On Stage: Brown on Black

I used to think that the old Route 22, which connected Pittsburgh with parts of Pennsylvania mostly occupied by farms and Penn State, was interminably clogged. Then the powers-that-be multiplied the lanes and repaved it. New strip malls and businesses grew up around it…a good thing, as Martha says. But alas, once again it’s clogged and slow as the snow melt this past winter. But I was on my way, set to see Ronald K. Brown/Evidence at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for its appearance on the Lively Arts series.

The program included “One Shot,” a piece inspired by legendary Pittsburgh photographer Teeny Harris that had its premiere at the Byham Theater in 2009.  I wanted to see how the work had changed, if any. And it was accompanied on the program by a more recent work,  “Two-Year Old Gentleman,”  inspired by Brown’s nephew.

I thought that it was not only a great Black History Month program, but would stand on its own any time of the year. Besides it would be my first trip to Indiana in a very long time.

Well,  there were more changes than I bargained for as I neared Indiana. It turned out that Chestnut Ridge Golf Resort and Conference Center, where I planned to have dinner, was hidden a giant Wal-Mart in Blairsville and I missed it. All of a sudden there was the Homer City power plant, a behemoth dominating the landscape — so much so that for a second you think you’re at Three Mile Island. Except there were additional slim stacks spewing smoke into the evening air like giant cigarettes.

I wondered about that as I sipped my water at the combination KFC/Pizza Hut, after which I drove onto the campus, mostly new construction (or as I could see in the waning light), and found the parking garage for Fisher Auditorium. But which building? It took five students to get me to the right one. Once there I zigzagged from a contemporary lobby into the handsome Fisher, which had a quasi-Art Deco combined with wood paneling.

I was not the only one with a note pad — there were obviously academic assignments at work here and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence provided a good lesson.

Ronald appeared to be on a personal path with these two works, seemingly to define his own black history. “Two-Year Old Gentleman” had Jamie Latson in the title role, a natural and enjoyable performer who appeared close to that age. He was surrounded by five men, perhaps symbolizing relatives, mentors and ancestors in his life. The piece focused mainly on solo work for these men who seemed so comfortable in their own skin and brought out a sense of humanity and responsibility. But there was also an undeniable sense of community as they prayed, talked all at once, formed a circle. And when they left the stage, it was with a sense of purpose.

“One Shot” was a quietly undulating segment of the full-length work that premiered in Pittsburgh. Many of Teenie’s photos remained and were a compelling reminder of the rich and vibrant life in the Hill District of days gone by. Gone were the dance segments dedicated to the African diaspora and Lena Horne. What remained was the purity of the dance, so meditative and almost improvisatory.

It was also heartfelt, something that was underscored when the dancers periodically touched their chests. They also would occasionally stand still, reflecting as the screen showed a funeral with three tiny white caskets.

Most of all, “One Shot” recalled a past so brilliantly documented by Teenie and gave it a breath of life. It was worth the trip.

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