By Andrew J. Brown/Sister James
jumatatu m. poe has long been interested in the vocabulary of J-Sette dancing not only for its presentational exuberance, but for the seemingly contradictory energetic qualities of the movement—a tension created by big, explosive energy articulated through sharp, contained, precise gestures. This tension is perhaps doubled in the spatial context of J-Sette performance, which is traditionally performed by groups of cisgender women at historically black colleges and universities in the South in the confined bleachers of large football stadiums. The movement has simultaneously been taken up by black queer men performing in intimate domestic spaces and eventually on gay club dance floors. In prior interviews, poe has discussed first discovering J-Sette through homemade YouTube videos and expressed his fascination with “this huge, combustive energy in these really small spaces…the garage, the living room with the table pushed back, the kitchen sometimes, or in the bedroom, behind the bed.” At the same time, in this tension, poe sensed and experienced joy. poe’s current performance series Let ‘im Move You develops out of this fascination and out of a creative partnership formed with one of these YouTube dancers and captain of the renown J-Sette line Mystic Force, Jermone Donte Beacham.
These qualities of movement and spatial contexts are referenced throughout the two sequential pieces of the Let ‘im Move You series shown at TBA—This is a Success and A Study. At the level of the body, poe and dancer William Robinson repeat phrases of J-Sette movement in rounds to the point of near exhaustion. Between each round, the performers’ affect drops from the forced smile of presentational dance to a focus on recuperation and preparation for the next round of movement. Together, these breaks in the emphatic polish of the choreography reveal not only the affective, emotional and physical labor of performing, specifically performing black joy and virtuosity for a primarily white audience, but simultaneously the ways in which the body is physically conditioned by such performances—literally through choreography and metaphorically through the everyday performances of excellence demanded of black people and the perpetual struggle to carve out moments of black joy within such contexts. Spatially, the performance begins in a black box arranged in proscenium style, then ambles through and between multiple spaces in the performance venue, until eventually exiting the venue altogether, finishing outside and in doing so, connecting this exploration of the struggle of/for black joy to the institution of primarily white performance venues as well as everyday environments.
During our public conversation about the performance at TBA, poe and Beacham reflected on poe’s experience of learning and Beacham’s experience of teaching J-Sette movement. They recalled one particular evening when Beacham took poe to a gay club to practice his J-Sette skills in public. poe, still relatively new to the form, was nervous as these public demonstrations typically take the form of battles in which individuals or small groups try to out-perform one another on the dance floor. He remembers, however, the relaxation and joy he felt when the entire club eventually joined together in performing the same phrases in rounds all facing the same direction—a unified J-Sette line performing for no one but themselves. As they learn from each other and from their past repetitions, they simultaneously strengthen their technical skill set and manifest a shared joy, even within the potential difficulty and fatigue of the movement. J-Sette choreography, then, allows for the intentional engagement with the ways in which black queer bodies are conditioned in relationship to confinement, intimacy, visibility, and consumption while also facilitating a visceral and shared joy. This is perhaps the contradiction of conditioning suggested by the Let in Let ‘im Move You—through form comes both a restriction and a release.
Form allows for repetition. Repetition through rounds is built into the J-Sette vocabulary with one individual initiating a phrase and repeating it until the entire group is performing in unison. And, this is reflected in Let ‘im Move You when, at the end of the performance, a number of local performers join poe, Beacham, and Robinson on stage one by one, repeating and expanding the movement in bodies and space. At the same time that J-Sette’s combustive energy accentuates the conditioning of the body, it also demands a collective, pedagogical spatialization of the body. Through J-Sette, the performance carves out interpersonal and embodied approaches to black queer joy even within the everyday institutional and social architectures that are built to stage black queer joy only as a validation of black queer pain or as access to knowing, claiming and consuming a proximity to blackness and queerness. Yet, in Let ‘im Move You, the shared struggle for black queer joy itself facilitates a king of black queer joy that is palpable throughout the space. And, while this pedagogy of both struggle and joy or perhaps joy through struggle is not for white audiences, it does perhaps have something to teach us if we let it.
Andrew J. Brown/Sister James received their PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and is Assistant Professor of Performance Art at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University. They are currently working on a book project titled Staging Statelessness: Queer African Refugees and the Limits of Belonging, which draws on seven years of in-depth performance collaboration with queer asylum seekers in South Africa and argues for quotidian and aesthetic performances as strategic practices of unbelonging that propose alternative configurations of citizenship, subjectivity, and community. Their work has been published in Women and Performance,Theatre Survey, Performing Arts Resources, and Theatre Research International. As a research-based performance artist, their practice ranges from ethnographic, socially engaged ensemble work to conceptual solo performance to question and trouble conventional delineations around what is human, animate, natural, or valuable. @sisterjames