Dean Moss—not just for entertainment

Charmaine Patricia Warren | 10/30/2014, 2:01 p.m.
Dean Moss awakened tales surrounding the life of John Brown, a 19th century white abolitionist, for his multimedia, evening-length work ...

Dean Moss awakened tales surrounding the life of John Brown, a 19th century white abolitionist, for his multimedia, evening-length work “johnbrown,” which ran Oct. 16 to Oct. 25 at the Kitchen, a long-time home for Moss, who served as curator and advisor to artists there.

Among the many parts that make up “johnbrown” are individual articles from Brown’s “Provisional Constitution of 1858,” which includes seven segments individually titled, “vacancies,” “treaties of peace,” “all must labor,” “irregularities,” “crimes,” “voluntaries” and “oats.”

On stage, the performers were Kacie Chang, Julia Cumming, Cassie Mey, Sari Nordman, Asher Woodworth and Moss, and on video were Okwui Okpokwasili (as Thurgood Marshall), Pete Simpson (as John Brown) and Aaron Hodges (as Brown’s son, Watson). There is a great deal more packed into this evening, but that which is unsaid and unseen, in some cases, is what immediately draws attention.

One dancer sits quietly while the audience enters. The lights dim and she quietly performs a series of balletic movements, aiming at every moment to balance. Then, Moss (addressed as Uncle Tom), in a dance belt and a crown of leaves, is led on stage by Cummings (addressed as Ms. Eva). Both sit on a circular grass rug. She lays one hand on Moss and together they share in a dialogue adapted from George L. Aiken’s 1858 play adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Sing songs of spirits,” Ms. Eva asks of Uncle Tom, and they both sing.

There were more words that called attention. For instance, in a recorded interview with his father (Harold G. Moss) about racism, his father stresses, “They don’t know the baggage you carry,” or, in response to Moss asking him about being a radical, he offers, “The radical shall move the Earth.” Bit by bit, Moss builds this kind of quiet and question turmoil, and we don’t know what is next.

As if to help connect the dots, as part of the fast-moving video images that include racially denigrating cartoons, Moss throws in a 1960s clip of the Supremes singing Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story” hit “Somewhere.” They sing, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us … We’ll find a new way of living. We’ll find a way of forgiving.”

When there is no dialogue, there are other equally provocative moments. Lying on their backs with legs and arms awkwardly stretched upward, the performers’ mouths and eyes are wide open and they scream silently. Moss is repeatedly and rhythmically pummeled by Hodges, and that’s the only sound we hear. Over and over, the performers beat each other with cardboard squares (it’s a really loud sound), but all they do is say awwww. And just before the end, bare-chested with shoulders rolled in and knees buckled, the full-bearded Hodges stands alone, dejected, and says nothing. There is so much more. Moss’ works are complicated, and the viewer must be prepared to walk away with many questions and new thoughts.