A frumpy grandmother in a pink bathrobe stands by her rocking chair and laundry basket. "I didn't take my grandmother very seriously when I was growing up," says a man's voice. "She just seemed like so many other grannies, uh, mammies. . . ."
Soon, the grandmother begins to shamble across the stage as a line of women and men in tank tops and shorts enters.
David Rousseve steps up to a microphone and begins a chatty, funny tale about the pet rat he had as a boy, until the story takes a turn that leaves his audience suddenly silent.
An a cappella voice begins to sing. Rousseve and a woman, in separate pools of light, begin to move. Clenched muscles and the body language of anger pour out of the two isolated dancers as a rap recording by Public Enemy blares.
The cuts come fast and furious in Rousseve's world. One minute you're watching theater. Then, it flips to performance art and, within minutes, dance. Actually, "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams" is all three, sometimes at once, and with music.
As Los Angeles audiences will see when that work is performed by Rousseve and his company REALITY at the Wadsworth Theater on April 8 and 9, it doesn't fit easily into any one category. Mixing mediums is essential to Rousseve's activist message.
Rousseve isn't out only to dazzle but also to get his audiences thinking. He's political, and his eclectic approach is more than just style. It's strategy.
It's the best way he's found to speak to as wide a range of people as possible about racism, misogyny, homophobia and AIDS.
"I couldn't make a piece that was only dance to save my life at this point," Rousseve says. "I can't take just that vocabulary and speak about issues. It's just not my voice."
Yet experimental as Rousseve may be, he's not elitist.
"My voice is a little more popish," he says. "(The mixing of styles) is an effort to keep the work accessible and to talk to as many different people in as many different languages as possible."
The more ways you come at an issue, his logic goes, the more chances there are for people to relate to what you're saying.
"I'd rather talk to . . . churchgoing African Americans, young gays and lesbians, middle class (people) and AIDS activists than just one (group). I want to preach to the unconverted too."
The late Thelma Arceneaux, a Creole descendant of a Louisiana slave who picked cotton for much of her life, was the basis for the grandmother character in Rousseve's "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams."
Arceneaux's 34-year-old grandson, the charismatic New York-based Rousseve came to Los Angeles recently to discuss what he describes as his "middle-class 'Sanford and Son'-watching black family in Houston." His "country" background, as he half-jokingly puts it, didn't include "any experimental theater."
Yet he went on to study theater at Princeton.
"I had never heard of the place, didn't know where New Jersey was, but they sent me an application because I had done well on national achievement testing for minority students," Rousseve says. "I actually went to Princeton because I thought I wanted to do musical theater. It wasn't for academics."
While there, Rousseve also took up dance, "just to complement the theater." Then, after graduating in 1981, he performed with several small New York modern dance companies, while acting on soap operas to make ends meet.
But something wasn't right.
"I was working with technically based modern dance companies and getting really frustrated with saying absolutely nothing with dance," he recalls. "That's when I started to do my own work, because I wanted to talk about issues of the heart, which also are political issues."
His first independent piece was a 1984 monologue about "African American self-hatred."
"All of my work since then has been text-based, which is shocking," Rousseve says. "I just couldn't go on without talking."
Rousseve first performed at New York's PS 122, a key downtown performance art venue, in 1987. "Then I switched from being a dancer who's choreographing a bit to being a choreographer who's dancing a bit," he says.
In 1988, Rousseve launched REALITY, which consists of the choreographer-writer-performer himself and six dancers, most of whom are female and African American. They are Aziza, Renee Redding-Jones, Sondra Loring, Kyle Sheldon, Julie Tolentino Wood and Charmaine Warren.
That same year, Rousseve and REALITY presented the first of what was to become a series of six works. These "Creole" works mesh the story of the grandmother with snapshots from contemporary life.
In the "Creole" series, events in the grandmother's life--including an impoverished Southern childhood, the death of a husband and the rape of a sister--are intercut with anecdotes from the artist's own experiences. He draws analogies between the lynching deaths of an earlier America and deaths from AIDS today.
The visuals in the series range from solo performance minimalism to spectacle theater's abstract collages. The dance blends hip-hop with modern. The music ranges from Marvin Gaye to Queen Latifah to gospel and "house." And it's all mixed together in a hip kaleidoscope of scenes that change quickly enough even for MTV-age attention spans.
The last work in the series, "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams," premiered in Chicago and has also been seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, with local dancers and singers added in each city. The New York Times called it "initially exasperating but ultimately shattering."
In Los Angeles, Rousseve and REALITY will be joined in "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams" by six guest L.A.-based dancers and a choir from L.A.'s Guidance Church of Religious Science. Ysaye Barnwell, known for her work with Sweet Honey in the Rock, composed gospel music for singer B. J. Crosby, who portrays the grandmother. The house music is by Don Meisner.
Although he performed in San Diego in 1992 as part of the "Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century" series, this Los Angeles engagement will be Rousseve and REALITY's first here since 1991, when the artist was commissioned to create a work for the opening of downtown's then-newly restored Bradbury Building. The Times' Lewis Segal wrote that "Had Me Somebody but I Lost Her Very Young," set in the 1930s, exploring the history of Creole culture in Louisiana, "grounds the obvious novelty of site-specific dance-spectacle in profound historical and religious experience."
The "Creole" series was instrumental in helping Rousseve and REALITY hone their particular brand of dance theater.
"As we've been working with this series, we've also developed a form--a fusion of text, movement and visual imagery," he says. "When I put all the elements together, we get a more powerful statement than any one on its own."
It's as current a look as you could ask for, at once avant-garde and pop, combining contemporary African American culture with postmodernism. Rousseve's work also bears a resemblance to the kind of hybrid fare enjoying a vogue in the United States and Europe during the past decade, typified by the work of such auteurs as David Gordon, Pina Bausch and Yuri Lyubimov.
But Rousseve is up to more than that. For though Gordon, Bausch and Lyubimov have a lot in common with Rousseve, they aren't, spiritually speaking, his artistic next of kin. To find them, you'd have to go back to the 1920s, and directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator, both of whom used then-revolutionary theater, music and media collages to speak to topical concerns.
Yet it is also the precision of Rousseve's interdisciplinary craft--and his awareness of the pratfalls of autobiographical and political art-making--that sets this artist apart from many of his contemporaries.
"Some dance that is sincere gets really indulgent because it's lacking on a craft level," he says. "The more we try to speak on issues, the more tendency there is for melodrama, so I try to add more shape and structure."
Many may attempt to meld performing styles, but not all are as concerned about the written component as is Rousseve. He begins by zeroing in on the issues he wants to address: "That's what drives me. Then I take those ideas and develop a character and a text."
But not just any kind of text will do.
"There's so much text being used in dance work now, but it's not text that is written for actors: It's more for a dance piece," Rousseve says. "The text that we use is not text for dancers in a dance piece. It's informal. There are monologues."
"Child, everybody got somethin' in life they loves more than theyselves," says the grandmother's voice, spoken by Rousseve. "Me, I had two great loves . . . . When I lost them, seem like I los' my stars and my moon. . . . But let me jest go back and I'll tell you about how I lost them both so young. . . . "
When Rousseve combines the text with dance, the two reinforce each other.
"In the beginning we tried acting out the stories," he says. "Then we found that we could take the story or scene and say it and also have an abstract visual that deals with the subtext.
"By doing this fusion of dance and theater, it keeps people's attention. I get bored sitting in an evening of just dance or just musical theater. Also, I can speak more deeply on political issues without turning people off."
In fact, Rousseve, who speaks most of the text himself, pays so much attention to matters of expression partly because he knows he's treading on volatile ground. The issues, after all, aren't easy, and there are many startling images, including lynching and rape, in "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams."
"Experimental theater is challenging for a traditional audience," Rousseve says. "And a lot of the white audiences are challenged by the very blatant in-your-face use of African American pop culture. It's a little jarring, and it does have artistic repercussions."
Nor does the minefield end there.
"There are issues of sexuality mixed in with issues of racism," Rousseve continues. "A lot of people are not used to nudity on the stage; it can be a major issue for African American audiences. Just the word AIDS and AIDS-related issues, especially in the beginning, were very challenging for the church choirs."
But because it's so important to Rousseve to speak to such topics, he pays particular attention to dramatic craft.
"If I came out right away saying, 'People are dying of AIDS; it's really heartbreaking,' there's no doubt that 99% of the audience would resist," Rousseve says. "But if you can have them being joyous, then catch them a little off-guard, they're more likely to be on the journey with you."
"I had this rat when I was young," Rousseve begins. "And it was just your normal white rat . . . except for my rat was 'flicted, which is black English for 'messed up real bad.' . . . And I would just stroke my rat and love my rat and I would just think, 'Everybody gots something in life they loves more than theyselves.' . . . But then the people started dyin . ' . . . And nobody cared because instead of 'flicted animals, this time it was 'flicted people: gay people and black people and drug users and poor people. . . . At first they were calling it gay cancer. And by the time they knew what it was, it was too late because everybody was gone."
Each time Rousseve and REALITY set out into a new community for the two-week residencies that precede performances of "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams," there are trepidations.
"I'm always scared to introduce 'Urban Scenes' to the new local dancers and choirs," he says.
"What's been so inspiring so far is that in every city, there have been people from the widest range of backgrounds who I know have never stood next to each other on a stage before. The mixture of race and gender issues could have been a failure, but people have come together and made it a real celebration of what unites us. And that's been a real testament to what theater can do."
Solo voice: "Did you know it make a sound when a gentle heart get broke? Oh yah, now it sure do. And if you stand all alone in the silent night breeze . . . you'll hear the callin' natural sounds of a thousand hearts that broke."
Gospel choir: "You know the troubles of the world fill our hearts with rage
"From Soweto to Stonewall, Birmingham and L.A.
You know we're searching for hope that lies within ourselves
As we fight against misogyny, race hatred and AIDS."
* "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams," Wadsworth Theater, VA Grounds, Brentwood. April 8-9 , 8 p.m. $25-$28. (310) 825-2101.