Saturday, March 18, 2006


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Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Peace, love, respect for all at the Forum

The parking lot at the First Flight High School filled right up for Saturday's Outer Banks Forum performance of the African American Dance Ensemble. Inside, a lively audience of all ages settled in to the sounds of African percussion and chants from the public address system.

The African American Dance Ensemble began with Chuck Davis of Raleigh, whose path from Raleigh's all-black Ligon High School through Howard University's Theater and Dance Program led him to New York City and the world of professional dance.

Dr. Davis' connection to Africa began with a performance of the Sierra Leone National Dance Company at the New York World's Fair in 1964. Study in Africa came in 1977 when the Chuck Davis Dance Company participated in FESTAC, an international exposition and celebration of African culture, held in Lagos, Nigeria.

Forum president John Tucker stepped up to a microphone on the floor before the curtained stage to describe a lecture and demonstration given earlier in the day by the troupe in the school's gymnasium. "Dr. Davis is a master teacher," he observed.

As the lights went down, plunging the auditorium in near total darkness, a male voice began an African chant. Other voices joined in, providing rhythmic harmony and counterpoint in a rich sonic mix.

Soon the black curtain opened slowly, revealing a nearly bare stage. At the back, before a blue-lit backdrop, stood three musicians at three varying sets of African drums. Musical Director Kwabena Osei Appiagyei was flanked by Cheick Adama Sissoko and Atito, and all three held sort of two-tiered cowbells, which they struck with infectious rhythms.

A beautiful smell of incense wafted into the audience.

Lanky Stafford Berry came onstage in a remarkable costume made largely of dyed straw and a headdress with feathers sticking up, whuch increased his height by a good eighteen inchess.

His moves to the rhythms were quick, angular and fluid all at once. He was joined shortly by four dancers, Bianca Harris, Erin Holmes, Stephanie Hope and Kamu Jolize Mimy. The group arranged themselves in geometric patterns and danced to the increasingly infectious sounds that now included the drums.

As three of the dancers continued, Berry came to the front of the stage and stopped, arms out, facing the audience. One of the dancers knelt before him, also facing the audience. "Brother Chuck" came out holding a drum and a striker and stood behind Berry.

Thunder sounded and the spotlights on the back of the stage flashed lightning-white.

Dr. Davis cut an imposing figure. A large, stout man, he had great presence in a red-patterned tunic and pantaloons. He punctuated his drumming by pointing the striker at Berry's head, heart and hands, the dancers, the audience.

After this performance, which was punctuated often by applause, Dr. Davis came out in front of the closed curtain and explained some of the values that informed his troupe's philosophy, including peace, love and respect. Respect for elders, others, self, the earth....

Talking about elders, he cajoled most of the over-55s in the audience into standing to accept some respect. "We recognize that in your heads resides the knowledge for the future." He joked about having an AARP card himself.

After the intermission came a ballet of several acts, some choreographed by Dr. Davis. "I'm afraid the program is lost somewhere in cyberspace."

Stafford Berry came out in a brown-patterned loincloth and danced in front of an unadorned white backdrop to the recorded jazz harp-music of Alice Coltrane, his dancing a traditional-tinged modern style, suggesting to this reviewer the title of the Knut Hamsen novel Growth of the Soil, which dealt partly with the growth of humanity, for better and worse.

Next, one of the dancers came out in a sexy short dress and "vogued" about the stage to Laura Nyro's "Last Call for the Poverty Train." At times Dr. Davis came onstage in sweatpants and a baseball cap and took snapshots of her as she posed. At other times a young lout in slacks and shirttails captured her attention. Her dance expressed compulsion and despair.

Then a dancer in white robes, before a glowing cross shape projected on the backdrop, expressed compulsion then ecstacy to the underground railroad spiritual "Steal Away (to Jesus)." Behind her the other dancers entered and danced in the attire of young moderns: a tennis player, a businesswoman.

"Brother Chuck," back in African robes, helped an unfortunate stagger across the back of the stage. When they returned, his charge had a lively step and took his place at his drum.

Dr. Davis recited a poem, "What Does My Soul Seek," in front of the curtain, before the final number, which involved the whole company in modern casual African dress. Dr. Davis came onstage and tried a few steps before being chased off by the girls. Each dancer and musician took a turn to enthusiastic applause before being introduced by Dr. Davis.

He then got the audience to stand and hold hands, engaging in a call-and-response extolling peace, love and respect for everybody, and giving three "real hugs" to their neighbors. The audience was thus in place for a richly deserved standing ovation.

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