FRAME & Storytelling
This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances.
“FRAME & Storytelling” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.
They came. They witnessed. And when all was said and done, they were privy to a swath of storytelling that invited them beyond whatever respective comfort zones, whatever notions of convention they may have arrived with.
From the most recent multimedia homage to the enduring blues music of a southeastern slice of the United States known as Piedmont. To the classic performances before that, that gave exposure to either ruptured color lines or the vintage musings of white folks on black life. And the spoken and gyrated commentary of a Brooklyn dance company that spared no culturally exclusive jargon in exposing the social and literal kinks that can come with having black hair.
So went just some of the creative assortment that undergirded FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity. This was the three-part run of open conversations at the University of Michigan that ensued selected performances from the current season of the University Musical Society (UMS), and exhibitions at the U-M Institute for the Humanities.
“Many of these performances have been a way to lament or challenge or disrupt the status quo,” Taylor Renee Aldridge summed up at the concluding FRAME discussion last month.
Just what Jim Leija, director of education and community engagement for UMS, and Amanda Krugliak, curator at the Institute for the Humanities, had in mind when they conceived a forum to examine this artistic dissent that featured community dialogues in February and January as well. And what they had in mind when they tapped Aldridge, an assistant curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts who also co-founded the ARTS.BLACK online journal of criticism, as well as fellow rising arts luminary, modern choreographer, and dancer Jennifer Harge to lead all three talks.
“For many of us, it is our passport into having conversations that we may otherwise be unsure of how to start,” noted Emilio Rodriguez, community programs manager for UMS, of the quest to spark dialogue in exposing audiences to the nontraditional, the unforeseen, even the taboo.
“[For instance,] how do you randomly transition into talking to someone about the problems and potential benefits of white composers writing roles for black singers in the 1930s?” Rodriguez continued. Namely, in the case of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a concert version of the Gershwin-conceived 1935 opera that UMS hosted at Hill Auditorium at U-M in February.
“Once you see Porgy and Bess, though,” he added, “that conversation can happen naturally and lead to a variety of opinions from all of the people with whom you attend the show.”
Indeed, dozens of arts enthusiasts of varying backgrounds who had made their way to specific UMS performances joined in such subsequent discussions for every FRAME session. Each time, gathering on the ground-floor atrium of the 202 South Thayer Building that houses the Institute for Humanities on U-M’s main campus in downtown Ann Arbor.
By the time the series concluded with a March 19 discussion primarily focused on Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, the common thread that wound its way throughout this entire undertaking was clear – the significance of storytelling. More to the point, how those who spin the narratives brought before audiences, the degree of authenticity they reflect in the experiences they portray, and even the venues where their works are expressed can shape the impact of that storytelling.
And it is within the context of storytelling through the arts that individuals can forge a greater connection with their history and, thus, grasp of their current relevance among humanity, raised musicologist Mark Clague.
“History used to be about memorizing facts,” he remarked as a featured speaker during the final FRAME session. Sharing, in the process, that he grew up just three blocks from where he sat among others at the Thayer Building for this exchange. And that he attended the nearby Pioneer High School.
“I was good at it,” Clague said of his days studying history in school. “But it didn’t really have much meaning for me. It didn’t tell me why I should care about the past or how I could use this knowledge to understand the present.”
White and, now, 51, Clague’s kinship with the earnest melodies of Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Etta Baker and other black guitarists who popularized the Piedmont blues spawned from the Jim Crow era they lived through may not be easily discernible by casual observation. But it is one that he managed to establish, nonetheless, in emphasizing the integral role of history within the human experience.
“History is more about storytelling,” Clague, who teaches music history, American culture, African and Afro-American studies, and entrepreneurship at U-M, has come to conclude.
“My father passed away two years ago,” he disclosed of a man whose own father, his grandfather, was the son of a settler to the Upper Peninsula from the Isle of Man. And who founded Ann Arbor’s bygone market bearing the family surname for more than 40 years.
“As he was ill I became more interested in my own history, and how I fit into the journey of immigration and personal mission that my father, grandfather, and great grandfather undertook,” Clague went on.
Ragtime cadences and finger-picked guitar licks reminiscent of the past eras of black struggle that this enduring style native to the Atlantic Coastal Plain, as far down as the Appalachian Mountains, hails from. Vocals by renowned jazz songstress and Piedmont native René Marie that stirred the soul as well as the mind. Rich accompaniments by the gospel choir of Hope United Methodist Church out of Southfield.
All heightened by an organically riveting interlude tapped out by dancer Maurice Chestnut. As the projected images of aged musicians behind a jagged wooden edifice continued to loom in the background. Making for a 75-minute orchestration by piano-playing, composing prodigy Gerald Clayton, son and nephew, respectively, of the jazz-maven brothers John and Jeff Clayton, that evoked a paternal connection for Sterling Toles as well.
With his own children now, the sound artist and producer birthed from Detroit’s hop-hop scene likened his exposure to Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation to a project he did conveying parallels between his father and the Detroit Rebellion of 1967.
“He is a living personification of Detroit,” Toles proclaimed of Dennis Edward Toles, the man who first inspired Resurget Cineribus, his audio compilation entitled by the Latin phrasing for “it will rise from the ashes” that was released last summer during the 50th anniversary of the uprising. And who made a routine visit to the basement studio of his son’s home in 2002, the year he turned 50, while he was undergoing rehab at a methadone clinic for years of heroin addiction.
“He returned to addiction to break free of his addiction,” his son reckoned of that recorded get-together that became a confessional. And is infused throughout Resurget Cineribus.
“I see Detroit as the first city to get high off industrialization, and its fall as a result of its addiction to that industrialization,” the younger Toles explained. “The majority of people’s lives balanced on the vitality of the auto industry in some kind of way. We were shaken into the sobering realization of that deep reliance, or addiction, when the industry began to struggle, no longer able to easily supply us with [the American Dream.]”
The vein of familial and historic symbolism ran even deeper among those at the last FRAME gathering who took in the beckoning deference to the Piedmont blues at the Michigan Theater led by Clayton on piano, and Christopher McElroen as director.
“My family comes primarily from Tennessee and South Carolina, so the southern aesthetics in Piedmont Blues gave me access to part of my cultural lineage,” Harge said of the impact of the performance on her. She likened the ancestral correlation to what her iconic predecessor in dance and choreography steeped in the African-American experience, the late Alvin Ailey, termed “blood memories.” It was such embedded memories of his Texas childhood that permeated Revelations, Ailey’s 1960 work chronicling black life in America from enslavement to emancipation that became his most renowned.
Yet for all that Clayton and his crew’s eclectic medley of music, song, and dance stirred from within, diversions from without undermined the full impact of the performance. At least, according to the commentary among those who attended the subsequent FRAME discussion.
There was the lengthy recognition of the corporate sponsorship for the evening given by executives of Ford Motor Company before the performance got underway. And, for some, the distraction of the massive video that played behind the crude wooden façade at the back of the stage during the entire performance.
Granted, Jillian Walker, the current Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist with UMS who was a featured speaker at the first FRAME session, found this installation meaningful.
The unknown elder black musicians in the video were “just as important as the musicians on stage, but uncredited,” she asserted from the audience at that third and final FRAME conversation.
“American music is rooted in the creativity of everyday black people – like the ones we got to see projected onto the screen during Piedmont Blues,” Walker persisted. “To me, this imagery served as a reminder that the oppression and the joy of their lives becomes the source of commercialized blues and influenced artists like Elvis, The Beatles and countless others who later helped shape and establish popular culture.”
Rodriguez was not as keen on the mix of imagery and performance brought to the stage in tribute to the Piedmont blues that March evening. “One of the things that took me out of their stories was the visuals, because I felt like the music provided adequate visuals,” he countered.
There was exception taken as well to the performance space for Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation – the Michigan Theater’s 1,700-seat main auditorium – at that FRAME meeting. That, and the overwhelmingly white audience’s seemingly stoic reception to what the predominately black performers had to offer.
“There was such a frame around it, and I struggled with it,” admitted Krugliak. “I wasn’t sure if it was intentional or partly because of the venue, but it did feel as if the audience was restrained, that the venue didn’t encourage a greater visceral response or connection to the work. I would have liked to have danced, or hooted and hollered, and felt I shouldn’t do that.”
Leija furthered the conversation voicing the quandary for UMS of providing a platform for black culture and artistic expressions in spaces that might be considered traditionally white. And the predictable consequence, audiences with a sparse number of blacks among them at best.
“I just experience that as something separate from the show,” he conceded as a facilitator of the mission of UMS, independent of U-M but in regular collaboration with many of the University’s sectors to unite audiences with artists in uniquely compelling experiences. “But as an audience member, that’s like a blind side.”
Which raises the concern, Leija later elaborated, “of what a presenter like UMS can do to preserve the context and culture around the art form that allows for a broader black audience to show up, engage with, and feel comfortable attending these events. Maybe we get around the people problem by putting it in a different container.”
Sélébéyone, composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman’s fusion of jazz, Senegalese rap, live electronics, and underground hip-hop drew a standing-room, more diverse crowd at El Club in southwest Detroit. The possibility of showcasing more performances within such smaller, less formal spaces triggered a back and forth on the conflict that can emerge in making art, versus making a living from that art, that concluded the FRAME series.
“There’s a danger if we set it up so that non-economic art is more pure than economic art,” Clague offered in cases when artists who reach a certain level of success suddenly find themselves at larger venues, before more mainstream audiences.“Poverty need not be a defining myth of the great artist,” he asserted. “An artist should not feel prevented from making art that is widely distributed and provides income. Selling is not ‘selling out,’ and economic security provides a better platform for creativity than poverty.”
“The success of a performance artist is performance,” Harge concurred. “You have to get booked, unless you self-produce forever, and that’s expensive.”
But Toles remained absolute in his conviction of purveying art simply for the sake of creating and sharing that art.
“I never try to make money from my art,” he maintained. “There is nothing I can receive from creating that can equal what I receive from the process of creating. It’s up to the artist to decide how your creativity will feed you.”