In the past, you might have had to go through a stark initiation, like walking on hot coals, in order to witness something like “River See.”
Now, all you have to do is pay a little something of your choosing at the Pillsbury House Theatre box office.
Playwright Sharon Bridgforth’s spirit-infused one-act, which opened in Minneapolis last weekend, is not so much an experimental play as a ritual of transition and healing. It takes place in a theater that has been made to feel, through music, dance and deeply felt performance, like sacred space.
Bridgforth acts as a calm, and calming, guide for the proceedings. Dressed, like all the other players, in white, she conducts the onstage performers as well as audience volunteers. Some audience members chant pre-scripted prayers at low volume. Others tell stories from cards that Bridgforth hands out. Still others do translations of her text into different languages (on the night I was there, the translators spoke Dutch, German, Japanese and Italian).
“River See” feels like a religious experience, drawing on Yoruba traditions and shamanistic rituals. But the show, which stars Sonja Parks as See, an initiate on the threshold of migration, is very much a theatrical work. It takes place throughout the theater and on a stage that is mostly bare, save for a chalk circle, two chairs and some percussion instruments.
After introductions and instructions by Bridgforth, Parks rises from the floor. See shares vignettes about her family, stories that could have been collected by Zora Neale Hurston. What See relates is risible, even if imbued with the blues.
But the stories are only part of what makes this show both moving and mystifying. As performers Aimee K. Bryant, Mankwe Ndosi and Truth Maze sing, as Leah Nelson and Kenna-Camara Cottman dance, we get the sense that were are in the presence of something that we can know only in our spirits.
“River See” taps something primal in the same way that drumming can send people into frenzies or piercing bagpipes call out unknown sadness.
In the end, it felt like a cleansing ceremony. I could see it being performed at former slave markets, or at the site of war crimes.
In other words, it’s not a show for everyone. Some might feel, as I wondered at first, if we’re part of a new religion. Others could wonder simply, what in the world is this? But if you let it take you where it wants to, if you follow its gestures and open up, the result is a production that is mystical and knowing.