I studied Carrie Mae Weems, the creator of last night’s Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, in college. Sitting in a darkened lecture hall, Professor Higginbotham, an African-American arts professor, showed us images of Weems’ From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried. The series of images from Weems, an African-American photographer and videographer, featured daguerreotypes from 1850, images of black men and women taken by Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. The photographs were used to support Agassiz’s theory of the racial inferiority of Africans. I remember the images vividly. They were some of the more disturbing ones we studied. Weems took the hate inherent in these images and defied it, making it art, making a statement. I wrote a long essay about her on my final exam.
With this knowledge, I watched the world premiere of Weems’ Grace Notes last night. I stirred in my seat, nervous. I had high expectations for Grace Notes, but I struggled with them. Did I, a white woman, deserve to judge a performance that has been publicized as about the black experience? Was this performance even about the black experience? When I spoke to Weems just a week before the show, she told me that Grace Notes was about more than race, it was about human rights.
It is in this struggle, I think, that Weems succeeded. She forced me to ask questions of myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I just wish that she had pushed me a little harder.
The show starts out with a woman sitting at a desk, in front of what appeared to be a typewriter. A man and a woman walk onto the stage, placing their hands on her shoulder. A screen drops down and shows a video of a woman walking up to a child at a desk, also placing her hand on her shoulder. I’m intrigued.
The man and woman who walked onstage turn out to be the narrators. They speak from podiums, and later, stand behind windows cut into a large white piece of the set. The set is stunning in its blank starkness. It is all white — which could mean something, or not. You never really know. There is a tree with bare branches. Beneath it a woman (all of the actors, by the way, are black), is dressed in all white, spinning on an elevated white stage. The narrators tell us that we are about to hear a story. They warn us that we will see things that no one should ever have to see.
They stop talking and the woman in white continues to spin. I think of the daguerreotypes, and wonder if we are supposed to be considering the woman’s body, her blackness. I do. I wonder what it would be like to be black, to walk around and have people carry pre-conceived notions of me just because of who I was, of what I looked like.
The spinning woman is effective, she has me thinking.
Later, the screen falls and once lifted, shows a man running on a treadmill. Again, I think of his body. The narrator speaks about a man running away, being killed. A reference to Walter Scott? Sadly, I know it’s a reference to more than one black man.
The narrator asks, “What is the measure of a life?” The three choruses — three incredible singers, Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri, and Esai Davis — echo her words. But no one answers. I understand the power of silence, the static air that pushes you to come to your own conclusions.
But throughout the performance, there is so much left unsaid. I wanted Weems to condemn violence against African Americans. She does, with video clips of the death of Eric Garner and of Laquan McDonald. As stand alone pieces, these have done enough. I push my fist to my mouth, upset by the videos, as I should be, as any human would be.
Then the male narrator stands on the stage, reading words that mean nothing, failing to acknowledge the horror of the videos. I don’t understand why he’s speaking at all. I think of the poem Marcus Amaker wrote after the Emanuel AME tragedy, “Black Cloth.” The last two lines stuck with me: “Because I would rather hang a black cloth on a flag pole than give the Confederate flag another glimpse of the sun.” They are beautiful, yes, but they have meaning. They are concrete, they don’t ask for action — they demand it. I rarely hear this demand in Grace Notes.
Grace Notes says too much, and doesn’t say enough. I think in saying too much — the empty words of the narrators, the jarring (and seemingly unnecessary) narration of Weems — the performance hasn’t said enough. There are times between singers and steppers — the CofC steppers infuse the performance with an intensity it would have otherwise lacked — where great music plays. But we do not see the band, just an empty stage. Is this the point? Whatever point the empty stage may make, it lacks the thrust of power a human presence would have given it.
This is Weem’s first multi-media performance. When you consider it in this light, Grace Notes, is amazing. But when you consider it in the light of Weems’ previous works — those daguerreotypes — it feels flimsy. The performance ends with the choruses and woman in white dancing around onstage with globes, some full of light, others full of air. I’m frustrated by this — this vibrant display of hope and life, strangely tacked onto the end of a disjointed narrative. The dancing, I think, is meant to suggest that we can move past the violence we’ve just seen. It doesn’t say how. It doesn’t say why.
Grace Notes is a challenging piece, and one that I’m still struggling with, nine hours of sleep and three cups of coffee after the fact. I will struggle with its meaning and with its potential, and then I’ll move onto something else. I have that luxury. Some people cannot distance themselves from questions of what it means to be black in America. And for this … I am grateful to Weems for forcing me to consider.