April 2023 | Volume 226
Photo Credit: Sarah Race
In her solo piece Black & Rural, a Pi Theatre guest production playing at Pacific Theatre, Shayna Jones investigates what it feels like to be the only Black person living in a rural environment. She interviewed forty such people, and includes recorded voices of some of those interviewees in her performance, but the 70-minute show, directed by Pi’s Richard Wolfe,centers on Jones’s own vexed feelings about her relationship with both her human and natural environment.
In her stylized narrative, with song, dance, and choreographed movement by Amber Barton, Jones—who speaks, moves and sings beautifully—explains that her investigation was prompted by her paradoxical reactions to a sympathetic Black Lives Matter rally in her tiny village. Her spirits at first boosted by the support of her non-Black neighbours, she soon began to feel dissonant, conspicuous, on show: “What was I supposed to do being the lone Black person?” What, it made her ask, was she doing there?
Before long, she felt herself in an existential crisis. Who, what, was she? Being Black, shouldn’t she be back in a city, which is where all the TV she had grown up on showed Black people to be. “Who are you,” she asked herself, “to be out here close to the earth? Who do you think you are?”
Cecilia Vadala’s striking set consists of thick ropes that hang from the ceiling, suggesting trees. But they also conjure bleaker pictures, especially when Jones notes that many of the most familiar images of Blacks in rural setting are of slaves fleeing through woods, and when she sings snatches of “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday song about lynching.
Eventually, among her interviewees, Jones finds an old Black man, a “tree-talker,” who imparts his wisdom to her and allows her to somehow reconcile her pantheistic ruralism through a folktale in which a Black man becomes absorbed into a tree, and for the first time, “sees himself clearly.”
Jones interrupts her revelatory narrative multiple times with folktales, accompanied by recorded, highly rhythmic stringed music from Rufus Cappadocia. I found the music relentless and too loud, while the snatches of interviews were excessively muffled (these are directorial issues), and the tales uneven in their symbolic relevance to Jones’s personal drama.Jones’s charismatic presence carried the show for me—but then, here I am, directing my white gaze at her lone Black body. When her rural neighbours did this, Jones declares she felt “erased.”So the very nature of this show makes my opinions irrelevant, and perhaps—though I sincerely hope not—even offensive to the writer/performer. I admire Jones’s talent and the intelligence of her presentation, and very much look forward to seeing her again on a Vancouver stage.
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