Written and Performed by Francesca Harper
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 5.18.14
Susan Batson Studio Theater, 300 West 43rd Street
by Zahra Sadjadi on 5.6.14
Francesca Harper in The Look of Feeling. Photo by Breton Tyler-Bryan.
BOTTOM LINE: An inspiring portrait of a woman who impacted modern dance, loved being an artist, and lived her dreams.
It takes courage and resilience to begin at the end, and that is where The Look of Feeling starts. Described as a “non-linear retrospective and ritual,” this one-woman show conceived, written, and performed by Francesca Harper, is about her mother’s death, exceptional life, and the symbiosis between the two. Denise Jefferson was an unusual woman, mother, and artist who, after Alvin Ailey appointed her as a founding Director, helmed and grew The Ailey School for 26 years until her death in 2010 of ovarian cancer. Harper, a bold and multitalented artist in her own right, observes that we have a cultural obsession with endings, and, in this show, she performs a love letter to a woman who spent her life challenging many establishments. As Harper reflects on the liberation that comes with acknowledging the end at the beginning, The Look of Feeling unfolds as a tale of just that: freedom, defiance, and self-expression in the best and most personal sense.
Without a doubt, this type of storytelling can be challenging. Capturing the essence of a woman who had an unusual impact both in person and as a figure in the modern history of her art form is daunting, and, towards this effort, Harper utilizes all the tools within her exceptional range. Harper is an adept dancer, and one of the more captivating parts of her show includes her interweaving the historical portions of her mother’s life, (a lineage traced back to Thomas Jefferson’s slave brood; her academic studies of France, the Harlem Renaissance, and the roots of Négritude; her struggle to cope with her cancer diagnosis) into the performance via the language of dance. As someone who appreciates dance, I understand that, conceptually, it is both rooted in and an abstraction of reality. Within the context of Harper’s performance, I rediscovered that fact in a very touching and profound way.
Harper's choreography is a reminder of the genesis of choreography as tied to real stories and events rooted in great feeling. Indeed, the most powerful manifestation of this type of choreography, how these women come from and perpetuate a tradition of those that “transformed rage into joie de vivre,” becomes a recurring theme throughout the performance. Regardless of the chronology of the play which jumps back and forth in time, that theme is ever-present and not only through the choreography but also through the nuances of Harper’s voice as she executes both original and established songs (as well as prose) using an instrument that ranges from tones of lilting songbird to belting and wailing raw emotion. In this regard, Harper performs with a voice in all the best senses of that word -- an instrument of self expression intoned with authority and a sense of personal agency.
While I loved certain parts of this show, I won’t say that it is for everyone. It is performed in a small, black box theater, and, while Harper is a powerhouse of a performer, the production value is a little rough around the edges. Unfortunately, this show is a little gem whose lighting, video quality, and sound clips do not keep pace with the vim and vigor of its subject matter and its performer. Nevertheless, if you are up for being inspired and invigorated, then I would highly recommend you attend The Look of Feeling. It is a beautiful theatrical manifestation of immortality or what is often described as living on in the memories of the people that you leave behind.
(The Look of Feeling plays at the Susan Batson Studio Theater, 300 West 43rd Street, through May 18, 2014. Performances are 5/2 and 5/3 at 8PM; 5/9, 5/10, 5/16, 5/17 at 7PM; 5/12 and 5/19 at 3PM; 5/11 and 5/18 at 6PM. Tickets are $20 and are available at slices-of-lives-productions.ticketleap.com or by calling 212.226.4630.)