One of the most compelling aspects about art is that it can make you feel different emotions at the same time depending on the multiple contexts that you bring to it and the representations presented to you. For example, there is a lot of conversation surrounding the multiple receptions and audiences for Kara Walker’s Marvelous Sugar Baby piece — the discussions centering on the line between the intention of the art and the art becoming a spectacle erasing the intention. Those complex feelings arose for me while watching Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s musical, Salome: Da Voodoo Princess of Nawlins. at The Nuyorican last Thursday.
Adapted from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome (which Richard Strauss also adapted into an opera), Maharaj translates this modern retelling of the Biblical story of Salome to the setting of modern day 2005 Katrina-ravaged New Orleans (Nawlins). If you are not familiar with the story, Salome was a Jewish princess who requested the head of Jokanaan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter for dancing the dance of the seven veils for her stepfather. In this version remains the crossings between religion (ex. idol worship), death and sexuality as well as Christianity and pagan religion, specifically Voodoo. The musical begins with the character of Noah (Christian Lee Branch) who is in danger of dying in the Hurricane Katrina storm when he is confronted by Papa Ga (Audrey Hailes), who is similar to the darker aspect of Papa Legba, Kalfou, loa of disorder. Noah, his name an obvious reference to the Biblical character, wants to survive the storm, but he first has to make a deal with Ga — he has to make it through an underworld journey through the telling of Salome’s story.
Ga was my favorite character in the musical. Some may consider the character to be evil, but to me he is part of the chaos and struggle of life that strengthens Noah’s character. Also, Hailes’, who has worked with Colored Girls Hustle, portrayal was ominously lively, funny and whimsical, unlike the background black, silent executioner Naaman in the original, and gave the right amount of irreverence in true Wilde style as the other characters, like Noah and Ja aka John the Baptist (Brandon A. Wright) sang gospels songs and traditional spirituals. Her presence highlighted the ambiguity and androgyny of the Papa Ga character and the work.
The arrival of the Salome character is where it became complicated for me as a black woman and exemplifies how the translation of texts from one context to another creates more layers. Played by Deja Nelfiria, at first, her character comes across as hypersexual, aggressive, and overly seeking male affection, especially from Ja who refuses her attention. Watching her, I cringed a bit thinking would the audience empathize with her? She comes across as a stereotypical Jezebel-like, femme fatale character and with the association of Voodoo, almost oversexualizing it as a “seducing” religion. Luckily her role is fleshed out in the story’s revelation that her antics were a result of much sexual and physical abuse and objectification of her, including from her own stepfather and with John’s righteousness, he could not see that. Nelfiria gave a great performance delivering the weight of the scene. We see a subtle commentary on the “virgin-whore” dichotomy of the male gaze on a black woman — white men who lust after her and black men who resist her, which also reflects the oversexualizing of Voodoo.
Another standout scene was obviously the Dance of the Seven Veils, which was in limited lighting (the veils), smoke-filled and had shedding of clothes, with its use of popular music that allude to the original play Britney Spears’ “Slave 4 U”) and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” to instrumental rhythmic and drumming music suggesting that the descent further into the underworld is not all demeaning, but an attempt at reclamation of her feminine power. These scenes allowed for the musical to be more complex than it may seem on the surface and continual reexamination of the entire story, and while it may thread the line of insightful work and superficial spectacle, the former still shines through thanks to the thorough contributions of everyone.
Barbados Fact of the Day: One of the songs played at Salome was LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” In Barbados, especially in the city Bridgetown, black prostitution and mistresses were popular; Barbados had a female majority and enslaved women were often encouraged in order to make more slave children. Brothels were opened and became popular, often owned by mixed-race women, like Rachel Pringle (the first free woman of color there to own a hotel-tavern) and Mary Bella Green. Another black woman named Nancy Clarke owned the brothel or “tavern” after Pringle. As usual with the interplay of slavery, sex, race, gender and colorism, mixed-raced women were valued higher and seen as “socio-sexual companions,” while darker-skinned women were sought after for more covert yet more adventurous, animalistic sex. Read more about the sex industry history in Barbados in Hilary Beckles’ books Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados. and Angela Cole’s site.