Circuit City | photo by Johanna Austin | austinart.org | courtesy of FringeArts
Moor Mother’s Camae Ayewa imagines the future of liberation in Circuit City
Last Thursday, FringeArts premiered the first original theater work by Philadelphia-based poet, activist and noise musician Camae Ayewa. Since 2012, Ayewa’s music as Moor Mother has integrated industrial noise and Afro-futurist improvisation with fiery spoken-word poetry and rap lyricism. Her past work, including on the acclaimed 2016 album Fetish Bones, has addressed police brutality, intergenerational traumas, and the formation of race politics in the internet age. For her new work Circuit City, Ayewa turned her attention to the affordable housing crisis and the corporatization of American cities. FringeArts described the production as “a futuristic exploration — part musical, part choreopoem, part play — of public/private ownership, housing, and technology set in a living room in a corporate-owned apartment complex.”
The stage offered a space less like a set and more like a platform for the performance, which leaned heavily on poetry and music with just a few short scenes of dialogue to provide the structure of a story. Set pieces were few: just enough furniture to accommodate Ayewa and two other cast members, Elon Battle and Hillaria Goodgame. Upstage stood two raised platforms for the show’s instrumentalists — one for the electronic musicians Ada Adhiyatma (Madam Data) and Steve Montenegro (Mental Jewelry), and one for the members of Irreversible Entanglements, a free jazz group from New York and Philadelphia with whom Ayewa has worked previously. At stage right stood a tall silver capsule, something like an elevator or time machine, which later glowed with multicolored lights; opposite at stage left stood a lone microphone stand where Ayewa delivered her poetry.
The show opened on Ayewa and Battle seated in their living room, thrilled that they had finally repaired an old record player, trading ideas about which records to spin on it. Ayewa referred to the free jazz works of Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, and others as “liberation technologies.” As soon as Ayewa set the needle down on vinyl, the band sprung to life behind her. Bassist Luke Stewart‘s upright boomed and drummer Tcheser Holmes let loose on the kit as horn players Aquiles Navarro and Keir Neuringer improvised harsh lines that interlocked like barbed wire. Compelled by the band, Ayewa picked up the mic and began a poem with her eyes closed. “There’s been so much trauma, so much trauma I don’t even know where to start. I got my mama’s years and my daddy’s years all mixed up deep inside of me.” Montenegro’s space-age synth warbles rose to the surface and Adhiyatma added bass clarinet overtones hovering just above Ayewa’s words. As Stewart and Holmes converged on a steely groove, the text turned to the present. “The way they house us, the way they make home a dream, a wish, anything but a human right. […] That’s Circuit City, being forced to work for a machine that’s so big you can’t even see it.”
As in many traditional musicals, the various poems and songs throughout the show served as contemplative responses to new plot points, distillations of the scenes that proceeded them; Ayewa herself seemed most comfortable when she was at the mic. The show’s music ventured through several realms of experimentalism, from unbounded free jazz to bubbly funk to restless odd-meter RnB. One of the final numbers featured a sultry vocal performance by Battle.
Ayewa’s script eschewed exposition in favor of immediacy, which made the work feel more like a poetic text than a play; as an audience, we arrive in the middle of the action. Ayewa and Battle’s characters never revealed the details of their past (or their characters’ names), but from the start they focused on their plan to leave behind the suffocating apartment complex Circuit City, which stood among neighboring complexes named for Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and other commercial giants. Their dialogue came off as casual, loose and conversational, and both main characters dressed in streetwear: sneakers and sweatpants. The characters’ relative anonymity contributed to the story’s universality, especially as the struggle to secure private space has become so common in America’s cities — Ayewa herself grew up in a public housing project in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Later in the show, the text moved from a critique of capitalism and material oppression to a more abstract meditation on economies of space and time. An essay by Rasheedah Phillips “commissioned in conversation with” Circuit City points out that “systemic and individual discrimination” in the housing market establish a poverty of space in minority and LGBTQ communities, just as the pressures of working for hourly wages establish “temporal ghettos” where residents do not possess enough time to live freely. (Together, Phillips and Ayewa fight gentrification in the Philadelphia community as directors of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective.) The characters in Circuit City yearned for temporal freedom just as they yearn for a space of their own. Late in the play, Battle sang, “We will return to a time with no time / We are not disposable.” At one point, Ayewa even offered up an alternative framework for measuring time, which might obfuscate its scarcity. “Linear history is bullshit,” she explained. “See, in African time, the past is intermingled with the present.”
The whole show seemed to take place in a single moment in a single room, which added to the surreality of the story. Although the characters did not draw any definite conclusions, in that moment they found what Ayewa wants everyone to find: space to think.
Circuit City‘s run concluded on Saturday, and FringeArts announced that recordings of the production will later be released as an album. FringeArts also published a digital playbill for Circuit City and an interview with Camae Ayewa earlier this month.