Review: Anna Martine Whitehead’s S P R E A D at Links Hall

CHICAGO — Few dancers in Chicago have broken out as distinctly as Anna Martine Whitehead did in her LinkUP residency-ending performance at Links Hall March 3-5, alongside an opening performance by Chicago mainstay Mitsu Salmon. It was a fitting end to Links Hall’s long-running LinkUP program – a truly punctuated, unforgettable send-off. Fearlessly squaring against issues of race and class, there were numerous highlights throughout Whitehead’s performance. It began with dancers Darling Shear and Kayierra Collins circling each other as the attendees filed in, loudly clanging metal folding chairs at each other and onto the ground. Audience arranged in the round, the bustle distracted them from Whitehead sprawled face-down, akimbo and corpse-like across a set of stairs in one corner of the performance room while, on the other side of the room across the circle, Shear and Collins sat behind a banquet table draped with table-coverings, uneven and craggily arranged with platters and bowls of food prepared by Chef Fresh Roberson. Sitting astride the banquet, it slowly dawned on me that there was a body beneath the shroud. As the dancers began to dig in, they invited audience members of color to join them. “You want some? C’mon.” Shears incantates. “You? C’mon.”

Timely and charged, it recalls the food cart that showed up one morning in the Bronx recently, presented by an unnamed man and woman, stocked with doughnuts and juice, and adorned with hand-written signs on paper plate signs offering “free food for black people.” A provocative social action that drew the ire of many conservatives across the Internet, this section of Whitehead’s performance drew markedly less effusive consternation at Links Hall, though it didn’t really hit home for the crowd until one white woman in the room, thinking Shear was pointing at her in the crowd to offer was turned down in favor of a black woman sitting next to her. It continues in this way for awhile until, eventually, the plates and platters were cleared and from beneath the table coverings is the elegiac Trinity Dawn Bobo who, with her close-shaven head and long white robes, rises up as the nourishing spirit of black community. With a crackle-like lightning breathing life into the dead from the soundscape of maestro Damon Locks, Whitehead rises herky-jerky from her spot at the foot of the steps and starts moving. It’s a thoughtful, attuned movement that, through ingenuity and considered contrappasto, dares to incorporate the political statement into the movement itself. At one point, making pistols with her fingers, she does a cowgirl act, bang-banging out into the distance, then singling out audience members one by one. It recalls the unforgivably high number of bullets fired—the often dozen, 16 or more shots fired—in police-executions of blacks and “others” both young and old in Chicago and around the nation. It’s a genocidally gruesome butcher’s bill of which we as a society are well aware but which some choose to ignore, filled with an endless list of the names of innocents.

Whitehead’s ability to call-out of the paranoid willingness to cold-blooded murder is nothing short of remarkable. All of which, of course, would have been enough, until she stepped up to a microphone mounted at one side of the audience, as if to deliver a monologue, and lingered, unspeaking, her body and the microphone standing fused at the point of contact where voice becomes public speech in an anguishing counterbalance. Assailed after by Bobo’s spectral figure, who finally speaks only to interrogate her as to what she has to say for herself, Whitehead continues, silently, to struggle. Eventually, she starts running, fleeing, and is joined again by Shear and Collins, moving faster and faster in a circle, their black bodies presented astride one-another in the moment of a mystical union in flight. It ends, finally, with the artist collapsed until she’s carted, limp and lifeless, to the banquet table by Bobo, her performance now the newest feast for the nurturing mind of a community that believes in equality and decency, willing to offer itself up as fuel for that struggle even if it must continue for millennia. Extraordinary, prone to moments of true ingenuity and bold to the point of spiritual transcendence, with Anna Martine Whitehead, Chicago has born a new talent we can’t afford not to watch, and heed well these lessons of the wages of hate, scried from deep within the heart of this capital of black America.

S P R E A D took place at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. in Chicago, IL. (773) 281-0824. March 3-5, 7 p.m.

Note: Anna Martine Whitehead will appear with the author, Michael Workman, in the Movement Matters series symposium Body Politic, organized to discuss the role of the radical imagination in the construction of both social movements and movement-based works of dance and performance art. Originally scheduled for April 22, the panel was postponed until fall 2017. For more information, and to attend the rescheduled panel please join the Facebook event.