It feels inevitable that a work inspired by Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson, the founder and eldress of Philadelphia’s Black Shaker community, would be called POWER.
The word swirled through the hymns and spiritual songs scoring choreographer and Fist and Heel Performance Group’s founder Reggie Wilson’s rehearsals, but a visit to the site of Jackson’s Philadelphia home confirmed it all.
“The actual building is gone, but it’s across the street from a power station,” Wilson said. “I thought that was too funny.”
Fist and Heel will make its Spoleto Festival USA debut with POWER at College of Charleston Sottile Theatre May 28 and 29. Choreographers have drawn inspiration from the Shakers, a Christian sect founded in the mid-1700s that valued gender equality, pacifism, community and celibacy, but Wilson is the first to explore Black Shakers. The work imbues Shaker core values with Wilson’s investigations into early African American worship, and Jackson is POWER’s nucleus.
Longtime collaborator Rhetta Aleong performed in Wilson’s previous works that explored African American worship. In POWER, she provides vocals and an elder presence to the work.
“Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson is really the center of this, of Reggie trying to interpret, trying to see and bring something of her, of the community, of the idea of that community and of Blackness in America,” said Aleong.
Jennifer McFarlane Harris, Ph.D., co-editor of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and Theologies of the Afterlife: A Step Closer to Heaven, said Jackson — a Black female theologian — was a paradox in many ways.
“The fact that [Jackson] wanted to integrate her worlds, that she wanted Shakerism and speaking to African American women, in particular in Philadelphia, to come together, is one of the most compelling parts of her story,” Harris said.
Jackson grew up in a Black Methodist community in Philadelphia, and, after a vision during a storm in 1830, she continued her spiritual journey with Shakerism. While gender equality is a foundation of Shakerism, male theologians dominated Christianity at the time, and she still had to negotiate for the predominantly white Shakers’ blessing to build and lead a Black, urban Shaker out-family.
Discovering an enigmatic religious leader
Wilson first discovered Jackson while working on Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, a project centered on Philadelphia’s forgotten histories, in 2016. He was choreographing Stamped Stomped Stumped which explored religious worship for the project, and dancer and choreographer Germaine Ingram mentioned two historical religious leaders, including Jackson. The contradictions of the Black Shaker community and its eldress stoked Wilson’s curiosity.
“It was striking. It just kept ringing in my ears and then, after several years and different encounters, I kept thinking about it and decided that it deserved a little bit more attention from me,” he said. “Let me find out more about these folks and imagine more about these folks.”
Wilson likes to think of himself as a “lay anthropologist” because of how he incorporates dance and field research.
“It’s his thoughtfulness, his mindfulness — it extends to everything,” said Aleong. “It’s a rough road for him because he does think about and write down everything, everything, everything, everything.”
Fist and Heel even employed Jesse Wolfson, associate professor of mathematics at the University of California, Irvine, to dig into the patterns and fractal symmetry of the choreography because of the role numerology plays in many religions.
“It’s not like I’m trying to make a kinesthetic representation from beginning to end of these things,” Wilson said. “It’s about having a kinesthetic, choreographic physical expression that’s not about words, or meaning. It’s about action and doing and viewing.”
Historical records of life in the Black Shaker community are sparse, McFarlane Harris said, and Wilson isn’t interested in trying to give answers. Instead, he said POWER is a “kaleidoscopic set of possibilities” of what Black Shaker life and worship might have been.
“Maybe they would have changed ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple’ to sound like this, maybe they would have changed this gesture and this song or this marching to look like this because they are human beings,” he said, “and they carry culture and have their own thoughts and their own inspirations.”
Dancing to their own beliefs
The diverse, multigenerational company of 11 performers also carries their own culture, thoughts and inspirations into the work. The performers come from a spectrum of religious beliefs, ranging from the agnostic and atheist to the very religious. Wilson provided a foundation of research and questions that allowed the performers to dig into their own histories, feelings and reactions.
“Everybody has a belief, right? And so by pulling these things out, and being able to kind of put a spotlight on them, it actually, in the studio, allows me to have some relationship to it and see it through multiple lenses,” Wilson said.
With critical race theory igniting debate over how history is taught, POWER’s reimagining of forgotten Black American history feels timely. And while the company is aware that the nation is paying more attention to these stories and issues, it won’t change what Fist and Heel does. Perhaps, though, Aleong hopes it will activate audiences to ask their own questions and conduct their own research.
“It’s the work that we’ve been doing,” Aleong said. “And so I am glad that it is falling upon soil that may give us some more product in our evolution as a country.”
Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group’s POWER runs May 28-29 at the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre. Tickets start at $36. To order tickets or for more information, visit spoletousa.org.
Katherine Kiessling is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.
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