Ocean at the Vortex
In her solo show, Ebony Stewart makes a canvas out of herself and a beautiful gift we should embrace
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., Sept. 1, 2017
The ocean means a lot in Ebony Stewart's one-woman show at the Vortex. The spiritual connection to the Yoruba goddess of the ocean is there, and so are the connected themes of water, drowning, fertility, childbirth, and womanhood. The story she tells ebbs and flows, rises and falls. It disguises its own structural devices with characters that slide into one another, ideas and words that wander here and there but pop up again to remind you where you are, and a slow, patient transformation of the space.
But that's different than saying the show has no discipline. The opposite is true, and anybody who's thinking about mounting a one-person show of her own should see Ocean to see how it's done. Stewart's performance style is smooth, confident, and relaxed, which could fool a person into thinking all that just comes naturally, except you try striking an arabesque-like pose like she does in the second half of the show and you probably can't even get close. Likewise, it takes a lot of work to get that good at owning a space.
In Ocean, Stewart makes a canvas out of herself. She tells the audience about the women of her family and about her own transformation into a woman. She brings up the anguish of infertility and weaves it in with her embrace of sex that's beautiful, wonderful, awkward, unfair, or amazing. After a series of projections documenting without comment racial violence in this country, she talks about the world as she experiences it as an African-American woman, about navigating her way through a society that keeps trying to stick her on the bottom rung of a hierarchy of beauty and value.
The images: a lot of them have been used in other performance and spoken-word pieces that have run in Austin in recent years. There are photographs and videos from more recent events, too, like the arrest of Sandra Bland, and racist images of the past, like once-common advertisements with caricatures of black children. But there are also images of lynchings that show a small white child present, the boy or girl's proto-emotions almost inscrutable as the child is posed for a photograph beside the hanging victim, "upstanding" white men nearby in shirts and ties and hats. These gruesome images form the point of a triangle of painful ideas, with Stewart earlier cradling a blanket like the child she doesn't have, and the stories she later tells about casually ignorant insults from white women who, when rebuked, insist they're the wounded party. More effectively than any op-ed or graduate thesis, Ocean draws these connections and holds up the complexity of Stewart's life and heritage.
It's not a painful show. Ocean is beautiful. It's beautiful because Stewart and her director Sonja Parks include terrible and hurtful things in their telling, and the beauty of Stewart's journey leaps out in contrast. Ocean is a gift, and Austin should embrace it as long as it's here.
OceanThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 512/478-5282
Through Sept. 4
Running time: 80 min.