How a body moves: Parsing solo shows

Following last month’s performance of Lucinda Childs’ DANCE, the ’62 Center’s CenterSeries is currently featuring the poet Roger Bonair-Agard, a native of Trinidad who performs work about his childhood on the Caribbean island and his experience as a black immigrant in the U.S. As part of the integrated programming accompanying this Friday’s performance, Masquerade: Calypso and Home, Bonair-Agard joined Williams alum Abigail Nessen Bengson ’05 and Everton Sylvester for a panel discussion Monday evening titled “Memory’s Velocity: The Intersection of Personal History and Performance.” David Eppel, professor of theater, moderated.

Eppel opened with a brief discussion of what solo performance is and what it tries to do. He touched on the issue of how an individual’s own story might resonate with the audience. Following Eppel’s biography of each speaker, the panelists themselves performed their own introductions, which at various times blended poetry, music, biography and autobiography. Bonair-Agard started with a piece written just last week as part of a challenge to write 30 poems in 30 days. By defining the phrase “to come from,” the artist’s work emphasized the panel’s focus on the role of the body in memory and performance. With the rise and fall of his voice, Bonair-Agard threw adrenaline and emotion into a presentation of his past experiences, giving the audience a sense of the energy in the memory.

Nessen Bengson’s ensuing act revealed a style well-suited to this theme as she employed her whole body in singing. She seemed to contract as she drew breath to sing, and the result was a strong voice, illustrative of her quirkily expressive style.

Unlike the first two panelists, final speaker Everton Sylvester did not preface his poem-introduction with any explanation, but instead let the work speak for itself. In reciting a poem about a beggar arrested for the theft of garbage, his tone was neither hostile nor bitter, but almost resigned. This energy, calmer and less confrontational than the others’, had just as powerful an effect in telling the story of routine injustice.

The Q&A session that followed focused on three topics: the creative process, especially as it related to the role of the body; the interplay of politics and poetry and the panelists’ opinions on other poets’ works. In response to a question about how memory and loss of memory manifested themselves in the body, Bonair-Agard related a story by Toni Morrison about the Mississippi River: After the river was redirected to straighten its course, it periodically flooded, but that flooding wasn’t just flooding; it was the river returning to its old course, “remembering” its proper path. For Bonair-Agard, a physical moment inspires his writing, which he then “talks through” with his body, a creative process from physical trigger to physical presentation.

For Nessen Bengson, the physical also plays a strong role both in the conception and presentation of her work. Nessen Bengson related her efforts to avoid pen and paper during the creative process. As a performer, she takes others’ stories and relates them through her lens, a method that requires her to interview those whose stories she tells. During the interviews, she takes no notes, preferring to focus on how people use their bodies in relating their stories.

On the question of politics, all three panelists responded that they did not set out to write political material. A point from the audience regarding the inherently political nature of their works, whether as a black immigrant or an emigrant telling others’ stories, drew acknowledgement of political undertones.

Roger Bonair-Agard will perform Masquerade: Calypso and Home at the ’62 Center this Friday at 8 p.m. Abigail Nessen Bengson and Shaun McClain Bengson will perform Ain’t That Good News on Saturday, Nov. 7, at MASS MoCA.