If magical realism is rooted in Latin American cultures, nobody told Adia Tamar Whitaker. Her Ampey!, a 50-minute dance, chant, music, film, and narration piece, is an incantatory celebration of life — including the parts of life ingrained in our muscles and our dreams. If CounterPULSE's Performing Diaspora program had produced nothing but Ampey!, it would have been worth doing. Performed by a stellar cast of dancers and musicians, Whitaker has succeeded in pulling together strands of complex subject matter into a first-rate, original piece of poetic theater.
Whitaker is equally skilled in verbal and movement languages. The blunt honesty with which she looks at herself, refusing to sentimentalize or overplay her sense of identity, gives Ampey! a strong backbone. The impetus for the work came from a trip to Ghana, where Whitaker traveled to explore her roots. A small-boned, light-skinned woman who shaves her head, she found herself at odds there. With Ampey!, she set out to explore the disconnect between her African and African American identities. Perhaps not surprisingly, she found misunderstandings on both sides. One of the show's most insightful moments comes via a film clip, in which an elderly Ghanaian man talked about how outsiders not only view his country, but the whole continent.
Whitaker divides Ampey! into three acts: "Freedom," "Home," and "Family." Her periodic narrations, on film, feel a bit like a personal travelogue, but they also create a sense of anticipation for the live segments. On stage, her persona shifts identity by moving from one dancer to another, an effective way of expanding the personal into a larger context.
In "Freedom," the dancers, dressed in prim American school uniforms, dive into a high-energy children's clapping dance, "Getting Lite." With limbs flying, this is an exuberant, wildly energetic but also playful form of urban expression whose African origins — at least as seen here on stage — are unmistakable. A ring shout and a Haitian dance raise the volume of this affirmation of freedom, though in actually it is being denied. Strong vocalist-dancer Tossie Long, scurrying anxiously among the celebrants, acts as an Elder, cautioning Whitaker to be patient.
"Home" switches gears drastically. With one chair conspicuously empty and Whitaker as the lead vocalist, the dancers sit in a row, chanting and keeping the beat with gourd-like rattles. According to the program notes, the dance is a version of the Ghanaian agbadza, usually performed on an open field. Here, clapping and percussion underline rhythmical, forward-bending movements. The flowing harmonies set against that regular bending pattern proved to be hypnotic — I kept thinking of Muslims praying together on the floors of their mosques. Whitaker dedicated this section to her former teacher, Alicia Pierce, who died in San Francisco while Whitaker was learning this very dance in Ghana. This mourning dance, rising and falling, like waves, like deep breaths, was perhaps Ampey!'s single most beautiful moment.
The final section, the somewhat problematic "Family," finds Whitaker on her knees. Carefully measuring and pasting segments of tape, she tries to rearrange the complex floor patterns that look like a mixture of astrology charts and gym floors. As people in colorful garb spill onto the stage, she keeps up her task for a while. The scene becomes a marketplace, with dancers "selling" their wares to each other and to the audience. Here, the performers' individuality — Eyla Moore, Stephanie Bastos, Veleda Roel, Zakiya Roehl, and Rashidi Omari Byrd — creates a vibrantly pulsating environment. Still, as Whitaker finally takes her place among them, the finale feels a little too easy. It is a lovely ending, but not a completely convincing one.