I love performances that keep me thinking about them long after they’re over. I alluded to this here on the blog when I saw Dana Michele: Yellow Towel and Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic at the Contemporary Arts Center. It recently happened again after I watched Napoleon Maddox workshop “A Dance Between Dana Franklin and Millie-Christine” at Chase Public last week.
The prelude to Twice the First Time, which premieres as part of the Contemporary Arts Center’s Black Box Series in February, “A Dance Between Dana Franklin and Millie-Christine” explored the connections Maddox sees between Dana Franklin, the main character in Octavia Butler’s sci-fi classic Kindred, and lives of his great grand aunts, conjoined twins Millie-Christine McKoy. In the talk before the performance, participants pulled together threads of similarity in the way in which Dana operated in her fictional role as savior of a past that’s genealogically impossible for her to separate herself from and Millie-Christine’s attempts to preserve their dignity in their present and into the future.
The attendees had lots of thoughts on The Body – its movement, viewing it as property, its autonomy (or lack thereof). Dana is thrown back into a time where she, her body, is deemed property and she must operate in a way that upholds that notion or face death. In those moments, she is the same as the real-life Millie-Christine, who were born owned and deemed “worthy” of ownership due to the literal composition of their bodies. Maddox may have been exploring this narrative as it applies to all black people, but I focused in specifically on its application to black female bodies.
Millie-Christine were on display in state fairs, carnivals and side shows throughout their lives. As a black woman approaching middle age at a steady clip, the more I learn about their story, the more I feel some kinship to them – particularly when I come into contact with the white gaze. I’ve had more encounters than I can remember over the years in which one white woman or another has reached out to touch some part of my body with some weird sense of fascination, as if it’s hers to do with what she will. The side show nature of existing in a black woman’s body can be clear and present at a moment’s notice, if you aren’t vigilant about your space. (Shout out to Solange.)
With haunting violin melodies provided by MyCincinnati‘s Eddy Kwon and live illustrations by Chase Public‘s Mike Fleisch, Maddox weaved a tale of how Millie-Christine were physically unable to escape slavery because of their body, how solutions look so much more straightforward and simple through a 21st century lens, and how facing the pain of the past drives us to acknowledge and push past the pain of the present.
In the way that Dana saves Rufus and thus participates in the creation of her own lineage (however brutal), Maddox is bringing history, his lineage, into the present with the story of Millie-Christine. I, for one, can’t wait to see the finished product in the form of Twice the First Time in February!
(Photo: Partial live illustration completed by Mike Fleisch during the performance)