Pillsbury House Theatre brings evening of 'theatrical jazz'

PaviElle French speaks to an empty theater during a monologue.
PaviElle French, who plays Flesh, speaks to an empty theater during a monologue in the final scene of "dat Black Mermaid Man Lady."
Lacey Young | MPR News

The Pillsbury House Theatre's new show, "dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show," is part performance, part ritual, steeped in black culture and tradition.

Creator Sharon Bridgforth says it's a deeply personal work about culture and identity. Performers sing, move, tell stories, call the audience to process, chant, holler back and build altars.

"'dat Black Mermaid Man Lady' honestly feels like who I am when I'm fully myself," she said.

Bridgforth grew up in Los Angeles, playing in the ocean, always feeling a little bit "other." Her parents' families had moved to California from the South during the Great Migration, she said, but they brought their Southern culture with them.

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"I have these distinct memories of parties where there's cooking, there's singing, there's dancing — somebody may be crying in the corner — there's repetition of things, like stories you've heard over and over and over," she said. "That's the ingredients I make work with."

Bridgforth works in a tradition known as "theatrical jazz": an aesthetic that incorporates the jazz principles of improvisation and the ensemble. While traditional Western European stage dramas involve precise blocking and lighting, Bridgforth's show gives the performers license to respond in the moment. The cues are more about emotion than lighting.

The cast of Black Mermaid rehearses in the Pillsbury House and Theater.
The cast of Black Mermaid rehearses inside the Pillsbury House and Theater in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"Really, it is a way of working in performance that releases constructs of time," she said. "In the way that I work, how that looks is: The past, the present, the future, the living, the dead, the unborn coexist. And very often you don't know until the end who's flesh and who's not."

Bridgforth draws inspiration from both Yoruba spirituality and New Orleans funerals. She said her shows don't limit themselves to the stage — they often take over the entire performance space.

"There will be processions, altar-building, there will be stories with lots of people talking at the same time, singing, movement, gestures — but what we're really doing is we're invoking community for the purpose of celebrating love," she said.

Actress Aimee K. Bryant is in the cast. Each performance, she said, is a collaboration between the artists happening in the moment — which means that each one is different. She smiles when she describes her part, which is both character and moral compass.

Aimee Bryant looks offstage toward director Ebony Noelle Golden.
Aimee Bryant, who plays Gospel, looks offstage toward director Ebony Noelle Golden while rehearsing.
Lacey Young | MPR News

"The character — and I'm using air quotes right now — is labeled as 'Gospel' in the script," she said. "My role in the piece is to tell the truth and to lay the groundwork and prepare the space for transformation."

Bryant has performed in other work by Bridgforth. She advises audiences to let go of their expectations of a narrative and simply let the images and words wash over them.

"Work in this kind of aesthetic is more about having an experience then about hearing a story from beginning to middle to end," she said.

Twin Cities actress and soul singer PaviElle French, who plays the part of "Flesh" in the piece, said she believes "dat Black Mermaid Man Lady" is a transformational production, both for her personally and for the audience.

"Some of the ancestors can inhabit me and bring through things that needed to said or needed to be done," she said.

PaviElle French, left, listens to director Ebony Noelle Golden
PaviElle French playing Flesh, left, listens to director Ebony Noelle Golden while rehearsing a scene.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The piece reveals truths that may at first be uncomfortable, she said, but can bring about healing.

"We have to honor who we are, and we have to be honest and accountable for the things that we're doing to numb ourselves from dealing with the feelings of life," she said. "And I think that Sharon's piece really does that, but in a way that will really suck you in and make you gush with emotion."

Ultimately, Bridgforth said, "dat Black Mermaid Man Lady" is about learning who you are and where you come from, so that you can create a better, more joyful life for yourself.