A poem shd fill you up with something/cd make you swoon/
stop in yr tracks/ change your mind or make it up/ a poem shd
happen to you like cold water or a kiss.”
The contemporary black poetess Ntozake Shange wrote those words decades ago, but they could be an appropriate logo for a new play, “Ain’t She Brave,” by the Njozi Ensemble, specifically the multitalented and scholarly husband and wife team, Ntare Ali and Erika Gault.
“Ain’t She Brave” has just opened at Buffalo East, a comfy, if Spartan, little space perfect though for this hourlong piece about black women in America – women living “between hope and history” – 16 seamless vignettes that entertain and instruct in equal measure, touching moments of love, fear and dreams, sweet tales, sad memories, memorable images, strength and survival, stories waiting to be gleaned from an incredibly rich repository.
There is an ancient art form, called “spoken word,” that actually fits “Ain’t She Brave” much better than “play.”
Word-based, the combination of monologues, a song or two, brief dance, poetry and individual expression that segues into communal acts or universal thought, has been around for centuries.
But four brilliant actresses at work here – Danica Riddick, Davita Tolbert, Monique Webb and co-author Erika Gault – under the tutelage of Buffalo’s legendary Lorna C. Hill, have taken spoken word to a new level; in the vernacular, “they really bring it.”
Riddick, Tolbert, Webb and Gault, as Nia, Njozi, Imani and Uhuru, all dressed in white, alternate telling the world their life experiences, the timeline moving backward from the now – mean streets, unspeakable violence, 9/11 terror, love gone awry, recollections of sacrificing moms working multiple jobs, big hair, the despicable Tulsa race riots of 1921, slavery’s “silent tears” and the initial sea voyages in chains that changed a nation – with emotions raw, “stop in yr tracks” conversations.
Call it a play, a choreopoetry, spoken word. Whatever it is, it is 60 minutes of potent personal experiences, realities, universality. Stunning. Unforgettable.
The acting is remarkable. Monique Webb is extraordinary, but the others are not far behind. Lorna Hill has tightened the script – based on oral histories, composite characters, neighborhood gossip and myths – and created such a beautiful flow to the night.