Jaamil Olawale Kosoko wants to manage our expectations. This is not a show. He announces it with a flourish, a playful kick of the leg, an example of the kind of showy performative gesture he won’t give us, even though he could. The piece has begun with the softest of soft opens – wandering into the auditorium with the lights still up, Kosoko eases us straight into a Q and A session. He’s chatty, enjoying his role as the evening’s host, showing off his enviably worn crushed velvet robe. Séancers, the latest piece of performance art from the Nigerian-American poet and live artist, is an exploration of Black identity through the creation of ritual space. Kosoko offers, in his words, an empathetic proposal: taking on the role of a medium, he will make contact with the Black dead and bring them into being. He hopes to connect with members of his own family. A framed portrait of his mother, who died when he was 16, sits on a table at the back of the stage; his brother was stabbed to death at the age of 22. By embodying paranormal phenomena, Kosoko attempts to communicate the grief of the radically oppressed; the scientifically unexplainable accessing the culturally inexpressible.
Kosoko seeks bothness, a non-binary mode of thinking about death and life, which finds presence in absence, and togetherness in loss. In speech, he is boldly cerebral, contextualising the ritual he is about to undertake in the framework of afro-pessimist ideologies and the work of feminist Black poets and philosophers. The choice to begin the piece with such a rigorous dissection of its practice is stimulating, but emotionally inaccessible, like reading the curator’s analysis before looking at the painting. It makes bothness feel more theoretical than lived – a head’s attempt to heal the wounds of a heart.
Maybe Séancers really isn’t a show, but it does contain the constituent parts of a great one, combining movement, song, spoken word and a shiver-inducingly eerie live sound design by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste. Kosoko returns again and again to the image of a Black body oppressed by external forces; Whether enveloped by a cloud of steam, writhing in a mask of a blonde white woman, or entangled in a swirling mass of tulle and tinsel, he is repeatedly overwhelmed and overpowered, until he sheds himself of external material and the process begins again. These transformations are marked by the repetition of phrases. I just wanted to be somebody else. The repetitions act as an emotional pulse; the circumstances and character of the spirits are never revealed, but with every instance of a phrase we feel their grief, anonymous but alive.
Kosoko saves longer sections of text for the words of Black activists. He recites poetry, delivering the entirety of Power by Audre Lorde. Here, the act of resurrection is applied to the revitalisation of words and ideas, the clairvoyant transference of their meaning into new space. In his final transformation, Kosoko stumbles down into the audience, miming to a recording of civil rights activist Ruby Sales speaking in 2016 on a spiritual crisis in White America. This moment feels like an achievement in both a theatrical and a spiritual bothness: Her words, calling for a new liberating white theology, carry significant ideological meaning; a Black body, snared in a mess of netting and detritus after an hour of painful movement and erratic performance, pulsates with extraordinary emotion. When the lights go down, Kosoko frees himself from one last constraint. The audience, left alone, clap an empty stage. Hanging above us are the small white nighties of children, frayed and burnt. Life / Death. Togetherness / loss.
Séancers was at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Brighton, as part of Brighton Festival, from 16-17 May. More info here.