Theater and Dance Review: HEART OF BRICK (International Tour)

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by William Keiser on October 22, 2023

in Dance,Theater-International,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly elevates
backing dancers to high art in serpentwithfeet’s musical tour

In Heart of Brick, presented yesterday at the Ford Theater, the musical artist serpentwithfeet (Josiah Wise) begins the evening by gliding onstage in an enormous red-orange snuggie. He speaks to us about his desire to “keep it cute,” sitting cozily downstage in a makeshift “living room,” cheering us with a glass of champagne. He establishes a rapport, equal parts vulnerable and funny, and then five black queer male dancers are illumined in a sudden flash, their do-rags dripping behind them in ponytails. They form our Greek chorus for the rest of the performance, which takes us on a journey from Serpent’s living room to a club space, where he meets a lover, Brick. Serpent and Brick journey through their “12 night one-night stand” and then Brick disappears and falls ill. Serpent must find the antidote to Brick’s ailment, prophesized by a drunk fool named Darius, and then rush in to save Brick. Directed by Wu Tsang, his journey of epic proportions is illumined by serpentwithfeet’s music, which he softly warbles into a handheld mic. The dancing that accompanies it – interspersed with lip-synching and piped-in text by co-writer Donte Collins – is by choreographer/dramaturg Broadway renegade Raja Feather Kelly (A Strange Loop).

Having never heard serpentwithfeet’s music, I was in for a treat. With songs from his latest album GRIP, his vocal quality is feathery – think The Weeknd crossed with a heavy beat and a cinematic, rousing orchestral backing track. Serpent achieves a performance quality also rarely achieved; his elegance, enhanced by stylist Julio Cesar Delgado‘s wardrobe of draped silk shirts, flowing topcoats, delicate black gloves with gold filigree, and the snuggie-cum-royal mantle, is radiant. Serpent exudes charm and refinement, and his music seems to issue forth directly from a pure place. The dancers, in direct contrast to Serpent’s vibrant finery, wear contemporary club attire: black grey crop tops, dark do-rags which recall Tuaregs as much as they do Harlemites, and flowing charcoal grey distressed dungarees. Their movement is a heightened form of backing dancers’ hip hop upon first glance, but its real lineage is ballet. A long, lanky dancer in an asymmetrical top does an attitude turn, arms splayed behind his head. Kelly’s movement works from a place combining the delicacy of ballet and West African dance with the proportions, attitude, pelvic tilt, and expressive arm movements of voguing.

The movement and music tell a story of queer black male intimacy with the stakes and mythos of ancient Greek drama. There is no question of provenance or completeness of the universe; it belongs entirely to the black queer male cast, but generously opens the world to the mixed audience. At one point, Brick and Serpent hold each other while strobe lights and a thundering soundtrack simulate the cozy drama of holding a lover in one’s arms on a dark, stormy night. The Achilles heel of this performance, if vulnerability must be compared to weakness, would be in its plot construction. Toward the end, the antidote to Brick’s convalescence is represented visually with an enormous fake flower, a weirdly camp and hokey touch to an otherwise emotional dénouement. The plot, too, is then forced into a happy ending; love is restored at the sick person’s waking; all is well in Serpent’s kingdom, without the acknowledgment that being nursed to physical health rarely instantly grafts the fractures of broken love. But all in all, love is not the grafting force of this sublime performance – the holiness of grace, of elegance, and the recombination of familiar elements in concert with subtleties of specific black queer masculinity make this a cultural gem and must-see show.

Cast of Characters
serpentwithfeet, serpent
Dylan M. Contreras, Brick
Chrystion Dudley, Redwood
Justin Daniels, Amir/Darius
Brandon Gray, Jamar
Nelson “Nellie” Enrique Mejia Jr., Saige
Shaquelle Charles, Dorian
Matthew Deloch, Quan

photos by Farah Sosa

Heart of Brick
a Joyce Theater Production
co-commissioned by Kampnagel International Summer Festival,
The LA Phil, Seattle Theatre Group,
and Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa
played The Ford in Los Angeles on Saturday October 21, 2023
tour continues:
October 25, 2023 – San Diego, CA @ Epstein Family Amphitheater
November 1, 2023 – Seattle, WA @ Moore Theatre

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