by Jacob Hendley
“I have walked Lucy’s walk all my life” narrates Caroline Randall Williams, author/poet of the book upon which the ballet is based. Williams’ spoken word in the ballet is Lucy’s voice in Elizabethan era and simultaneously Williams’ own voice as a woman of color. It speaks from the perspective of minority and otherness but with a proud and firm voice. Dancer Kayla Rowder interprets each line and more: she is able to portray the development of Lucy as a character that claims her power for herself. Composer/musician Rhiannon Giddens further contributes a dimension to Lucy in scoring music that draws from African roots, traditional American music, and Renaissance styles. Giddens’ singing puts emphasis on Lucy’s soul as an important aspect in her story.
The ballet production of Lucy Negro Redux is the collaborative effort of Nashville Ballet artistic director Paul Vasterling and Caroline Williams. Their respective visions for this work are completed by the added efforts of musicians Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.The co-composers used voice, piano, cello banjo, minstrel banjo, long necked lute, frame drums, and fiddles in the live performance of the score.
The ballet opens with Williams on stage in a red cocktail dress as narrator and Lucy (Rowder) in simple nude undergarment. Through the narrators spoken word we are introduced to both women. Williams’ theory is that the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-152, and commonly known as the “Dark Lady sonnets,” is a black girl. The dark lady is unidentified in historical sources but Williams became convinced that indeed Shakespeare had a black lover and the opportunity to give her a voice by writing was irresistible. It becomes clear that Williams found the potential to tell her own story while creating Lucy’s story and the reflection of Lucy in Williams is exposed by the dancer’s movements in the prologue.
In the first scene the women are whisked away to a London train station to meet a professor who provides research to support the Lucy Negro theory. The ensemble is in costumes of brightly colored street clothes to depict a bustling station and the busy choreography is reflected in a driving repetitive rhythm from banjo and percussion. The momentum injected into what felt more like a play suddenly becomes an energetic ballet. Lucy, now in red also, pairs with the Professor (Sjoblom) as he explains his theories of Shakespeare’s dark lady. Williams comically quotes sonnet 130, “If hairs be wires, black wires grow from her head…” and begs to be told that’s not a black girl. Sjoblom essentially controls Rowder’s dancing as he plays the Professor discussing his idea of Lucy to Williams.
A genuinely handsome Shakespeare (Thorne) appears in the fourth scene alongside Lucy, now in Elizabethan era. His costume is exactly what one would expect the Bard to be wearing: Green top and brown tights. He is purposefully characterized as obsessed with and swooning over Lucy who, in every way, looks the seductress in her red dress. Williams makes it clear that Shakespeare is not the subject of this story as Lucy develops into her own character.
Lucy Negro was a known brothel owner and Shakespeare an apparent patron. At Lucy’s place, there is a sense of ownership and pride from her. The music provides her with a bluesy theme with Giddens singing lyrics including “this is Lucy’s place.” Alternating with the singing is Williams’ spoken word in an enthralling and well-performed duet with Giddens, sharing some of Lucy’s thoughts on running a brothel, being the object of lust, and being in the business of pleasure. Lucy’s women are scantily clad dancers in a fog-filled den who dance for her. The Fair Youth (Scheuer) is introduced among the harlots as the ideal male form of desire. He is also the subject of sonnets 1-126 preceding the Dark Lady sonnets. Scheuer’s posture and movements are commanding. His muscular physique compared to Thorne’s once again draws attention away from Shakespeare’s character. Both the Fair Youth and Lucy are subjects of Shakespeare’s passion and yet are portrayed as larger, more central figures than he in the performance.
The Fair Youth brings a lustful weakness to Shakespeare and the two share a scene in which the sensual choreography entangles them. They move across the stage, on the floor, and into each other’s arms.
The ninth scene is set with Shakespeare writing at his table while his lines come to life as dancers on the stage. The music is pensive, lending repetitive themes on the violin to the dancers’ movements. Turrisi’s piano playing is dreamlike and fills moments of the performance with an air that is fresh and calming. The two musicians are able to play two or three instruments at a time and create such complex compositions.Before intermission, a whirl of fierce duets between Lucy and Shakespeare takes place. The love triangle has come to a head. Confrontation and argument are interpreted by the dancers with such delicate movement. What seems difficult to express while maintaining gracefulness they do with perfection. Williams narrates the difficulties of life as a black girl in a white man’s world which ties the two women’s stories together: modern and past. Lucy rejects Shakespeare’s pleading and stands resolute and proud as Williams’ words go beyond describing a couple’s struggles and encompass a struggle of color and gender that spans time.
Following intermission, the Gesta Grayorum scene involves a large ensemble with many props and costumes and the festivities of the scene allude to orgiastic events. It is a spectacular scene but hardly pertaining to the three characters. Rather, the celebration provides relief from their tension and puts on display the fabulous cast. The final few scenes are strung together to rejoin the love triangle of Lucy, Shakespeare, and the Fair Youth. They are brief and dreamy but aesthetically captivating.
In the epilogue, resolution, claiming power, and knowing one’s own beauty are the themes presented as Williams and Lucy are the only characters once again remaining on stage. The women no doubt stand proud and confident. Lucy, en pointe, moves through her solo finale while Williams recites her closing statements and Giddens walks from her set to center stage while humming and beating her chest.
At moments in Lucy Negro Redux the theater became a place where art forms combined to reach heights that were unbelievably rich and satisfying, specifically the scenes in Lucy’s brothel where the music was supporting such intense spoken word as well as Shakespeare and Lucy in scenes of passionate love and anger. The powerful ending with all three women in red uniting their expressions of poetry, dance, and music gave each of them Lucy’s story for themselves.