At the end of Chesney Snow’s show tonight I headed on foot across Lower Manhattan to hear some jazz in one of the village cafés. It was a good, long walk – longer than I’d anticipated. It was New York summer hot. And my feet were tired. When I got there just five minutes late, the set had been pulled: no-one else had turned up. Maybe if I’d been five minutes earlier they would have played for one. Who knows. Some people will. And was I disappointed? You bet I wasn’t. You see, for the last stretch of that walk I was resisting every step. Maybe that was why I was late. Not that I didn’t want to hear the jazz. I did. I’d been seeking exactly this kind of place since I’d arrived in the city a few weeks back. But tonight would have been the wrong night for it. Tonight would have been the wrong night for pretty much anything. After seeing Chesney’s show. All I wanted was to stay with it. Hold it. Feel it in my bones, and shiver at the moments he’d brought me close to tears, left me in shock, rage, wonder at just how much more the African-American has to go through before something – something – changes here. How long.
If it doesn’t rally you to try to effect change, then I challenge you to find anything that will.
The tragic events of this last week heightened the emotional impact of this piece in which Snow wants to say ‘black lives matter’ but without using these particular words in that particular order. But be in no doubt – he says it loud and he says it clear. And in the saying, he captures so much of the struggle of black lives here in this most powerful country in the world. In telling one family’s story he speaks to the much wider experience of so many, and speaks of the continuing institutional racism they have to face every single day of their lives.
The piece begins with Chesney’s lone beat-boxing. Of course it does – he’s a pioneer in this field, having taught it at Harvard and established the World Beatbox Association. But the story begins with the lynching of his great uncle. Strange fruit barely ripened by the sun for – yes, yet again – a crime he hadn’t committed. We follow Snow’s mother, ‘Pepper’, (‘one of the finest women on campus’) through attacks that time and time again bring her to within an inch of her life, and closer. We watch and listen as she raises her son and daughter single-handed, moving them from state to state running from one violent, abusive situation to another, desperate to keep her children safe, and not always succeeding.
And at the core of it all is Chesney’s relationship with his first absent father (‘I feel the rage at my father not being on the page in my book of life’) and then his absent son (‘We lost our human rights because we didn’t comply’), when the system places the child in the care of his mother’s dysfunctional, criminally abusive white family instead of the loving care and safety of his black father’s.
This isn’t a laugh-a-minute show by any means. But by god it’s a powerful one. And it does have its lighter moments - much-needed and exquisitely crafted into this tragic tale. The Unwritten Law slides imperceptibly between poetry and prose. But it also marries the spoken word with wonderfully sinuous contemporary dance and a finely-interposed musical score which work together to create total theatre extraordinaire. Dancer/choreographer/director Rebecca Arends moves with Maleek Washington in that way in which only Vincent can swirl together two stunning oils to create something even more beautiful. The moment when boyfriend Michael is beating up on Pepper, her body lifeless as he tosses her repeatedly from his shoulder, is stunningly painful to watch, adding another element to the storytelling. And the greatest compliment I can pay to musicians A.J. Khaw (piano) and Varuni Tiruchelvam (cello - although aurally a bass at times!) is that they manage that almost impossible feat of being an essential part of the performance whilst remaining un- noticed. The score is superbly attuned to the word, and the musicians themselves to the performance unfolding before them. Occasional and finely-judged projections by Emre Emirgil add a visual richness, as does the exciting lighting design by Ro-z Edelston.
The close of the piece makes it painfully clear how some lives are lived in the full knowledge that in every breath they may be extinguished in an instant because, in the eyes of the person with the gun or the bat or the badge or the car-as-weapon, to end this per- son’s story right here and right now is the preferred option. Just because of the colour of their skin. But the closing moments also make a strong statement (‘It was like actors were warriors with words’) about the power of art to move past mere words, to win hearts, to open minds, and to rally people. Well, I tell you something... if The Unwritten Law doesn’t rally you to do something – anything – to speak out ‘black lives matter’ using those particular words in that particular order, or any words in any order as long as they say the same thing, and if it doesn’t rally you to try to effect change, then I challenge you to find anything that will.
Am I sad I missed the jazz tonight? No, I’m not. Not one little bit. And tomorrow when I head out to find more music, I’ll be just that bit different a person as a result of what I saw last night.