Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
Iridescent purple lights the stage, a bare setting except for draped netting cascading down from the ceiling. One white light points onto the audience’s descending stairs, simultaneously blinding and inviting us into the world of “devour.” at the Tank in midtown.
Enter Taji Senior, the playwright and performer behind this tour-de-force. “devour.” is a hurricane flurry of movement and poetry, an excavation of what it means to be a black woman navigating between humanity and the divine, but it is not neatly wrapped in a bow for us as easily digestible pacification or passivity. Rather than finding romanticized, coddled storytelling, or even glorification of the bravery of Black women’s immutable resilience, Senior’s original work speaks as an artistic blend of what it is like to have the inevitable condition of possessing a heart and a body. The flavors of the piece are bravery, self-possession and identity, with spicy, sweet, and sour language peppering our senses as she commands the stage physically and vocally like no other.
Equal parts ebullient and formidable, Senior’s writing lands with precision and punch whether exploring the vulnerability of roles like “The Hopeful” or “The Good Girl” or as the more abstract, omniscient Black Mother Goddess. For example, in one section on being defined and longing to be defined as a “Girlfriend,” Senior breaks the word down by syllables, tasting and twisting language on an archeological dig that seems to transcend time and space as the words begin to take on new meaning: “Girlfriend sounds like ‘I see you and you belong to me’ And if someone can see you—other than your mama and daddy or somebody directly involved in your existence and subsequent rearing, if someone sees you and chooses you—someone that could choose anyone, doesn’t this mean you are real? / Girlfriend sounds like a weapon of mass destruction in the war that this country has waged against me.”
Language is only the tip of the iceberg in Senior’s shattering, seminal piece however; language becomes the impetus of a deeper, guttural expression through movement. Senior wraps herself in the white netting, creating the dissonant look of a wedding dress or sash while looking like choking, like it is twisting and contorting around her body as we question meanings, symbols, and cultural footprints entwined with identity when one strips bare to human consciousness alone. The characters’ own self-doubt and struggles with identity as a black female body are apparent, but the piece warns right out of the gate not to decry how brave this is. The objective is not bravery, nor pity or glorification or even a call to social justice action as all too many heavy-handed pieces (especially single playwright-performer pieces) try. Rather, “devour.” ends as its message of mere existence intends, with the lighting fading as Senior steps backwards, as if to fade away... or perhaps into something more than herself as presently represented or understood.
For ideas of visibility, feeling seen whether as a girlfriend, as a black woman, or as a person permeate the delicious design of the entire piece, and Senior as well as the entire creative team should be applauded for investigating confronting and knowing yourself and perceptions of yourself for the mere sake of understanding and loving. Senior sums it up best in the final, pummeling lines:
“I don’t know if we’ll ever stop paying tithes to the institutions that nudge us toward honor by threatening to call us whores and I don’t know if our bodies will ever be ours or if we’ll ever experience the human beings we might be if our survival wasn’t dependent on proving we are humans in the first place. What I do know is that I have been loved even though you said I shouldn’t be.”
“devour.” written and performed by Taji Senior, is presented by the The Tank as part of LadyFest. Creative team includes Matrex Kilgore (Director), Devon Boyd (Sound), Sierra Boudoin (Lighting), Sade Jones (Movement), Ia Enstera (Scenic), E.L. Hohn (Costume), Leah Braithwaithe and Marina DeYoe-Pedraza (Dramaturgy), and Hakeem Adewumi (Photography). Run time is about sixty minutes, no intermission.
“devour.” ran at The Tank (312 W 36th St, 1st Floor) as part of the festival LadyFest. For more information, please visit www.thetanknyc.org.
Photo: Taji Senior by Hakeem Adewumi.