With maximum intensity and commitment, 10 women gave the West Coast premiere of the problematic "Song of Lawino" at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions on Thursday.
Based on a 200-page work by the exiled Ugandan poet Okot P'Bitek, "Song of Lawino" is a cry of protest and contempt by a village woman whose husband rejects her and her tribal traditions to pursue Westernized ways and women.
The woman--enacted by various cast members--often addresses the absent husband. But when she asserts that his abuse of her is "abuse of the people," her indictments ripple out to evoke cultures in collision: tribe and city, Africa and Europe, old and new--dichotomized, perhaps too simplistically, as the good and the bad.
An hourlong adaptation of P'Bitek's poem with the same title, "Song of Lawino" is a collaboration among four women: director Valeria Vasilevski, choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (from whose New York-based company, Urban Bush Women, a number of the dancers are drawn), percussionist Edwina Lee Tyler and vocalist Tiye Giraud. The dancers also contributed characterizations.
Fueled by anger and hurt, the piece incorporates the spoken word and, when that can no longer contain the emotions, spills into song. When that proves insufficient, song becomes dance. Vocal styles range from incantatory chants to Yolande Bavan's scat-singing imitations of saxophone solos. The choreography ranges from high energy gumboot dancing to a suave parody of the Supremes.
Rich in striking metaphors, P'Bitek's poem at times can be elusive, but there is nothing ambiguous about his images of oppressed people ("The buffaloes of poverty knock the people down").
His metaphors can dissect, as when storyteller Pamela Patrick questions Christian dogmas ("From the Mouth of Which River"). Her perplexity with words translated into a tribal language ( heaven becomes sky-land ) becomes a devastating critique.
Turn-about is fair play. But in what spirit to accept lines such as "White people are good at telling lies--like men wooing women"? And, yes, the parody of "Tales From the Vienna Woods" is funny, but what culture--dare one say, even Ugandan culture?--cannot be made contemptible when falsified?
And what to make of taped Third World claims that family planning is a ruse by whites to keep down the population of minorities? Or that their countries serve as a dumping ground for dangerous chemicals banned in the United States? At least the women also discuss universal problems--corrupt politicians--and indigenous horrors such as wife-burnings.
The work is politically loaded, and the women do not flinch from the accusations. But having detailed these charges, they back off at the end into an explosion of energetic "tala scat improvisation" (led by Bavan), to suggest--what? That communal energy and commitment will solve all the problems? It seems a bit of a cop-out.
Less controversial is Tyler's amazing drum solo, in which her grimaces of agony and ecstasy, hope and despair, joy and even wit seemed perfectly mirrored in her playing.
"Song of Lawino," which is co-presented by LACE and the Museum of Contemporary Art, will continue through Sunday afternoon.