Weve seen many comedy skits about the physical changes gentrification has brought to predominantly black neighborhoods. Dog walkers and bicycle riders. Coffee shops and arugula consumption. But not many artists have tackled the topic with alternating humor and serious thought provoking dialogue connecting black culture and its sustainability through nomadic culture. Nor have they delved into the topic onstage with a funk-busting big band. Tonight at BRIC House Ballroom in Brooklyn at 8pm is the last showing of a work-in-progress by Brooklyn-based artists Aisha Cousins and Greg Tate and Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, directed by Letitia Guillory entitled Brer Rabbit The Opera: A Funky Meditation on Gentrification. The production explores trickesterism, techno-anismism and urban survival techniques through music, performance art and community engagement.
The story, according to Tate, centers around an Ivy League educated brother who comes to the neighborhood working as a corporate marketer. He tries to convert things that are culturally hip in the neighborhood into a commodity for corporations. There’s a song performed by Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber called “Stay Black and Die, Move and Multiply.” And the piece goes on from there in unforgivable blackness from the use of effigies of Harriet Tubman to Brer Rabbit as a computer virus, to going green and recycling. It’s a wild ride through our wilder times.
“Because it’s me I had to add a sci-fi, post apocalyptic element to it with a tsunami coming in to New York,” Tate reveals. “Global warming has got to this place were it’s 25 degrees in Jamaica and 75 in Antarctica.”
The band goes through about 12 pieces of music, improvising and funking the place up.
“We are working within the constraints of the piece,” says Tate. “But if you’ve heard us play, it sounds like us. It’s all genres. A lot of funk, a lot of improv, a lot of black noise.”
For both Cousins and Tate the theme of gentrification, of course, is personal. Cousins says that gentrification is just a fancy way of saying that people are getting displaced and/or being forced to assimilate.
“If you were in NY between 1975 and 1995 you were part of the end of an era,” says Tate. “Young artists were developed in a community of like-minded individuals. I looked up around 2007 and I was the last of the Mohicans. Being in DC in the 70s…Now DC is just ethnic cleansing.”
Somehow black culture continues to exist, the play illustrates –in the midst of motion, migration, oppression and healing. Tate says he fascinated by nomadic cultures that exist in Africa and black communities around the world. That there’s something fascinating about imagining these new neighborhoods; our ongoing sanctuaries.
“Black culture is indestructible and indomitable,” says Tate. “But black legacies are fragile, which is why we keep moving from one thing to one thing to one thing. We keep having eras that really have to do with flight and healing and being lured by the refugee and exile-minded. 150 years after slavery in NY, we are still unsettled. We are still fugitives. We are still runaways.”