OTI Online
Fall 1993

A BODY OF STORIES
Dance Theater, Healing, and Empowerment
A review by Eva Yaa Asantewaa


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: The child is born at midnight, a time of no time between the dark shores of two distinct days.Tlie young mother can't understand why she is being badgered to choose a proper birthtime for the certificate - 11:59 or 12:01 ? She just wants to know if her baby, the child she will soon give away, is a boy or a girl. Exhausted, she finally settles on 12:01. Moving forward means hope.

Supported by the members of her performance troupe, Urban Bush Women, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar tells a theater audience her bittersweet story of giving this baby girl up for adoption and reuniting with her many years later. In LJfeDancelll... The Empress (Womb Wars), Zollar explores issues of women's oppression and empowerment. The African-rooted way of life, so often evoked in this African-American company's work, here again forms the basis for compelling, kaleidoscopic theater integrating the personal and the political, the ancestral and the contemporary.

On The Issues Magazine - James Adlesic and Kathy Westwater in Merian Soto and Pepon Osorio's HISTORIAS (1992)

In its bravery, Womb Wars may remind some viewers of Alice Walker's searing novel, Possessing The Secret of Joy, a crusade against the practices of female genital mutilation and infibulation. Womb Wars takes up women's cry against sexual violence, medical butchery, and the denial of women's rights to control our own bodies. Zollar made the choice to go public with personal experiences because, she says, "the stories I tell are other women's stories, more women than I'd ever imagined. I think women have thought 'This is something that's happening just to me, and I have to cope with it.' Every woman I know has been through some kind of sexual abuse. It used to be a dirty, deep, dark secret."

Zollar's LifeDance series takes its inspiration from the Major Arcana of the Tarot. This latest installation, Womb Wars, derives its vision from The Empress, a matriarchal symbol of divine spirit in matter, expressed in the fertility and diversity of the natural world. In Zollar's Tarot readings, The Empress kept coming up reversed, a sign she related to unresolved issues around her abortions.

"I started reading about the tradition of the abiku [a Nigerian religion that has influenced many spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices throughout the African diaspora] in Yoruba. The abiku spirit is born to die, does not want a full life. If you are at all ambivalent about carrying life, this kind of spirit might be drawn to you."

In Womb Wars, Zollar calmly but firmly counsels a friend to perform her own natural abortion - using herbs and acupressure - and to spiritualize it with candles, crystals, and chants. In this way, she advises, the woman may affirm the spirit's right to leave and her own right to choose to help it do so. It is a very African approach, Zollar realizes, stressing the nature of abortion as a transition like any other requiring a spiritual process - some rite of passage, of mourning and releasing.

"The antiabortionists imagine that abortion is a flip thing," Zollar says. "They imagine a woman thinks, 'Oh, I'm pregnant! I think I'll go have an abortion!'" But proponents of choice, she feels, fear giving antiabortionists ammunition. She hopes that other people who support a woman's right to choose will not misunderstand her meaning, her interest in the complexities behind the decision to abort a fetus.

On The Issues Magazine - Womb Wars

"I don't see the political and the spiritual as being separate," she explains. "Among people of color and within feminist spirituality today, it's a political act to be aware of yourself and to carry your spiritual traditions with you."

Launched in 1984, Zollar's group Urban Bush Women has become known for its celebration of the survival of African culture throughout the diaspora, manifested in religion and folklore as well as popular and theatrical dance, music, visual arts, and the spoken word. Zollar has worked with many noted figures in the arts - among them, filmmaker Julie Dash (who directed the film Daughters of the Dust as well as the nationally-televised film of Zollar's Praise House) and performance artists Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley. Last year, Zollar and her ensemble received a BESSIE (New York Dance and Performance) Award for their entire body of work. Through extensive touring to perform, teach, and offer interactive community engagements, the ensemble has won national and international acclaim.

Here in New York City, Urban Bush Women performances are always eagerly anticipated, especially by those who value the company for its vision of women's strength, creative brilliance, compassion, sensuality, and solidarity. In an intriguing section of Zollar's Nyabinghi Dreamtime - a work-in-progress which dips into the non-linear, spiritual consciousness of die Nyabinghi Rastafarian tradition of rural Jamaica - the choreographer suggests the existence of an unknown 13th tribe descended from the Biblical Jacob. The source of this line, she was once told, is not one of Jacob's sons but, rather, a daughter. And the tribe, as Zollar might have dreamed, is a tribe of women - 13 - the number that inspires fear in all but those who honor the Goddess. Zollar wisely asks, "Now, what if women were to reclaim that power, the power of the 13th tribe?"

Historias, a multimedia work by choreographer Merian Soto and visual artist Pepon Osorio, deals with controversial features of Puerto Rican history such as slavery and police brutality, Soto says, "from the perspective of our amnesia as colonized people." The work, developed last year in several residences, has been seen either in its entirety, or in condensed form, at many venues around the nation.

Recently, Soto and Osorio presented excerpts from Historias' concluding section in New York. This segment addresses the decades-long nightmare of sterilization of the women of Puerto Rico under the U.S. government's population control policy. It is estimated that 38 percent of all women of childbearing age on the island have undergone sterilization, many because of pressure and intimidation, lack of adequate information, or lack of access to birth control options. The policy, initiated in the 1930s, is widely regarded as the consequence of an attitude that blames poor women of color for the economic and social problems of their communities.

In the dance, the bodies of women absorb a trauma while their minds have been put to sleep. Like astral bodies, these expressionless forms slip away from the flesh-and-blood objects thrashing on the floor. Recovering from their surgery, the women seem haunted by the notion that something is very wrong about them. This evokes, too, the "amnesia" of which Soto speaks. Historias is meant to be a gift of awakening and remembering.

"I work a lot with improvisation, energy modes, accessing emotional states," Soto explains. "All of our emotions are in our bodies, and we can channel that. There is a history of our bodies."

On The Issues Magazine - Womb Wars

The body must also be the site of emotional healing, as the dance suggests in its beautiful conclusion. A wave of dancers advance across the stage. One member of eachs ame-sex pair holds and softly comforts the other, knowing and remembering and guiding the waking body with compassion.

Like Urban Bush Women, Soto and Osorio make it a priority to work with communities, and their work thrives on public interaction and feedback. When they tour, they invite local performers to appear in their works, contributing their own insights and material After performances, they take the time to engage their audience in discussions about what they saw.

One male high-school student who saw the conclusion of Historias said, "I was totally disgusted when I saw two guys hugging each other, and then I tried to remember the last time my father hugged me. It made me realize we hadn't been close." Another member of the audience felt moved to speak out about being a victim of birth control experiments in Puerto Rico that had left her sterile.

When one woman, bewildered by Historias, asked, "Is there no joy in Puerto Rico?" the artists took her question seriously and thought it over.

"But we decided that we would not change the piece to make it happier," Soto asserts. "It's said [about Puerto Ricans] that we're the people who save the best jokes for the wake. We face adversity with humor.

In this piece, we didn't want to do that In order to become whole, to move on, we have to first work on the pain."

Jawole Zollar notes that artists have been speaking out more about experiences of child abuse, rape, and other traumatic histories that were once cloaked in silence and shame. She wonders why it has taken dance so long to begin to tell these stories. Both she and Merian Soto demonstrate how artists - particularly artists who know and honor the body - can reclaim the ancient, earth-rooted role of healer as the shield of our individual and societal denial begins to crack.


Eva Yaa Asantewaa, a freelance writer and dance journalist based in New York City, teaches writing meditation and stress management for people with HIV-AIDS, women in shelters, and organizations in the lesbian community, She is the founding director of Spirit Center, holistic education for women.


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