Providence, R.I.-based Everett Company (formerly Everett Dance Theatre) wants to know how America has transformed the “land of the free” into a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and what that means for those trapped in the system.
This small, unique company brings its most recent work, The Freedom Project — a multi-media examination of the human tragedy of mass incarceration and the remarkable resilience of the human spirit — to the Aronoff Center Nov. 6 and 7. The performance opens Contemporary Dance Theater’s 2015-2016 season.
The cast features dancer/performer Grace Bevilacqua, spoken-word poet Christopher Johnson, parkour expert James Monteiro, Hip Hop choreographer/dancer Sokeo Ros, creator/performer Ari Brisbon and Everett co-director and The Freedom Project director Aaron Jungels, a longtime choreographer and dancer.
“Everett picks complicated subjects and then makes the most delightfully insightful work about it,” says CDT Artistic Director Jefferson James, who has invited the company to perform in Cincinnati multiple times over the years. “They’ve dealt with social issues by examining subjects like science, how the brain works, immigration, man’s amazing ability to imagine and explore and now with man’s inhumanity to man in The Freedom Project.”
“I’ve always been interested in the variety that exists in contemporary dance — the pure movement work, the narrative dances, the totally abstract work and the dances that comment on the society, both good and bad, in which we live,” James continues. “A season with only one type of contemporary dance would be a mistake, I think.”
The subject is timely. In July, President Obama toured a federal prison and afterward spoke of the damage our criminal justice system has done to Americans — especially men of color — and consequently to their families and communities.
“If you are a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society,” Obama said at the NAACP’s 106th Annual National Convention. “You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence.”
When asked how the 80-minute collage of videotaped interviews, movement and music that Jungels directed came together, he explains that The Freedom Project was researched for two years. The narrative arc of the performance is derived from interviews from both experts on the process of the criminal justice system and from the diverse, low-income Providence neighborhood in which Everett is based, where life-long entanglements with the criminal justice system are endemic.
Since 1990, the company has offered classes and programs for free to those who can’t afford to pay, and company members now include these former students, some of whom have toured with the company for more than 10 years. Many of their vivid stories and those of others who have worked with Everett through the years are threaded through The Freedom Project.
James Monteiro shares the experience of growing up as a problem child without his father, who was incarcerated. But the story is about overcoming the odds, as his father eventually comes back into the community as a leader trying to help kids. As Monteiro talks, he makes his way around piles of cinder blocks that serve as a stage set, with parkour — the urban training movement based on military obstacle courses that takes strength and agility — echoing the obstacle course of his life.
“I’m sure you have heard of the prison pipeline,” Jungels says. He talks about a 12-year-old who is already in trouble with the police. His mother is on drugs, his father is not around, he doesn’t have a family structure and he’s very poor. “All of these things come to bear on decisions he’s making,” Jungels says. “In our research on the subject, he’ll say, ‘I’m not a bad kid, it’s just the way my life is. I can’t see anything different.’ ”
Jungels points out that many are disadvantaged from the beginning. “They are not given opportunities, [but] simply ushered down the path. It seems as a society we don’t want to pay money up front, but afterward we are happy to incarcerate. And until recently, it hasn’t been questioned.”
Christopher Johnson’s history (some of which is recounted during The Freedom Project) includes incarceration and harrowing tales of gangs and shootings in Newark, N.J. — aka Brick City — named after the style of building construction, but also for a violent culture known for large amounts of crack cocaine.
Today, he is an internationally known poetry slam champion who teaches workshops to young people. When he first met Jungels, Johnson had been coming to perform his work at open mic nights at the Everett space in Providence for years.
He’d taught a class for a youth prison on how to pass standardized testing using spoken-word poetry, and after showing Jungels his work, he was invited to contribute to The Freedom Project.
“The way the performance is set up now, everything is woven together,” Johnson says. “It’s like if you are watching a movie and you’re trying to figure out five characters, when the only thing they have in common is that they visit the same café every morning.”
In the final redemptive scene of the show, another actor reads one of Johnson’s poems.
He remembers seeing it in rehearsal for the first time. “Usually I’m super-critical,” he says.
But, this time, seeing it as an audience would, he was amazed by how well The Freedom Project had come together.
“It was magical. This performance is a storybook. You are actually seeing a storybook. I’ve never done something so beautiful before.” ©