The tenth annual Fireside at the Miles Memorial Playhouse presented Field Notes: dances in dire times on Saturday, February 9, 2019. Curated by choreographer, performer, educator and activist, Suchi Branfman, the production featured five works taking on social issues that are most relevant to what majority-minority groups encounter in this country. Mass incarceration, immigration and those effected during these “dire times” was a central theme.

Branfman is an amazing advocate for people who are incarcerated in federal and state penitentiaries. Choreographed by Branfman and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Janie told the story of MaryJane Richardson as it was related to Branfman during her visits. Janie, her nickname, was often called “that crazy bird lady” or “the bird whisperer” because she fed, rescued and built condos out of boxes for birds that were attracted to her cell. It was estimated that Janie rescued over 1,000 birds that included Finches, Sparrows, Black Birds and Ravens.

The main lighting was a single spot light held by Branfman-Verissimo as Branfman spoke Janie’s own words and made use of two black and white paintings. She separated each of the ten parts with bird calls made on a wooden flute. A large feather quill lay on the table where Branfman read from a book of Janie’s statements. It was a beautiful tribute to MaryJane Richardson who had managed to create a productive and humanitarian life inside her small prison cell.

Intentcity was an expressive look at this country’s immigration policy and the migration of people seeking a better life or asylum. As the title suggests, it looks at how they are imprisoned in tent cities while awaiting entrance in the US.  Created and performed by Primera Generación Dance Collective members Alfonso Cervera, Irvin Gonzalez, Patricia Huerta, and Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier, Intentcity makes use of traditional Mexican ponchos, sombreros, and orange prison garb to trace the perilous journey of migrants from their country of origin to the realities of what awaits them at the border. The work is well crafted and performed and would benefit with a larger space and full theatrical production elements. The music was both traditional and popular, but one of the more gut-punching audio recordings was a press conference conversation between a news reporter and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Intentcity hit its mark! It left me feeling very ashamed of and angry at my country’s current administration and our intentionally broken immigration policy.

Rosanna Tavarez is an extraordinary dancer and performer whose excerpt/work-in-progress, Her Name Was Miriam, also looked at the horrible effects this country’s immigration policy (or lack thereof) has on people who migrate here legally or as undocumented workers. Dressed in all black with shiny gold costume jewelry flashing in the light while flying around her neck and torso, we watched Tavarez dance sensually to Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way. She paused several times as the music became intentionally muffled but continued as it resumes. Part of the score was a conversation between Tavarez and her mother Lelia Tavarez about her early years in the US, working in a costume jewelry factory when unscheduled visits by Immigration officers would cause panic among the workers. It was one such visit that caused a woman named Miriam to jump to her death trying to escape the authorities. The solo was absorbing but I will wait to see how the work progresses before making any final conclusions.

IMG_20190209_201315 IMG_20190209_201423 IMG_20190209_201726 IMG_20190209_202505 IMG_20190209_202616 IMG_20190209_203012 IMG_20190209_203956 IMG_20190209_203959 IMG_20190209_205538 IMG_20190209_205556 IMG_20190209_205608 IMG_20190209_210654 IMG_20190209_210952 IMG_20190209_211004 IMG_20190209_211652 IMG_20190209_212302 Suchi Branfman’s “Angee’s Journey.” IMG_20190209_213023
, Cynthia Irobunda, Amy Oden, Anna Paz, Ernst Fenelon, Jr. In "Angee's Journey" - Photo: Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle

Processing Sugar Notes was also an excerpt/work-in-progress, choreographed by the multitalented dancer, performer, choreographer and educator Bernard Brown. The performer was the beautiful mover, Christopher Salango who entered dressed in a gray hoodie and black pants. As he crossed the space he strewed packets of processed sugar along its periphery. A gesture that repeated throughout this work where Salango paused and tapped the finger tips of one hand upon his right cheek, left me with the impression that the sugar might be a metaphor for cocaine or some other white powdery drug; the packets representing “nickel bags”? Performing to Absolutions by American jazz drummer and composer Max Roach, and the more electronic sounding Bern Rhythm by American record producer and visual artist Teebs, Salango moved between pure dancing and the collection of the packets into different piles. That shifting from story line to movement left me confused as to the intent of the solo. More to be revealed, I am certain.

The strongest and most complete work on the program was Angee’s Journey, choreographed by Suchi Branfman, “in deep collaboration with Ernst Fenelon, Jr. and the performers who included Fenelon, Branfman, Cynthia Irobunda, Amy Oden, Anna Paz, with Angee Fenelon and Jeremiah Fenelon. Angee Fenelon is the mother of Ernest Fenelon Jr. For a little over 14 years, Angee traveled from Los Angeles to visit her son in a prison near Sacramento by bus, two trains and a rental car. One way alone, the trip would take up to 14 hours and including the time she spent with her son, the round trip lasted just over 45 hours.

We hear Angee’s voice as she describes how she would stand in a restroom to freshen her face so that her son would not know that she had been crying. We hear the joy in her voice as she speaks about seeing him and finally being able to hold him, along with the heartbreak at leaving the prison without him. We do, however, get to listen as she describes his returning home following the 14-year separation from his family.

Angee’s Journey is a tale of one woman’s heartache, but it is also the story of thousands of other families separated by a broken justice system and designed for profit penal system. It was extremely moving to see Angee Fenelon walk across the stage supported by her son Ernest. She sits on the side lovingly watching as he performs so eloquently in a work that he helped create. The three women who joined him in a quartet were wonderful, but it was the expressions on Fenelon’s face and the way his body responded to the words being said that moved me beyond words. Though they were moving in unison, none but Fenelon was reliving what was being said.

Ernst Fenelon, Jr. is an incredible man and his is amazing success story. He is father to Jeremiah, an author, International Speaker, Transformational Life Coach, Moderator/Facilitator, Instructor/Educator, Mentor, Reform Activist and Homeschool parent. He met Branfman while incarcerated and Angee’s Journey was a true testament to how art can help heal, to an artist’s devotion, to preservation of one’s spirit, and to the power of a mother’s love.

For more information on Fireside at the Miles, click here.

Featured image: Primera Generación Dance Collective in Intentcity – Photo Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle