They Do Not Know Harlem: In Communion With James Baldwin


May 10 & 11, 2019

The Rubenstein Arts Center, Durham

As an immersive artist, dancer, movement activist, organizer, and storyteller, Tristan André Parks is someone to follow. A recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Professional Actor Training Program, Parks is an ambitious visionary, and his new performance work reflects this. Parks’s They Do Not Know Harlem: In Communion with James Baldwin, which recently had its staged premiere at the Rubenstein Arts Center, disrupts the boundaries between performance and conjuration. 

The show is, Parks says, “a spiritual workshop.” There were moments when I was unsure if Parks was sharing an intimate expression of himself, performing the author in the title, or essentially channeling a time-traveling Baldwin. Scenes and personalities changed through lighting and sound. A tambourine marked the transition from Parks-as-Baldwin to Parks-as-himself, but the line was thin, and the effect was uncanny. I felt that this sense of erased boundaries is exactly what Parks has intended to create.

Thomas DeFrantz’s SLIPPAGE Lab, a performance-research group located in the Ruby, was an ideal place to develop and premiere the work. There is no orchestra pit or elevated stage to separate the performer from the audience. The result invited participation, something Parks acknowledges as being a part of the Africanist aesthetic he seeks to perpetuate. In the first moments of the piece, percussionist and singer Aarik Duncan, alto saxophonist Lance Garrett, and singer Brentton Harrison entered the space dressed in white. Harrison began the Negro spiritual “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” and invited the audience to sing with him. Many people joined in. This participatory impulse characterized the evening. 

In a voice that is distinctly Southern but also something else, Parks channeled Baldwin’s recollection of Harlem, Park Avenue, and the addresses of the homes Baldwin’s mother created. He lamented the changes gentrification and over-policing has wrought in Harlem, saying, “Something terrible has happened.” In this moment, I was not sure if Baldwin, Parks, or both men were aghast. He asked an audience member if they remembered their first address, inviting us to reflect on our earliest memories, consider the sacrifices our parents made to keep us safe and housed, and ponder the costs of so-called progress. 

Parks’s performance provides a rich history of Baldwin’s life, thoughts, loves, profound losses, and enduring impact on our present moment. Parks achieves this through choreography, music—including gospel, jazz, and trap—and video clips ranging from Baldwin’s voice to tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists. Informed by modern dance, Parks’s movements begin as sudden, jerking, and expressive; they are desperate and searching. They mirror Baldwin’s trajectory from child to young man and his struggle to find space between and within the black church, artistic expression, and queerness. Parks’s own upbringing is rooted in the black church, which is where he says he first came to know art through dance, storytelling, and song, in a language that has been “passed down from our foremothers and forefathers [through the] post-transatlantic slave trade.” 

Parks’s choreography travels through graceful, deliberate, ballet-inspired movement and the latest street and contemporary dance, revealing the ever-evolving and multifaceted nature of black expression and storytelling. The variety of genres also reflects Baldwin’s life—he was born into the height of jazz and died after the birth of gangsta rap. At the end of the evening, Parks invited the audience to join him as his “chains fall off,” and we witnessed a soul train of joy.

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