De/Rail: The Underground Truth at the Jack Guidone Theater
by Christina Lindenmuth
The evening of February 4th was a remarkable night at Joy of Motion’s Jack Guidone Theater. People young and old, black and white and everything in between, packed the house for the premier of De/Rail: The Underground Truth. I always get a sore feeling in my gut when approaching the topic of slavery. As a white woman born and raised in a cosmopolitan area, it’s easy to look at my coworkers, my friends, and my mixed family and forget the painful history that shaped us all. I was anxious for the show to begin.
The stage was set with mirrors, chairs and pillows, and a big red door center stage. We had a word from Executive Director Steve Barberio before the show, explaining that the show was designed to be shown in schools for young audiences. I got even more anxious. I was in school once. I remember how nonchalant and oblivious kids can be. How could a theatrical dance performance possibly have an impact on today’s indifferent kids?
Four performers took the stage, each sitting with a phone, a book or a newspaper, appearing tense and frustrated. There were bouts of shouting and arguing in between snippets of music. The lyrics, “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” repeat, and the dancers begin to move one at a time in their own space. They picked up mirrors, fussing with their own appearances as they moved about the stage. As I watch I get uncomfortable and think about how body shaming is still such a huge issue in our society. ‘How did it get this bad?’ I thought. And then the dancers reflected the mirrors back at us, the audience, “the people”, and glared.
We were then introduced to a fifth character, a woman dressed in a white skirt and headdress who came out on stage shaking a maraca. The program indicated that she represented an Orisha spirit. She placed the dancers under a spell and they all fell asleep, tossing and turning, tearing at their pillows, and suffering a most disturbing nightmare. Their nightmare becomes their reality as they are whirled back in time to relive the struggle of their ancestors. They reentered the stage dressed as slaves, appearing exhausted and achy, holding hands, and showing concern for one another.
The story continued on and there seemed to be a turning point when the dancers gathered in a circle, facing each other, exchanging glances and trading positions, plotting. Soon after, they dance to the iconic, upbeat “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, frantic and frightened as they make their escape. As the song died down, so did their energy as they dragged themselves by their elbows from one end of the stage to the other. Although drained and depleted, they made one last effort to rub their footprints from the dirt behind them.
The most impactful moment of all came when the woman in white entered the stage wrapped in ropes, heaving four small carts behind her. In each cart was a slave, balled up and cramped and covered with cloths. The shock of the imagery was penetrating for many. Someone in front of me whispered, “Are you serious?” and the man beside me struggled to hold back his tears. The woman trudged courageously with her human cargo in a full circle and then disappeared behind the curtain.
When they returned on stage there was an aura of victory. The dancers were all dressed in white robes as they pounded their fists into the air and twirled about, even hugging one another and smiling. The red door that was center stage was now a brilliant gold, and one by one the dancers exited behind the door. The finale brought us back to modern day with the current political hip hop track, “We the People” by A Tribe Called Quest, which the dancers danced to while dressed in black hoodies with red hashtags on the back.
The production was received with a standing ovation. In a post show discussion, Director Ayanna Williams and Choreographer Jocelyn Isaac described their inspiration and creative process. Williams explains that her intention was to create a stronger sense of community among kids in today’s society. “They need to learn the history so they can become more responsible, humane, passionate individuals.”
I watched her objective become fully realized as I left the theater. Right outside the doors was a group of four young girls who had attended the show. As we exited the theater, we were all given a bag of red sand from the Red Sand Project, an organization that promotes the awareness and intervention of human trafficking, and were asked to fill in the cracks of a sidewalk with the sand and post a picture on social media. The young girls were huddled low to the ground, drawing hearts and stars in the sand as they chatted. I asked them what they thought of the show. One girl responded, “It was crazy.” Another, “It was cool.” So I asked, “How did it make you feel?” and they were silent for a moment. “Thankful,” said one, “to live in this time and to have the friends I’m able to have.”