“What Remains” is the title of the 65-minute performance piece by Claudia Rankine and Will Rawls that the Institute of Contemporary Art presented this weekend, a Summer Stages Dance @ ICA/Boston project. It’s also a springboard for thought both during and after the show. What remains after the official abolition of slavery? What remains when words and movement are deconstructed? What remains when you leave the theater?
Claudia Rankine’s five volumes of poetry include “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” and “Citizen: An American Lyric.” She is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow, and last year ArtsEmerson presented the American Repertory Theater production of her play “The White Card” at the ArtsEmerson Paramount Center. Will Rawls is a writer, choreographer, and performer who won the 2017 Bessie Award for outstanding emerging choreographer. “What Remains” premiered at Bard College in April 2017, as part of “We’re Watching,” a four-day exhibition focused on the theme of surveillance.
At the ICA, the show is already under way when you enter the dimly lit theater. Clad in black robes, the four performers — Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, and Tara Aisha Willis — roam the aisles and the perimeter of the stage, whooping at one another like loons giving contact calls. When they do take the stage, they harmonize on the word “you” — which is both a singular and a collective. It’s as if there were no room for “I” — or at least the black “I.”
But then the quartet disperses and the harmony dissipates into mutterings and speeded-up repetitions accompanied by labored movement, as if the performers were learning to move and communicate all over again, starting from scratch, building their identities from the ground up. And the theme of surveillance becomes secondary to oppositions like white vs. black, man vs. woman, state vs. citizen, word vs. body, audience vs. performer, and, most of all, I vs. you.
Some 20 minutes in, Cuyjet, quoting from “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” announces, “Some nights I count the commercials for antidepressants.” A brief bit of communal banter follows, but then Toussaint-Baptiste retreats to the sound console, producing an ambient background, and the three women engage in a long, slow, trudging march, breaking apart, gathering again, evolving into a swaying girl-group trio who spoof Jidenna’s “Classic Man.”
By this point, the evening seems to have settled. The women banter some more: “Tara’s need for perfection is going to be the end of us.” “Says the other Virgo.” They tease Toussaint-Baptiste about his song: “There are so many facial expressions and so few notes.” When one gives him only 7 out of 10, he replies, “You’re obviously the Russian judge.”
But the mood darkens again. A light stand shining in our faces restricts what we get to see; we’re, literally and figuratively, in the dark. Pretty sings, “I don’t want nobody [expletive] with me in these streets.” Words and movement get taken apart once more, as if we were forever starting over. Pretty does a solitary solo, then shuts off the console and leaves. What remains is the question of how “you” and “I” become “we.”
Direction and choreography by Will Rawls. Text by Claudia Rankine. Costumes, Eleanor O’Connell. Sound, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste. Music by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, with Will Rawls. At the Institute of Contemporary Art, Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater, Friday, April 12.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.