★★★★☆ - Delicious
Who are you? This is the important question asked during body percussion group Molodi’s dynamic presentation of “Paati,” an exploration of one woman’s quest to connect with her African American identity, showing now through March 8th at Majestic Repertory Theatre.
Members of Molodi use the full body as an instrument of percussion to create rhythm and harmonies and tell stories through a coalescence of different dance types including step, gumboot, tap, hip hop, and contemporary, as well as through singing, beatbox, and spoken word. The immersive show has a story theatre-like format, with short dramatic scenes, parables, and poetic narration interspersed with dance sequences that take us along on Paati’s search for self-realization.
Paati—which means to abandon—is a young woman who is disillusioned with her soul-crushing career and seeks more meaning in her life. She feels that her African identity, which she might express through her hairstyle, for example, is oppressed by the constraints of the corporate world and by society in general. This has taken a toll on her psyche, so she embarks on a trip to the motherland and attends a music festival in hopes of finding her cultural and genetic roots.
When a tour guide asks “What are you looking for,” she replies with a simple “More.” She participates in an ecstatic, trance-like dance which triggers a spiritual awakening and a duality within herself that allows her to feel and experience the struggles of her forbearers. A heart-rending tour of a museum that explores the history of the slave trade further triggers her genetic memory and awareness of ancestral suffering. She is able to abandon her surface identity and tap into the depths of her true soul.
Sublime actress/dancer Kishema Pendu abandons herself fully to the role of Paati as she takes her life-changing journey, and she and the rest of the cast are fully committed to the demands of the strenuous, high-energy dance pieces and the show’s emotional themes. Founders Jason Nious and Khalid Freeman, with dancers Malik Chunn, Yadiel Figueroa, Danielle Hicks, and Shamayne Young along with Pendu treat us to a stepping/clapping lesson at the beginning of the show to warm us up, and also to phenomenal dancing with the tribal-type rhythms and movement setting a hypnotic mood for the story. Each charismatic performer gets a solo and their moment to shine, and they even pull audience members on stage to take part.
On opening night a show program wasn’t offered so it’s not clear whether the direction, writing, choreography, and arrangement of the dance pieces are a collaboration of the cast members or a telling of Pendu’s personal experience or both. But the company uses the space well, there is beautiful and poignant poetry in the text, and a nice dramatic build to the tale with a moving climactic moment. The dialogue and narration could use more polish since it isn’t always clear how the dance sequences connect to the story, but the show is a very visceral experience and it’s good to go with the flow.
Thick rope is used throughout the production and as part of the set as profound imagery that works thematically on many levels. It’s not only a symbol of the historical ties that bind and that must be cast off in order for Paati to find her true identity, but also is a symbol of the invisible threads that connect her intuitively to her spiritual, ancestral past. The African American tradition of body percussion—which developed as a means of secret communication after drums were outlawed by slave owners— along with ecstatic dance is a powerful way to awaken the collective unconscious to ancestral identity.