The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement at Portland Playhouse began with a crackling recording of singer Paul Robeson, which played on a speaker as the audience waited expectantly outside the theater. The vibration of Robeson’s deep voice, the tone of his song, and the nature of his lyrics — “I hear the tender voices calling” — at once pulled conceptions of music, movement, and history together for me.
Though I had come to witness the show with an eye toward movement, contributed by its dancers from Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater, Robeson’s song made clear that I would not be able to parse movement from other forms of expression so easily. Each element intertwined in this unique journey of protest and resistance co-created by Ramona Lisa Alexander, Oluyinka Akinjiola, Darrell Grant, and Charles Grant, and rendered through rhythms of African diaspora.
I had been informed ahead of time that this production, which ran Wednesdays-Sundays, May 23-June 18, would unfold in different configurations of “movements” based on the day of the week it was to be performed. Fridays, for example, would culminate in a “Meditation on Stillness,” while Sundays would bring celebration through “One Second Line at a Time.” Each movement would be an “expression of both the struggle for, and the triumph of, liberation and self-discovery,” the program notes explained.
The night I attended, Thursday, June 8, I knew the ensemble would lead audience members on a journey toward “the cleansing power of Baptism and Rebirth.” And I could only speculate what this might entail as the production began, for it proved profoundly experiential, giving me just the right amount of support and context in each moment to be carried along by my own curiosity — and to do my part as an audience member.
Robeson sang the lyrics “I’m coming home” at the start of the production, seeding the audience with a sense of transition. From around a corner walked actor Eric Island, the first to greet and welcome the audience. Island spoke to us with supportive instructions that paved our way forward. He made it clear that “to get something, you’ve got to give something” and that “offerings must be made” at the start of this journey together. Musicians drummed while other dancers and actors filtered amidst the audience, all wearing impeccable white garments and artful hairstyles. Their costumes merged African influences with hints of European style, a visual indicator of collapsed time and space.
Suddenly, the sliding doors of Portland Playhouse’s studio opened and two dancers appeared from within, Mariana Thorn and Akinjiola, the show’s co-creator and Artistic Director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance. They welcomed us with bright eyes and open arms.
Island continued talking, explaining that dance had been “means of praise and ceremony.” He instructed the audience to bring our offerings, handwritten notes on provided paper or other meaningful objects, into the studio space and to place these offerings at one of its four altars. As this unfolded, the dancers began to move in circular patterns among us, with stirring arms and punctuating gestures. They bowed toward an altar in the southwest corner, before helping to usher the audiences back outside once again.
In the open air, audiences were invited by actor Demaris Webb, who stood at the top of the steps of Portland Playhouse’s main theater, to raise their firsts and chant, “No Justice, No Peace” on the sidewalks. The drummers followed this up with a driving rhythm, and the ensemble caringly ushered the large crowd toward the entrance of the main theater, singing softly, “to go somewhere, you’ve got to go somewhere.”
Audiences found seats inside the main theater on three sides of the stage, while the musicians took their stations on the fourth.
Herein, introductions began for the actors and dancers, illuminating their various roles: Actor Island and dancer Michael Galen stepped forward to be introduced collectively as the essence of Elegua, the Yoruba deity that governs roads. Actor Tessa May and dancer Akinjiola—carrying their irukere horsetails—were introduced together as the essence of Ọya, a deity who conjures storms. Actor Moxxy Rogers and dancer Bethany Harvey embodied the essence of Oshún, deity of love and fertility. And actor Marcus Lattimore with dancer Ola Onipede, both bearing flashing machetes, were introduced as Ogun, warrior and spirit of metalwork. More duos were introduced.
The dancers brought out big moves in this celebratory moment, ebbing into smooth spins and jumps and then unfurling into moments of cast-wide dancing. “These are the sounds of Afrolitical movement,” cried the cast in unison. Everyone moved together with quick feet in concentric circles, as Island said to the audience, “our feet never stop.”
Then suddenly, thunder shook the theater, and a voice over the speakers called, “Get on the ground!” Actor May began to cry out, creating a powerful storm of rage and grief with her voice and movement, as the rest of the cast surrounded her. Seemingly detached from her visceral expressions, they lay on the floor doing pedestrian gestures, such as reading a newspaper and clicking through TV channels. But eventually, familiar manifestations of protest evolved from this period of chaos, activating the entire ensemble. I heard the phrase “My protest is my choice. My protest is my voice” repeated, giving way to other chants, such as “Say Her Name!” and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”
Lattimore and Onipeded took the foreground in the spirit of Ogun, wielding their machetes and infecting the cast with a fervor of resistance. “I shall not be moved,” Lattimore called out. Onipeded began a dance of flow and athleticism, which climaxed as he sprung backward into a seamless macaco — a movement from the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira.
This strong defense gave way to contemplative offense, as the ensemble began exploring more personalized notions of protest and resistance. They sat in a semicircle together, humming “Wade in the Water,” an African American spiritual song associated with the liberatory efforts of the Underground Railroad, whilst Island facilitated a group sharing.
He asked the room, “What is your protest?”
Many people replied earnestly: Cast and crew spoke up with prepared statements and members of the audience offered impromptu contributions. Dancer Keinya Kohlbecker spoke about her protest vulnerably, affirming “I birthed many nations” and “I am not a strong Black woman. I am a Black woman who embodies power.”
As this sharing wrapped up, the ensemble began to express signs of their own fatigue. They took turns reflecting on the so-called “American dream” with palpable pessimism. Actor Rogers skipped gracefully, saying, “My American dream is to walk the streets with love in every step, instead of a target on my back.”
But the cast became reinvigorated once again, fueled by waves of exuberant song. Akinjiola led the ensemble in processional movement to the tune “You got a Right to the Tree of Life,” stepping forward and leaning backward with an infectious smile. Many cast members fanned themselves with woven fans. This procession made its way toward singer LaRhonda Steele, who appeared on the other side of the stage for the first time this evening. Steele wore the most incredible outfit yet — white church attire complete with kitten slingback heels and a red microphone in hand. As the surprise guest star, she spoke candidly with the audience and sang songs, peppered with personal reflections on her life and experience with music. The cast celebrated onstage as the performance drew to a close, while Steele passed the microphone to audience members and cast to participate in song, a final testimony.
The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement has stayed with me since that Thursday evening, and I have watched tidbits of other versions of this production unfold on social media since then, marveling at the different manifestation of such an ambitious endeavor. For me, the show that night contextualized familiar forms of protest within African diaspora traditions. It prompted me to reflect on how the racist police state backs its victims into a corner, limiting possibilities for what protest can look and sound in an attempt to numb the public to the echoing cries for Black liberation. In response, The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement called upon ancestors, deities, ensemble members, and audiences to create a tapestry of resistance to violence and apathy. Through music, movement, and history, The Sounds of Afrolitical Movement affirmed that each person has essential power to levy in the collective quest for racial justice. Our protest is our choice.