Who knew that a woman crying in an art gallery could resonate with so much history?
In "Scaffold Room," Ralph Lemon's at once electrifying and messy show up in a premiere at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, performer April Matthis goes over to a bare gallery wall, lies on the floor on her back and begins to vocalize. At first, she sounds like someone in the middle of sex, a suggestion that's inescapable given that Matthis, who wears red down to her fingernails, had recently been quoting erotic texts.
But then her pitch changes, and her voice begins to take on less pleasurable colors. She is crying now, and it could be a lost child. Her vocalizations go on for five minutes or so, but it seems much longer.
Matthis' alternately rich and gorgeous voice transports us across space and time. Close your eyes and you're in the hold of a slave ship, on a train bound for slaughter, in the rubble of a collapsed tower with concrete and steel pressed all around you.
That meaningful wailing is one of the many disjointed elements of "Room," a show at once brilliant and mystifying, jumbled and lyrical. It's a surreal, raw, profane mash-up of texts, music and images from a highly literary dream.
Or, put another way: Imagine the world flooded by something like Hurricane Sandy, which is referenced in the piece. Imagine, too, that as you swim in it, the only lifejackets are pages of novels by the likes of Kathy Acker and Samuel Delany, snippets of songs by Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse, routines from a comedian like Moms Mabley.
The things that you hold for dear life in "Scaffold Room" are filtered through water and grief and history. Matthis followed performer Okwui Okpokwasili, who opened the show with a flat affect. She then donned a wig to sing like a pop diva.
The only problem is this diva, who could be Diana Ross or Tina Turner, has no joy. When she dances, without music, she looks like a rag doll being bounced around by its hair. In fact, that fierce movement by Okpokwasili, one of the few bits of dance in the show, revealed the kind of torture that a pop star, a black one, may have to endure.
Oh, yes, the show is, on its surface, about black women "acting out." In other words, it's about freedom and structure (the framing of the "Room"). Lemon's show is so heady, nonlinear and eruptive, it's almost about whatever you want it to be.
Matthis and Okpokwasili are fearless, powerful performers, who follow each other in solo turns. They take us through grief and joy, alternating raw, jagged turns with moments of lyricism. But beauty is not their objective. In delivering rearranged lyrics or, simply, speaking lyrics from a song like Beyoncé's "Party," we hear the words anew.
Lemon ends "Room" on a surprising, even corny note. Matthis, in character, shares a letter that is an epistle of love, which helps the show deliver a message that's similar to ones that you may hear in a mosque, a temple or a church. At the end of everything, there's just love.