Jasmine Powell: Approximation of a Woman 


May 17, 2019

The Hayti Heritage Center, Durham 

Through four solo dances, Jasmine Powell creates a sacred space for history, poetry, and dance in Approximation of a Woman, which she recently performed in the DIDA season. A reverent moment of silence at the beginning and an empty chair draped in printed African cloth during the post-performance talkback remind us that the production is the realization of Powell’s collaboration with the late Tiffany Austin, whose poetry and vision are alive in each solo.

In Common Law Wife, Powell sits in a chair stage center. She wears a bathrobe and pajamas. We hear Austin’s voiceover as Powell removes the bathrobe; through her tender, expressive gestures, we can tell that she is transforming it into a swaddled baby. She lays down her bundle and blooms into a careful, controlled movement. Her arms and legs make clean angles. The presentation is somehow organic, grounded, graceful, and pained.

Meanwhile, Austin tells the story of Akua Njeri (Deborah Johnson) who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when FBI agents raided the apartment that she shared with Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and shot him dead in their bed. As the horror of the narrative becomes clearer, Powell’s movement becomes frantic as gunshots ring in the background. She ends her solo with a Black Power salute and slowly returns to cradle her bundled-robe baby.

The transitions between solos are inventive. There are no breaks or dimmed lights. Each transition is organic, and dancers interact with each other by sharing a bench or nodding a silent hello before one dancer leaves the stage. These transitions remind us of black women’s interconnected histories across time and geographical space. They also remind us that vulnerability remains a constant and it is often through storytelling—intentional remembering—that healing takes place.

Skinned Rose Flesh, performed by Jaylun Moore, is the story of Jamaica’s Lovers’ Leap, where two enslaved lovers jumped to their deaths rather than endure the horror of enslavement, rape, and separation. Moore’s dance blends West African and modern techniques. Her body undulates like the water that claims the lovers. Upstage, a screen portrays the silhouette of a man who dances in a style like Moore, but his movements are unsynchronized, highlighting the inability of the lovers to spend uninterrupted days loving together. Najla McClain reads her own and Austin’s poems and narrates the lovers’ history, revealing that one’s brother betrayed her to her master. McClain proclaims, “We never died. We are the revolution of love … We never died,” and, in a final leap, Moore jumps from the stage into the house.

Nekeshia Wall interprets She Walks with Bird, the story of Rebecca Ruffin, first wife to Charlie Parker. She moves seductively across a bench that recalls a bed. Her choreography is slow and intentional, yet it carries an expression of hesitation and uncertainty. Meta DuEwa Jones reads poetry that traces their courtship and the highs and lows of their marriage. Wall’s movement mirrors the narrative, jazz-inspired, light, visibly free, and then devolving into a chaotic dance that becomes slow and searching. Wall surrenders to feeling and wanders off stage in confusion, into obscurity, just as Ruffin’s role has been largely forgotten to history.

In the final solo, Chokecherry Tree, Kristin Taylor Duncan invokes Mother Nature. This piece is inspired by Powell’s own poetry, and I am reminded of Sethe’s back, scarred by an overseer’s whip, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I feel the collective sorrow of what the chokecherry tree signifies. Slowly, Duncan invokes ballet through graceful arabesques downstage, and stage left, we see one pair of legs, then two, then three emerge. It becomes clear that these are the grim, dangling legs of lynching trees. Voiceover from Jasmine and her mother, Zelda Powell, asks the trees to “lift them up” and “don’t be ashamed” of the horror they’ve been tasked with performing. Through this final solo, Powell asks us, “How do you nurture that which has been abused and still find peace?” Perhaps any answer is something akin to an approximation.

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