Review: Sage Ni’Ja Whitson “A Meditation on Tongues” - October 28-30, 2022 ODC Theater
Sage Ni’Ja Whitson’s A Mediation on Tongues played a three-day run at ODC Theater in late October. It is billed as a live interdisciplinary adaptation of Marlon T. Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989). What does that mean? In preparation for the show, I did a little research and understood that Tongues Untied is a genre-breaking documentary film about the silence and erasure of gay Black men. Whitson, a Queer Trans artist and futurist created Meditation in 2017. Bringing it to San Francisco in 2022, has great significance, as Riggs, a Gay black filmmaker, poet and activist lived his final fifteen years in the Bay Area. His family and lover still reside here. Untied includes footage of his exclusionary experiences in the largely white Castro district.
Whitson deconstructs the expected ODC performance experience by moving the audience to spaces beyond the theater. As show time arrives we are directed down the street to the ODC Commons party space, where the sidewalk is festively outlined in white lights. The building’s face and interior glow like a well-lit disco. A tall elegant figure in skeleton-drag approaches in thigh high black stiletto boots. They vogue for us, strutting, posing and duckwalking sensually. (I think the vogue artist is SoHo LaBeija, from the House of LaBeija a prominent drag family created in response to the racially oppressive drag pageants of the 1960’s).
Vogueing is an apt jumping off point for the evening as it is a dance style originated by the black and Latino LGBTQ community. It grew out of the Harlem ballroom scene and has been a safe place for queer youth to express their creativity.
Our next stop is outside where we witness two people cruising. They circle and eye each other before moving into a clench against the wall amongst the viewers. These performers are Whitson and, their partner for the remainder of the evening, Queer non-binary artist Kirsten Davis.
Shifting gears to a bit of sass, Whitson and Davis teach us the art of impactful finger snapping, something they call ‘snapology”. The ingredients of a good snap are precision, placement and poise and in this case procession. We all practice our snaps entering ODC Theater’s stage via backstage. The sounds of a busy auditorium play as the audience take seats in chair groupings set in the four corners of the stage
Throughout the evening Whitson and Davis conjure the weight of what societal-masculinity requires of black men. We see them hovering in the shadowy areas where gay men are permitted to exist. We feel the distress of distancing from family, church and community. If we must begin from a straight white construct, then where on the spectrum is a black trans or non-binary person? In a world where new pandemics reveal once again the prioritization of the privileged, how will these very performers, or those they represent, be kept safe?
Our initiation into this world begins with complicated high-fiving sequences and a danced version of the ubiquitous basketball pick-up games. Less we forget it isn’t all play a heartbeat sound takes over as Whitson and Davis pound their chests and then snap their arms out straight. A voice reminds us that all black men are “perceived as thieves,”, that “silence is a way to grin and bear it,” and that “one hundred percent of all black men are striving to appear strong and silent.”
Davis contorts themself on the floor, in agony their mouth wide open in a silent scream, their arms drawn back behind them as if in a police hold. In contrast, Whitson is blowing bubbles oblivious to the pain.
Times passes and roles change. We hear the story of twenty-five young men found buried “in black plastic bags tied at the top,” a reference to pederast and serial killer Dean Corll who abducted, tortured and killed boys and young men. This monologue concludes with the statement “for a long time I was scared to date men.” Davis blows the bubbles as Whitson relentlessly beats themself, making physical their psychic agony.
Rest is difficult to come by: Davis lays down but their hands won’t settle. Whitson prays, in the shadows. Nina Simone sings the poignant anthem “Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair.”
Whitson runs the seating platform stairs, up and back repeatedly, using exercise to shed their anger and their demons. We hear spoken “it is easier to be angry than hurt,” as portions of Briggs’ Tongues Untied is projected on a sidewall.
The poignant narrative that gay men too often look away from each other on the street plays. Whitson and Davis finally find each other physically. They hug, clutch and lie as one. Contemplating if this fuck will be the one that kills them, they rise and dance. They waltz, before breaking down in frustration, fists to knees. They find each other again in a tight clinch, seated on the bottom stair, whispering; only the nearest can hear their intimate words, “touch it, taste it, suck it…let me.”
The power of Whitson’s Meditation follows me, growing with time. Its ideas and images linger. It is clear how Riggs’s work beckoned to be renewed with this fitting and thought-provoking tribute. Whitson’s work sheds light on and expands on Riggs’s concepts of embodied invisibilities, which sadly continue to be true thirty-five years later.
Review by Jen Norris, November 3, 2022 ___________________________ Credits: Program Book here. ODC Theater Presents Sage Ni’Ja Whitson | The NWA Project A Meditation on Tongues October 28 -30, 2022 Concept, Transcription, and Direction by Sage Ni’Ja Whitson Choreographed by Whitson with collaboration from performers Performers: The NWA Project - Kirsten Davis and Sage Ni’Ja Whitson Opening Performance Choreographed by: SoHo LaBeija Sound Design: Sage Ni’Ja Whitson, featuring vocal performance by Jonathan Gonzalez, and the music of Nina Simone, Alice Smith, Billie Holiday, Kendrick Lamar, nikhil trivedi, and excerpts from Tongues Untied. Lighting Supervisor: Kevin E. Myrick Costume: Sage Ni’Ja Whitson Video: Sage Ni’Ja Whitson (Excerpts from Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, used with permission by Signifyin’ Works) Stage Manager: Morgan Johnson