Michael Gene Jacobs slept in the same bed as his mother throughout his childhood, but they never touched. Now, he tells us speaking as his mother, he realizes why:
“’I can’t afford to coddle my only male child, to soften his senses and make him unprepared to process all the sensory data… “ that will assault him as a Black man.
It is the most touching moment in “Touch,” a 45-minute dance theater piece by the 20-year-old theater company Blessed Unrest, which I saw over the weekend on roped-off East 26th Street, just north of Madison Square Park. It is part of the NYC Open Culture Program, in which almost 200 street locations throughout the five boroughs are available for closed off for ticketed performances.
Billed as a meditation on the longing to connect, the street theater piece felt like a special kind of reopening for me – a reopening of the senses – as I sat on the smooth tar in the middle of the street underneath a warming sun, and watched the four agile performers enact an entire vocabulary of dance poses on the sidewalk in front of a restful green backdrop of the trees in the park.
But if the four moved physically close to one another – often touching — the stories they told were, let’s say, socially distanced. All four kept their masks on as they moved, and we heard their separate stories from portable speakers broadcasting a soundtrack of their voices mixed with music.
Anna Wulfekuhle’s voice told the story of her visit to a stable, paying the stable hand to take a hike so she can be alone with the horses.
Ariel Polanco’s told how he could hear a neighbor through the wall as she used the sink, or coughed, or screamed, or especially, when she laughed – she laughed a lot.
Tatyana Kot’s talked about her laugh, and how she developed it after being bullied by gangs of boys all throughout elementary school.
These stories were told alternately; not all led anywhere; not all the words were part of these stories; there was some spoken-word poetry. Again Michael Gene Jacobs:
Shaking from fear
The roaring 20’s after the quarantine
Watching black people being slaughtered
Heart racing fast
Being arrested for protesting
Heart racing fast
Everything the cast members said, Blessed Unrest tells us, was based on their personal experiences, but “adapted and edited” by the writers Keith Hamilton Cobb and Teddy Jefferson.
I have no doubt that the physical movement was carefully coordinated with the stories, but this was not something I could detect by myself – a failure that I’m used to, and that in some ways I found comforting. If “Touch” suggests the sort of avant-garde experiments that exist at best in the periphery of my comprehension, that’s a bafflement that’s so familiar from a youth spent Off-Off Broadway, that it feels like returning home.
Touch will be presented again north of Madison Square Park next weekend. Saturday, May 8, 7:00 pm. Sunday, May 9, 3:00 pm & 5:00 pm