“Sometimes I wanna fly away, but here is where I stay.” Felicia Holman sang, her strong alto only accompanied by a rhythm hammered out on her hip. “Sometimes I wanna fly away, but here is where I stay.” Two other women circled around her, their fluid dance movements adjusting in accordance with the intensity of her vocals.
Last Friday night, this performance, called “Ladies Ring Shout,” brought a crowd of South Side residents out of a cool rain and into the Experimental Station at 61st and Blackstone. Channeling this genre of spiritual ritual performed by African slaves, “Ladies Ring Shout” combined spoken word, song, dance, and video to probe some of the images of African-American women found in contemporary American culture.
Historically, ring shouts provided an emotional and artistic forum for African slaves to express the complex feelings born from their condition. This struggle is evident in the opening act of the show, when sorrowful groans combine with specter-like shadows projected on the wall behind, reminding the viewer of both the physical and spiritual nature of the activity.
The workshop and performance was developed by three accomplished academics and performers, Felicia Holman, Meida Teresa McNeal, and Abra Johnson. The trio has worked together for over ten years, confronting issues of race, religion, gender, unemployment, and sexuality from both a deeply personal and sweeping societal perspective. With “Ladies Ring Shout,” described by Johnson as a “combination of scholarship and life experiences,” they hoped to contextualize some of their own deep emotions into a holistic narrative on the place of black women in 21st-century America. “We wanted to draw off this story and tradition of the ring shout as a safe place to come and share stories,” McNeal said.
The artists used a variety of forms and perspectives to examine what they called the “(mis)representations of the black female in popular culture.” At times the show verged on the scholastic: in one segment, Johnson used a slideshow to lecture on misconceptions proliferated by pop culture figures like Tyler Perry’s “Madea” character. In a more theatrical section, the women donned black and white suits and simulated an interrogation in which two cast members aggressively demanded that a third answer to various stereotypes.
In the Q&A that followed the performance, which was moderated by WTTW journalist Sylvia Ewing, it became that the trio intended the performance to raise just as many questions as it would answer. Audience member Kulvinder Arora summed the evening up: “I feel like this performance reorients the frame for us. Each of us is able to relate to it through our own experiences.”