A Correspondence of Grief
Review By Brendan McCall
Co-created by Aaron Landsman, Clarinda Mac Low, Ogemdi Ude, and Amrita Hepi
Presented by Abrons Arts Center (New York, NY)
8 March 2021
Can theater be an essay? Co-creator Aaron Landsman (Manhattan, New York) poses this question near the beginning of this second installment of the virtual performance Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know (Abrons Arts Center, New York). Even two weeks after witnessing it earlier this month, my mind keeps returning to images, moments, and phrases that these artists offered on 8 March 2021. Perhaps because its showing was approaching the one-year anniversary since lockdowns began sweeping the United States, a grim milestone of how all of our lives upended. Or maybe it was because, like the first installment of this project I saw last month, Language Reversal does so much with so little, its seemingly small economy supply sinking beneath my skin and penetrating my heart.
Translated in real-time to ASL for the hearing-impaired, Landsman reads excerpts from a series of emails with another one of the piece´s Co-creators, Ogemdi Ude (Brooklyn, New York). He asks questions from the beginning of the pandemic–what shall we do? What are we doing? How can we keep working together? After this revealing and slightly panicked prologue, we shift to Ude´s calming, vital presence, following her observations and feelings as she recounts how she spent part of last summer on a porch in Atlanta that feels almost mythic. As we listen to her sonorous voice, we see the silhouette of hands along a wall. Is it two pairs of hands dancing, or simply the appearance of four hands communicating with one another? Inquiries more than discovering answers seem important in Language Reversal. It’s a quest.
Ude remembers how, on the porch, news of the social upheaval sweeping the country would filter in and out. She and a friend talk about the coming apocalypse, and how to redirect grief. They also talk about how to choreograph, and the video games they like to play the most on their phones, for pleasure and for therapy. This is a memory, but also a letter from Ude to Co-creator Amrita Hepi (Melbourne, Australia).
If Ude is on the porch of grief, Hepi says at one point, then she is on the island. Her monologue is a kind of letter in reply to her long-distant friend, while we watch collages from some of her participatory dance projects. As a First Nations Australian artist, Hepi says she wants to making caring for one’s country a choreography unto itself. During this year of Covid-19, she doesn´t wish to avoid sadness, but neither does she want to search for the “drug of happiness.” Instead of being defined by struggle, why not focus, care, and to “have moments of incredible mediocrity.” Her piece ends with images from past works, often involving simple gestures such as hugs. Ordinary, perhaps, but for most of us this past year, utterly rare, magical, a memory.
After their visual and auditory correspondence of grief, Ude asked Co-creator Clarinda Mac Low to respond to the twenty-five work we had all just witnessed. Mac Low´s observations inspired me to remember moments within the work, as well, including ones she didn’t mention. It also left me reflecting upon how I have grieved this year, through my work, and out of it. Who have I entrusted my own grief with?
The friendship shared by Ogemdi Ude and Amrita Hepi is deep, and one which articulates some of their own relationships to grief, love, and how to focus during a time when everything has turned completely upside down. Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know shares just enough of their communication to provide permission for us to do the same with ourselves and the relationships in our own lives.