April 29, 2015
Before a move is danced, Jamal Jackson aims to pique your curiosity. He goes beyond the usual decorative pre-show tactics with a series of charcoals by Téa Chai along the Actors Fund Arts Center walls, depicting O.J. Simpson at paramount points of his media presence, each mutely titled to subvert the connotation of the image. Following the series leads you to a hallway illuminated red, blocked off with caution tape. We know immediately what this piece will discuss; however, it is never expressed in such plain terms. The People Vs. brings together a varied team of collaborators to give the justice system a trial to rival any media frenzy in spectacle.
There is a consistent unease present in the work coming from a complete lack of roles one would ever volunteer to portray. Within that blocked-off hallway, Jackson and Liz Beres perform an innocent contact improvisation leaving Beres in the position Nicole Brown Simpson’s body was found. Co-writer Adrian Jevicki lists the exhaustive amount of evidence from the trial, slipping into detached descriptions of the abuse leading up to Mrs. Simpson’s murder. Jacinthe Burton enters in a white fur, her glamor quick to decay as she sheds clothes, exposes bruises, and gets stuck repeating arduous movements with unfailing accuracy despite their exhaustive tendency.
In cross-generational discourse, white members of the all-female company subjugate their non-white colleagues, forcing them to the ground. A tender gesture of hands sandwiching the heart is reframed as lethal, amassing a pile of victims - including audience members - onstage. Jackson takes advantage of the dance concert as a place of trust to test segregation where there are no aliens.
Equally unnerving is a lack of somber sound. Soulful piano from Allen Branch seems to insist that everything is all right. Closing the show is a song tangling today’s police brutality against blacks with Simpson’s purchased acquittal. While Elyssa Mactas barks with bitter eyes, the accompaniment buzzes with the optimism of a Jerry Herman chorus.
Jackson exercises such generosity as a collaborator that his material occasionally becomes ornamental to the many other elements employed. Dancers wearing shoulder pads and applying tutting’s intricate gestures to the infamous black glove fail to deliver their own statements in the shadow of more explicit projections and prose - dramaturgical for dramaturgy’s sake; When on its own, Jackson’s pure weaving of African and hip-hop in contemporary idioms needn’t such auxiliary support.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews