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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Marjani Forté-Saunders “Memoirs of a …Unicorn” November 4 -6, 2022 ODC Theater

Commanding storytelling, nuanced dancing, images both real and magical woven together to hold an audience rapt, to embody hard truths, to use joy as a tool stronger than anger, these are the powers that performer and choreographer Marjani Forté-Saunders and her team of collaborators bring to Memoirs of a …Unicorn. The Bay Area is fortunate to have ODC Theater presenting this imaginative, challenging work November 4-6, following performances in New York, Los Angeles, Brussels and Berlin over the past several years.

Forté-Saunders is her own magical creature, channeling the spirits of ancestors both past and future. She is a spiritual warrior, investigating the past, confronting the present and conjuring a future of abundance and recognition for black people in America.

The Unicorn experience is nonlinear. It is rich in images and characters. Forté-Saunders is an excellent mimic and brings us face to face with men from many walks of life, some jive while others rise like superheroes from the asphalt.

Family is foundational to the performance. Forte-Saunders tours with three generations of men including her father, her husband, and her seven-year-old son, who is in the audience.

Everett Saunders, Forté-Saunders’s husband composed the original music for the piece, as well as creating the superlative sound design. The music accents and supports each section perfectly, taking us through the rain, into the galaxies and back. We hear horses galloping, hearts beating and sumptuous string orchestrations.

(Marjani Forté-Saunders photo by Maria Baranova)

Her father Richard Forté, whose stories inspired the work, performs alongside his daughter. We see him primarily as the narrator of the unicorn fairytale, but also in several endearing father-daughter dance sequences. He also is the set builder and one of the set designers for Unicorn.

The set’s central focus is an ingeniously constructed pyramid with a white landing-strip path at its feet. It visually links the ancient past with the future, perhaps of space travel. Media designer Meena Murugesan projects images and videos onto the pyramid, the floor path and the brick walls of the theater. Swirling constellations, great migration maps, and colorful superhero comics flood the face of the pyramid.

Forté-Saunders is interested not only in her family’s ancestral roots, but also her own artistic lineage. In one section of Unicorn, she honors Blondell Cummings (1944-2015), a modern dancer and experimental choreographer who mined everyday experiences like washing, cooking, and building to create her very personal works. We see Forté-Saunders miming a portion of Blondell’s “Chicken Soup,” as a video and text from Blondell’s original performance plays.

Forté-Saunders is a generous performer and communicator, giving much of herself. She leaves her audience breathless and wondering how she might summon the energy needed to perform the work two more times in as many days.

In residence in San Francisco for the week to remount her show, Forte-Saunders was the focus of two auxiliary events prior to the live ODC Theater performances. On Tuesday, November 1, Forte-Saunders participated in a discussion following the screening of Meena Murugesan’s experimental film Memoirs of a…Unicorn: A BLUEPRINT . The film (2020) is a collage of intimate encounters and experiences in the three-year journey of the dance installation Memoirs of a… Unicorn. For anyone who needs a reminder of how difficult the creation of a work like Unicorn is, this film packs a punch. I was left with remarkable images of Forte-Saunders experimenting with how best to move with a horn longer than her body harnessed over her head and chest.

The next evening, Forte-Saunders was part of an interdisciplinary “Artists Talk” at the Museum of African Diaspora alongside photographer and filmmaker Trina Michelle Robinson. This conversation guided by Bay Area conjure-artist Amara Tabor-Smith focused on the artists’ exploration of lineage, black migration and Futuring.

During conversations, Forte-Saunders speaks of her desire to explore her father’s history. She wanted to answer the question for herself of ”How he got to be so fly with only one wing.” By which she is referring to the fact that her father lost the opportunity to know his father when his mother moved the family to Los Angeles from Arkansas as part of black migration. In Unicorn, Forté-Saunders performs much of the show with a single wing strapped to her back, thus carrying her father’s clipped experience with her. She removes the wing near the end of the performance as the feminine eclipses the masculine and she becomes a nursing mother.

To say more would be to give away too much. Memoirs of a…Unicorn should be experienced rather than described. Don’t miss this opportunity! And keep your eyes open for Marjani Forte-Saunders and Everett Saunders latest work Prophet: The Order of the Lyricist, which premiered in October 2022 at the Abrons Art Center in New York City.

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