digital interconnectivity. Not necessarily disparaging the wonders of the 21st century, the song simply served as a reminder of what can be lost in transit when we don't have a person face to face.
While the continued use of laundry and folding could get a little tedious, particularly to those of us who hate doing laundry -- especially folding! -- The Clothesline Muse is a beautiful exploration of the differences between generations, but also the importance not only of looking back but also of moving forward. What seemed like an amalgam of four disparate types of art (sculpture, dance, music, and theatre) came together powerfully in what resulted in a very special evening.