Review: dat Black Mermaid Man Lady

Let Sharon Bridgforth's performance installation wash over you

You know about Austin's lakes, its creeks, its springs. You know the river that runs through the center of the city. But are you aware we have a sea in town? It isn't the frostiest body of water in town, but I daresay it's the one that will most cleanse and heal you, and it's the only one that's home to a black mermaid man lady. Right, Sharon Bridgforth?

Sharon Bridgforth in dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation at allgo (Courtesy of allgo)

Bridgforth is the nationally lauded, pioneering poet/playwright who created some of the most lyrical and captivating theatrical works in Austin when she lived here during the Nineties and 2000s. If you were fortunate enough to catch one of them – say, love/conjure blues or blood pudding or con flama – you may find it still whispering to you after all these years. Her characters and language are like spirits that won't leave an earthly space to which they are connected, that can haunt you for a lifetime. The people Bridgforth writes of – sings of – are large with passions and appetities, and in their sensuousness, their embrace of the earthly, they find a liberation that we share in.

We're introduced to a handful of these characters in part of the prelude to dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation, which allgo has brought to Austin for a two-week run that culminates this Saturday, Aug. 25. After a reading in the allgo offices by a guest writer (Sunday afternoon's was the marvelous Shay Youngblood, visiting from Denton), Austin's Florinda Bryant launches into a Bridgforth-penned tale of a fascinating crew that includes Honeypot and Mo Pretty and Miss Kitty and Duck and David and Sweetie Jr. and Gran Nana of the full-moon eyes and hair hanging like a hundred thick black ropes down she back and Ole Caney Sharp who been old as long as anybody can remember and, of course, dat Black Mermaid Man Lady, who comes to Honeypot in dreams "black black like a most beautiful night sky. eyes shining like stars. skirt deep blue/dark like skin. hair gots a thousand fishes and pearls hanging all the way down past behind." and pulls her down to the bottom of the ocean where she sees so many people "they take up all space and time." Bryant draws us ever so seductively into this world, singing Bridgforth's words like Billie Holiday with an Ellington tune. And then, when she has us in the palm of her hand, Bryant leads all of us in the audience out the door and down the sidewalk into another space, which is the bottom of the ocean.

In following the same path as Honeypot and entering this sea space, we become part of Bridgforth's invented world and, indeed, in the installation, we are called upon to speak and act, so for our time there, we are characters ourselves. Each audience member is welcomed and given a blessing on a card as we enter, and there waiting for us is the author herself, who leads what is a kind of ceremony, interacting with enchanting sculptural spaces created by Walter Kitundu – a curved open cabinet in which shelves stocked with jars full of sand and other substances associated with the sea and over which light moves like waves, a rotary dial telephone on a pedestal before a small area awash in changing colored light, a domestic space with stairsteps and chairs on which sit shells and onto which are projected images of the seashore – and encouraging us to interact with them.

Walter Kitunde's modified record players in dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation at allgo (Courtesy of allgo)

I don't know if every performance is the same, but I expect that Bridgforth always has her guests interact with one another, telling stories from their lives that echo those in her narrative, that encourage us to connect with our ancestors and whisper messages to them into the telephone, to read aloud the blessings we were given and to write blessings that others may read. And I suspect that she always provides oracle readings for two audience members, using a sort of self-created Tarot featuring characters from her stories and that she always invites two people to act as impromptu DJs on a pair of record players modified by Kitundu. (On Sunday, we were blessed to hear the unexpected but magical duet of whales and Stevie Wonder on the turntables.) In dat Black mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation, we are in a safe space, a loving space, a space outside our time and our space that puts us in touch with all time, all space, and cleanses us.

Twenty years ago, in writing about blood pudding, I said, "As always, Bridgforth's sensibility is fluid, shifting setting and perspective, giving us one point of view, then another, until we find ourselves surrounded by the various currents of narrative and history. She immerses us in the waters of these cultures, baptizes us in them. On this occasion, one is sorely tempted to stay under the waves." The feeling is as true with this work now as it was for that work then. If you can, go find the sea in the heart of Austin and dive in.

dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation runs through Aug. 25, Fri. & Sat., 7pm, at allgo, 701 Tillery. For more information, visit the dat black mermaid man/lady website.

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Sharon Bridgforth, allgo, Florinda Bryant, Shay Youngblood, Walter Kitundu

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