by Teddy Nicholas · August 12, 2014
I am not sure where to begin to describe the overwhelming love I felt watching Ain’t She Brave: A Play of Poetry by Erika and Ntare Ali Gault. So much of this powerful and intelligent celebration of black women in America is rich with beautifully playful language that tugs at the seams of American history, giving voice to the powerful black women of today and the brave women that spawned them.
The co-writer Erika Gault (herself an incredible performer with a strong stage presence; she was onstage for only five minutes but her spirit remained on stage for long after) introduces the piece, a brief prelude of the struggles of the African women forced to journey to America and the repugnant history of slavery to the admiration of the black women who began to dominate the media in the 80s and 90s; everything from Janet Jackson’s unforgettable performance (and hair) in Poetic Justice to the beats and powerful lyrics of TLC. Gault then introduces us to four women who over the course of this ninety-minute performance piece will inhabit many women from the present hurtling back to the awful history all the while illuminating their bravery and their legacy. They are Uhuru (Heather Alicia Simms), Njozi (Chinai J. Hardy), Nia (a standout LaChrisha C. Brown, although that’s like saying this diamond glitters slightly brighter than the rest of the diamonds, so powerful are all these women) and Imani (Pernell Walker). These four incredible performers command the stage, shifting from contemporary neighborhood girls lamenting the lack of their visibility in America (a powerful section describing the differences between black women and endangered species still lingers in my mind), to a placee (from the french placage), a common-law married Creole woman in the mid-18th century in New Orleans who organized a way for free women of color to insure the safety of their children (and themselves), and everything in between.
As directed by LA Williams, the production is relatively smooth for a Fringe show (there were some technical glitches which would normally distract from a production but I was completely unfazed by them so powerful was this show). Williams paints incredible stage pictures with very little: an occasional bench, some lights, and, hauntingly, chains. The starkness of the space allowed us to zoom in on the performers. One section of the performance focuses on the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a particularly gruesome yet rarely mentioned (sadly I’d never heard of it until this show) home-grown terrorist act in America. Williams’ effective staging of this sequence makes use of all four performers as they give voice to the witnesses of this buried National tragedy. The lighting design by Paul Hudson was incredibly impressive, some of the best I’ve ever seen in a festival showing; transforming the bare stage into various locales such as a subway car, a high-end department store, and a slave ship.
Presented by the twenty-year old Njzoi Ensemble Company whose mission is to advance awareness of African and African American culture and arts through education and performances, Ain’t She Brave achieves that mission and soars above it. Everyone in America, everyone who is concerned with history, everyone who considers themselves a citizen of the human race should run to see this show.