DANCE : A Test of Faith : Choreographer Bill T. Jones confronts religion, racism and AIDS in 'The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin'

Choreographers have rarely spent their creative energies exploring the open-ended question of religious faith. The subject, it seems, has never been particularly in vogue.

Yet, Bill T. Jones, in his newest work, "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," does exactly that. The three-hour, post-modern spectacle also looks at other big subjects such as freedom and racial anger.

Jones has reason to ponder the old question. Not only is there the continuing problem of racism in contemporary America, festering in cities of all sorts, but also the carnage caused by AIDS, which in 1988 took the life of Arnie Zane, his personal partner of 17 years, with whom he founded Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co.

The rock upon which Jones began his search was the faith of his 77-year-old mother, born in rural Georgia, who moved with Jones' father to Upstate New York to give their children opportunities they never had.

" 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is a dialogue with my mother's faith," Jones said between rehearsals during the Seattle stop on the company's national tour, which comes to UCLA's Royce Hall Thursday through Saturday.

"Her faith is unshakable--like most of the ministers I have interviewed for this piece." ("Uncle Tom's Cabin" devotes a segment to a talk between Jones and a local minister.)

"That kind of faith defeats logic, which is one of the reasons we do the section called 'Faith.' In a high-art context, a concert context, can we conjure up this basic creature, a person of faith? What do they look like?

"My mother's faith carried her for 70 years. She has an answer. It may not be mine. Maybe I am lacking something, but I cannot just adopt it either. That is why she is in the piece. She is a sounding board."

Like several others, including John and Sage Cowles, members of the well-known publishing family, and rapper R. Justice Allen, Estella Jones is a guest artist in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her prayers and gospel songs are done in counterpoint to Jones' solo dancing.

"It is a real charge for me to dance next to her every night," Jones says. "She says, 'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am so proud to be here, I want you to sit still, sing a song and say a prayer. Please Lord, please help my son and his dancers and these musicians in whatever they are trying to do. Please give my son the strength he needs.'

"It is very basic, and I dance to it," Jones says. "It is an African-American style of prayer--rhythmic, repetitive, half-song, half-spoken. Is this high art, in a Eurocentric context, a dance concert? How do we understand it? Do we look at it as an art form? Is this a post-modern dialectic?

"The issue is one of power, of who owns culture, what is a valid expression of culture, what is high art, what is low art, what is not art."

While Jones' mother's faith is loving and all-embracing, that of Jones' brother and sister-in-law, who live in Seattle, is not quite so tolerant.

In Jones' conversation with the Rev. Lyn Walker at opening night of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in Seattle, the choreographer revealed the two refused his invitation to attend a performance, saying they had read that it dealt with subjects they preferred not to consider.

Among the things that might have offended them are the naked love-in of the 10 members of the Jones company, along with some guest artists and about three dozen local performers; the violent encounter between the white Lulu and black Clay from Amiri Baraka's "The Dutchman"; and dog-men, clad in muzzles, G-strings and T-shirts, brutalizing a woman.

Jones obviously does not embrace the same face of Christianity as his family.

"I am a humanist, as all Christians are supposed to be," he says. "For me, the bottom line is commonality. It is the only thing I accept. I don't even know if a soul exists. But I do know there is a condition called humanity that we are a part of, with wonderful potential for good and evil. I believe in limited free will. God? I believe there is an intelligence in the universe, but I don't believe in absolute morality, in sin."

Regardless of the condition of Jones' faith, his mother takes pride in her son's latest work, according to the choreographer.

"I was introspective as a child, and someone told her I was going to be a preacher," Jones said. "I remember her smiling, her pride. To this day, she understood me as being different because I have a calling. I told her I became an artist. In this work, she sees me struggling with my conversion, praying for me. She is there to help me out. For other reasons as well--Arnie's passing, her fear about me. She knows the deal. That is what is going on in this work.

"You've got to go out in the world and spread the word. That is what she is saying. That is why it is so ironic and bizarre. There she is, dressed in her Sunday best, on stage with 50 naked people, taking a curtain call, and being ecstatic and proud. This is what her son did. It has to do with spreading God's word."

Nonetheless, Jones has lots of questions about the shape of his mother's faith.

"How did a kitsch reproduction of Leonardo's 'Last Supper,' a Northern Italian masterpiece of the late 15th Century, end up in my mother's living room? She didn't know the fame of the image, nor did she know where it came from. What she knew is that it represented her faith in God.

"Was Christianity, as we know it, imposed on black people? I keep asking her what the image means to her. She now knows it is a reproduction of a famous image, but that doesn't mean much to her. She accuses me of trying to start a fight with her. To her 'The Last Supper' is the symbol of what God looks like. When we were kids, I thought, 'What does that have to do with me?' This is the dilemma I think a lot of colonized people feel. But we bought it, they bought it.

"A couple of years ago in Los Angeles, I asked my mother what Christ looked like to her as a little girl in Georgia. I wanted her to be real specific. She said she was baptized at 6, was taken into the water screaming, and then fainted. Her mother said, 'Don't call me, call Jesus.'

"Jesus, she said, had a gray robe with sleeves that hung down and he had a beard. I was trying to get her to say that he was white or black. She said he looked like a regular person. What does that look like? She didn't elaborate."

While the inclusion of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" in the long title found its way there through long personal association with the choreographer, the use of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel was the result of a casual conversation in a dancer's hotel room in Clearwater, Fla.

"Arnie had a vision of Jessye Norman as Eliza (a character in Stowe's novel) on an ice floe," Jones said. "Then, we began talking about the novel no one had read."

Jones read the best-selling 19th-Century novel about the trials, suffering and human dignity of an old black slave, Uncle Tom, and liked its symmetrical form.

"I appreciated the book as an American document. Henry James, I think, called it a 'shaggy monster,' and claimed it wasn't literature but that it worked. That was condescension on his part, but the novel sold 300,000 copies in 1852 and helped abolish slavery. I read the book, like a lot of black people, with trepidation, but I found it compelling and not condescending.

"She thought black people would make great Christians because of their 'simplicity' and that Africa would be a great place for Christianity to flourish. Of course, I have some distance from the painful episodes in the book, but for my mother, those things are real.

"What can I tell you? We make fun of the novel a little, but Stowe is very compelling, full of fire and wants to tell the truth. She loves Uncle Tom.

"The book also says something about the liberal impulse in America," he said. "In the American psychology, there are the fundamental notions of freedom and acceptance. They are the linchpins of 20th-Century liberal philosophy. However, some of those liberal, educated people harbor deep prejudice at critical points."

The conclusion of the fifth and final section, "The Promised Land"--the gathering together of 52 naked, dancing bodies--came from a deck of cards owned by Sean Curran, a dancer in the company and Jones' assistant, entitled "52 Handsome Nudes."

"That was the original title of the last section," Jones said. "But then sponsors began to get nervous. It was early 1989 and the beginning of the (Jesse) Helms thing. We didn't want any censorship before we got there.

"And, what would we be saying with 'Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin featuring 52 Handsome Nudes?' The flippant title already is camp in a way. Arnie tended to be ironic while I am more literal. We changed it to 'The Promised Land.'

"Arnie and I always believed in collision in art, not collage. That is the title, a forced conjunction. You take this idea and ram into another idea or flop one idea next to the other. Sometimes they meld together and sometimes they don't."

Each of the sections was commissioned, Acts I and II co-sponsored by UCLA and UC Berkeley. (In November, 1989, Jones and his mother appeared at the Wadsworth as part of the "Black Choreographers" series in a work about faith and racism.) Premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival last fall, "Uncle Tom" has generally received good notices. Some say it sprawls, and it does, which Jones freely admits.

"It is episodic, nicely crafted. The stage pictures are nearly always engaging. It's OK if you go in and out of it. Sometimes it takes that long to get where you want to go. When you get to the 'Promised Land,' I think you will feel like you've been on a trip."

Other critics found the wildly happy conclusion unrealistic.

"One critic called the ending 'impossibly optimistic,' " Jones said. "But if there is any place where the impossible should happen, it should be in the realm of art. I don't know how I'd get from the angry diatribe of 'The Dutchman' to this last vision of everyone naked and singing together. I call it a leap of faith. You understand it when my mother does it, don't you, when she is praying? Can you understand me? But it's embarrassing when I expose myself like that. Right? Yes, I am supposed to know better. That is why the piece is an open declaration of war against cynicism.

"How dare Martin Luther King say, 'Free at last, free at last. Some day we will join hands like the old Negro spiritual, and we will say free at last.' Is that just that black charisma again which doesn't mean anything, catharsis that has no validity in the real world? Was he just shining us on, fooling himself? Was he a martyr for nothing? Was he Uncle Tom? No, of course not.

"How should I finish the piece? You're asking me what my faith is. What if I said I don't have one? But I do. 'The Promised Land' is my trying to get there, like my mother's prayers."

THREE REQUESTS

When it came to the musical score, the choreographer had a few requests of composer Julius Hemphill. Page 63

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