Documenting Silences in “A Meditation on Tongues”
One of the most exquisite aspects of Marlon Riggs’ iconic 1989 experimental film Tongues Untied, which explores Black gay male subjecthood at the height of the AIDS crisis, is the delicateness with which it deals with silence. The camera’s gaze lingers on faces– individual masks of stoicism or traded glances among pairs; anonymous or else recognizable ones like the legendary vogue dancer Willi Ninja’s– while in the background, we hear the low and resolute narration of Riggs or poet Essex Hemphill, or a heartbeat, or nothing at all.
The silence of the film imparts many things. It protects its subjects from disclosure and traffics in the forms of communication that exist beyond language. It captures willful public ignorance on matters of racism and homophobia. And it articulates affects that stand outside of language entirely, like pain, rage, longing, ecstasy, a love that dare not speak its name, abjection and sublimity. In the words of the original, as repeated by the dancers of “A Meditation on Tongues” at the ODC Theater, silence is a way to grin and bear… silence is my shield; it crushes… silence is my cloak.
Sage Ni’Ja Whitson’s “A Meditation on Tongues” treads lightly through the worldmaking of its film inspiration, capturing its affective landscape with those sublime silences and lines of poetry, like breath, sounding through darkness. The work begins as an inchoate procession through ephemeral queer spaces. First, we crowd the perimeter of the ODC commons lobby, where a tall figure in a skeletal Halloween mask, never named, vogues for us exuberantly. Then, we line the dark sidewalk outside to witness a moment of wordless intimacy between Whitson and collaborator Kirsten Davis, who press their faces together. Finally, we enter the theater through a side door following our guides, who recite the iconic line from Riggs’ film on the art of “snap-ology”: precision, pacing, placement, poise.
From there, it is a duet of urgent spoken word and motion: Whitson and Davis embody the voices and choice lines of the film while giving new physical meaning to its content. Brother to brother, brother to brother. The finger snapping becomes an intricate handshake evoking that socially sanctioned hypermasculine greeting, which continues on into a complex duet of grounded postmodern movement. I cannot go home as who I am. Whitson kneels in quiet prayer facing the theater’s brick wall. Tongues twisted so tight they entangle in my mind. Davis lies on their front in a crucifix shape, then lengthens and elevates their head and arms upward into graceful flight. When I die, honey child, my angels will be tall Black drag queens. Whitson makes their way backwards, fragilely, down the steps of the raked auditorium, treading into the unknown.
Throughout the dance, one speaks while the other moves, and thus they conjure a fleet of spirits like the documentary itself. But in this sense, they also never intervene in each other’s monologues, whether spoken or danced: rather, they walk past each other, acting alone, coexisting, only occasionally witnessing. In one poignant moment, Davis writhes and chokes on the floor in a humbling pain while Whitson serenely anoints them with blown bubbles. What is it we see in each other that makes us avert our eyes so quickly?, Riggs asks in the film. Do we turn away from each other in order to not see our collective anger and sadness?
“Meditation” responds to Tongues Untied as a document of Black gay life and death in the way a dancer knows how: through physical navigations of its themes. It creates affinity across queer subjecthoods by giving new voice and body to the spectral characters of the film, in that the original’s cis-male perspectives are retold through these dancers’ own genderqueer forms. In interviews Whitson speaks to the urgency of this intervention in their effort to re-vision Tongues Untied due to the “still-present absence” and “invisibility of gender-nonconforming and lesbian bodies” in the discourse surrounding intersections between racism and homophobia. In this way, “A Meditation on Tongues” utilizes live performance’s insistence on the presence of the body to insist on the presence of these bodies, and thus fill one unexamined silence of Tongues Untied.
We might choose to consider another absent presence in the spectral conjuring of “A Meditation on Tongues,” which is the rootedness of its subject matter in the Bay Area, even as it has traveled across stages over the years. Riggs lived for over a decade in Oakland; he studied and then taught at Berkeley, and today his archives are housed nearby in the Stanford University Libraries. “A Meditation on Tongues” invites us to revisit this landscape as itself made up of Black and queer space– on this street corner, in that familiar entryway. And it trains the ear to the many forms silence takes, from deafening absence to the exquisite failure of words.
Sariel Golomb is an Oakland-based dancer, writer, and PhD candidate in Theater & Performance Studies at Stanford University.