An Abolitionist’s Soul Goes Marching On, Rowdily

Dean Moss’s ‘johnbrown,’ at the Kitchen

From front left, Cassie Mey, Sari Nordman and Kacie Chang in "johnbrown," a history-based episodic work by Dean Moss at the Kitchen. Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times


One of the most memorable sections of Dean Moss’s “johnbrown,” at the Kitchen, involves two reflective boards: white on one side, Mylar on the other. Mr. Moss and the dancer Kacie Chang are each responsible for one. With magicianlike swiftness, they display the boards this way and that, rotate and swivel them, roll and leap over them. Sometimes, the Mylar, as if opposing our gaze, blinds us with a sudden glare. Are they shields or weapons, these two-sided props? Ms. Chang, left alone onstage, ultimately rips hers to shreds and storms away.

This segment, “irregularities,” is one of seven in the elegantly and rowdily episodic “johnbrown,” which examines the legacies of John Brown, the 19th-century white abolitionist who led an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. (The sections are named for articles in Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858.) Far from re-enacting history, Mr. Moss layers national narratives and personal narratives, moving bodies and moving images, haunting songs and heated conversations in ways that leave us contemplating the future by way of the past.

This owes much to a cohort of teenage production assistants, five young women who, while seemingly peripheral to the six excellent performers, really aren’t at all. We don’t meet them until after the first section (“vacancies”), a riveting solo for Cassie Mey, who is already sitting onstage when we arrive. In utter silence, she stands up and faces the back wall, rises slowly onto relevé and bourrées backward, her arms wafting behind her. Through simple, sustained, vigilant poses — extending one leg to the side, drawing it back in — she conjures an effect of growing and shrinking, of gaining and losing courage, as sounds of war shatter the silence.

Then come the assistants, equipped with an artificial grass rug and a tiny stool, the set for “treaties of peace,” in which Mr. Moss, who is black, and Julia Cumming, who is white — and, at 18, about 40 years his junior — recite a scene from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Mr. Moss, seated below her, wears nothing but a leafy garland and a black thong, which is not the only time he puts himself in a compromised position. In the longest, harshest scene, as violence escalates, he is the one most brutally attacked with mirrors, miniature versions of the ones we’ve seen, though Asher Woodworth, the most John Brown-like figure, also takes a heavy beating.

Nor is it the work’s only interracial or intergenerational relationship. In a wickedly funny film, Brown (Pete Simpson) and Frederick Douglass (Okwui Okpokwasili) argue over the best way to end slavery. Douglass critiques Brown’s infatuation with pubescent girls; Brown envies Douglass’s romance with his white wife (Tymberly Canale). There are real dialogues, too, like the recorded one between Mr. Moss and his father, Harold G. Moss, who was the first black mayor of Tacoma, Wash.

There’s no easy unraveling of all this, and Mr. Moss, thankfully, doesn’t try. His “johnbrown” ends with those youthful assistants — who have dutifully cleaned up the mess that ensued — seated in a circle, chatting and laughing about nothing in particular.