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What Séancers does to Audiences

By Phillip Townsend, Neon Queen Collective

On Sunday, April 21, 2019, I had the opportunity of viewing Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s performance, Séancers in Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Photo Credit: Giulio Sciorio

The performance began with what could be interpreted as a sort of casual living-room chatter—the way one might enjoy a glass of wine on the sofa with friends—as Kosoko tried to engage the audience, breaking the wall that sometimes exists between artist and audience. In fact, from the stage, Kosoko engaged with renowned poet, Roger Reeves, as the two exchanged thoughts on notions of joy and trauma—before suddenly, launching into the actions of a séance. While the audience watched, Kosoko conjured what seemed to be his mother before eliciting motifs of the Middle Passage and drowning, set against lyrical poetry about loss, structural oppression, and privilege. The rapidity of his performative transitions contributed to a state of wonder and bewilderment, and possibly some confusion.

As the performance progressed, and as Kosoko (seemingly) progressively ignored the audience, I wondered if the artist was using the audience as witnesses to his performance of self-care. I’m all about self-care, but as sixty-five minutes inched forward, what also became clear were the ways in which Kosoko’s performance meant different things to different people. For example, when the artist asked the audience to consider the framework and far reaching consequences of whiteness, against a track of frenetic sound, his request was met with laughter. Or when people laughed when he made a joke about holding his black stick—that looked like a police baton.

For just over an hour, the artist played with, maybe even adeptly, a range of audience discomforts—as when he placed a microphone stand between his legs in an implicit gesture towards phallicism, or when he charged a white woman with the task of “taking care of the black baby [doll].” The woman benevolently agreed, yet the gesture might have backfired (or maybe it didn’t? Maybe that was his intention?) when at the end of the performance, when the artist had left the theatre, a baby-doll-holding woman asked audience members in her row, “what do I with this black baby?” Sadly, the meditations on cultural shifts, the care and mis-care of black babies, resurrection, and coloniality was lost in the cacophony of African spirituality and Western wizardry.

Seancer’s ended when Kosoko abruptly exited the stage, never to return. And Long Center staff hesitantly informed the audience that the performance “might” be over. While there may have been a brilliant goal underlying Kosoko’s Séancers, the gulf between intention and reception, left people wanting to applaud.

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