Amazing Grace

Review of Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, Yale Repertory Theatre

Carrie Mae Weems’ Grace Notes, a multi-media theater piece playing for two shows at Yale Repertory as part of its No Boundaries series, explores what Weems calls—deliberately borrowing the phrase from a film starring “that fine-ass actor Viggo Mortensen”—“the history of violence” in the U.S., setting that often brutal and frightening history against a search for the meaning of grace. The piece was first performed at Spoleto Festival in Charleston in response to the racist-terrorist killings at Emmanuel Church there.

On stage, a wall with twin windows that look out upon video projections of floating clouds. In the foreground, a bare tree provides some vertical interest. High up on the wall, a simple clock, its hands stuck at 3 o’clock. The show begins with swelling music provided by a jazz orchestra, led by Craig Harris’ expressive trombone, at the foot of the stage, and two figures—the poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux—walking toward the stage as a silhouette figure on video walks into an exhibition space. On stage, Weems sits at a writing table with her back to the audience. Her part in the show is at times almost casual in its deliberative and meditative role, but her presence adds the level of personal access we find in poetry readings.

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

As an arrangement of exhibits, Grace Notes brings together readings of poetry; dance and movement routines, both balletic from Francesca Harper and more aggressively athletic from Step Teams Yale Steppin’ Out, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and Hillhouse High School’s Y.M.E.G.A.S.; and projections that run from artistic and contemplative tableaux to slow motion anonymous street scenes to footage of very specific events—such as the assassination of JFK, MLK at the March on Washington, and viral videos of police brutality as in the fatal overpowering of Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Diamond Reynolds’ amazingly lucid video subsequent to an act of wrenching violence in the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota.

As a kind of Master of Ceremonies, Weems, a photographer and video artist primarily, presides over a performance collage abetted by “The Three Graces,” Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri, who provide vocal coloratura, as for instance a striking jazz setting of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” At one point, a video of shadow puppets of elaborately coiffed ladies miming mirth plays as a series of racist jokes are delivered. That segment—together with Reynolds’ voice on the video, and even a phone recording of Weems’ mother attempting to define grace—add welcome outside voices to the mix. Too much of the verbal texture of the show is determined by Weems’ compressed narrative of twentieth-century and twenty-first century violence and by commentary on the process of the show. Carl Hancock Rux’s Democratic Vistas adds Whitmanesque touches of lyricism as well.

Several segments feature staged actions that set off symbolic and poetic possibilities for interpretation, such as Rux inside a large sphere, as what at first seems an exclusionary space becomes womb-like thanks to a maternal song and playful treatment by one of the Graces. Throughout, the use of music and movement enact the show's most enduring idea of grace—the precision unison movements and rhythms are striking, as are Francesca Harper’s fluid dance with a glowing blue sphere, in a flowing white expressive costume by Abby Lutz.

The show’s varied rhythms build toward an emotional climax as the names of the many African American citizens fallen in acts of violence and, particularly, misuse of deadly force in police actions, are read off. Indeed, the justification for Grace Notes comes from the difficult task, for an artist, of trying to make something affirmative and celebratory when faced with such affronts to communal feeling. Weems draws upon the rhythms and associations of preachers in her spoken segments, relying upon the tradition of faith, hope and charity that underscores the Christianity of the African American Church. Even so, she admits to struggling with the meaning of “grace” as, ultimately, the strength to go on and to not succumb to hatred.

It’s a telling and well-rendered moral. Orchestrating the many aspects of the show, including moments of great beauty and power with moments of horror and outrage, and incorporating the many talents of performers and musicians and dancers and technical artists of theater, while also making the audience feel as if the show were, in a sense, unfolding in its creator’s mind, takes rare grace indeed.


Yale Repertory Theatre presents
Grace Notes: Reflections for Now
Writer and Director: Carrie Mae Weems
Music Director and Composer: Craig Harris

Composer: James Newton; Dramaturg: Kyle Bass; Curator: Sarah Lewis; Set Designer: Matt Saunders; Lighting Designer: Jonathan Spencer; Costume Designer: Abby Lutz; Video Artists: Carrie Mae Weems, James Wang; Associate Director: Tanya Selvaratnam; Production Photographs: Willam Struhs

Performers: Carrie Mae Weems; Eisa Davis; Alicia Hall Moran; Imani Uzuri; Aja Monet: Carl Hancock Rux; Francesca Harper

Musicians: Craig Harris, trombone; Yayoi Ikawa, piano; Calvin Jones, bass; Curtis Nowosad, drums; Ahreum Kim, Jessica McJunkins, Juliette Jones, Chala Yancy, violin; Tia Allen, Andrew Griffin, Viola; Niles Luther, Gregory Wood, cello

Step Teams: Yale Steppin’ Out: Joel de Leon (choreographer), Sanoja Bhaumik, Imani Doyle, Hannah Greene, Keyanna Jackson, Alyssa Patterson, Adam Watson, Jamar Williams; Omega Psi Phi Fraternity: Olafemi Hunter (choregrapher), Cordell Bell, Austin Carter, Adham Conaway, Dana Griffin, Jr., David Nooks, Darrius Pritchett; Y.M.E.G.A.S., Hillhouse High School: Kevin Bell, Samuel Bowens, Tyrelle Douglas, Messiyah McDuffie, Timothy Peters

No Boundaries Series
September 9 & 10, 2016
Yale University Theater