The following is a review of AJ McClenon’s February 19th performance, “Led Zeppelin Can’t Steal My Daddy’s Black”, at Link’s Hall, as part of a Spring 2018 CO-MISSION Residency.
I have started crying in public. I can’t stop it. I’ve gotten used to going around town with a puffy face that’s salt-streaked with drying tears, letting everyone see what I have done. I used to think crying was one of the most painful things a person could do. I’m wondering now if this giving over to vulnerability is a signal of growth or an indication that I am more capable of acknowledging and experiencing painful things.
Who knows. This is not about me, although I am very good at making things about me.
This is about the performance by AJ McClenon called Led Zeppelin Can’t Steal My Daddy’s Black that focuses on the experience and acknowledgment of painful things.
Of course, there is also joy—the performance is, in part, a celebration of AJ’s father’s life—but AJ does not shy away from detailing AJ’s father’s flaws, their fraught relationship, or the pain of AJ’s father’s death, which came too soon after their renewed relationship.
The performance was the culmination of a Co-MISSIONS Residency at Links Hall. AJ initially intended to use the residency to develop a new part in the series, Black Water: Polarity, Sharks, Adolescence and Being the Darkest Girl in the Pool, which explores the multiple significances of water in black culture. Then AJ’s father was hospitalized. AJ went home for the last few weeks of his life, returned to Chicago, and started working on this piece instead. Two months later, AJ debuted the performance at Links Hall. It was fresh and pained, raw with emotion and vulnerability.
Can’t Steal My Daddy’s Black is staged in multiple acts with performers Jamillah Hinson and Simone Simone performing as “sisters” and accompanied by Xris Espinoza on the saxophone. It begins with two women dancing to a silent video of Leadbelly playing in the intimacy of someone’s home while AJ plays a distorted guitar that is supine on the floor. It segues into the sound of the women, now standing stationary, chanting the word black into the microphone one after another. It is a celebration of black culture and sound, where the chanting of the word black becomes a rhythm to which AJ dances. AJ moves from this dance into a trance-like shake, and the women carry AJ’s writhing body to the front of the room.
Once positioned in front of the mic and recovered from the trance, AJ reads about AJ’s father, including his work in the military, his time in jail, and the time he and AJ spent together in the hospital at the end. AJ’s reading chronicles their intermittent relationship with a mostly absent father. The most consistent point of their relationship was during their weeks together at the hospital where they traded stories and discussed AJ’s father’s absence.
In my mind, it is not easy to approach such sensitive topics without sugarcoating as the shadow of death looms. AJ’s frank descriptions and experiences with AJ’s father pulled at my heartstrings. It reminded me of my own relationship with my mother, a relationship that is now the most intimate and vulnerable I imagine it will ever be, where I can say something real, express pain, and, more importantly, where I can listen to her pain. I’m trying to figure out how I can ask questions of her, someone who feels close to dying, who feels their bad health is karma from things in their past, and who believes they are going to hell. Broaching this conversation with my mother is unchartered territory. It will be painful. There will be crying. AJ’s delivery of these journal excerpts in a cool, calm voice demonstrates how important it is to embrace that pain.
This is not about me. This is about AJ and AJ’s father and, as AJ begins singing an a cappella version of Another Man Done Gone, a chain gang song mourning loss, the performance becomes a larger story about the pain of a race, the appropriation of that race, and of a person.
AJ projects a YouTube video of Leadbelly’s The Gallows Pole in which Leadbelly tells the story about how the first man in jail was black, and how his friends tried to gather the money to keep him from being hanged. As the Leadbelly video continues, the screen displays other Google searches dispatched by AJ, with other YouTube clips and Wikipedia pages layering over and over each other. The stories chronicle the evolution of The Gallows Pole and the appropriation of Leadbelly’s original by Led Zeppelin who turned the song into what sounds like the encapsulation of their mystical voodoo sex and magic image. Included within these pages are Google searches that recall the history and definition of a gallows pole, it being the stake where jailed black men were hanged. It reminds us that there was nothing magical about this.
In the past, I’ve bought into the southern mystique more than I’d like to admit. So often I thought of the Florida swamp, with its sucking mud and gators and rampant racism and hate, as a place still charged with something mystical, charged with a supernatural order that would somehow save us all from the surrounding hatred and pain.
I felt betrayed by Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, a novel I had anticipated as one that would encapsulate that mystique with its depiction of gators, the 10,000 islands, underworld ghost lovers and ghost ships, this strange bird man who knew the secrets to navigating and negotiating the depths of the swamp. Initially, all these elements reminiscent of my home and the mystery drew me in. But then, the mystique turns bad. A girl’s journey into the depths of the Everglades with the mysterious birdman ends in betrayal and rape. The culmination of the story gave my home a horrible name and blew off the shroud of mystique to reveal a Florida that was real, and yet something that I struggled to accept.
It took me too long to realize the importance of what Russell was doing. Swamplandia is Russell’s attempt to demystify the south, and to point out the realities that are so easily overlooked through the other side of a shroud. AJ’s performance nails a similar point home.
There is no southern mystique.
This is not about the sexy voodoo south.
There is no sexy voodoo south.
AJ’s father’s spirit, his pain, his culture, is real, and his own. It is communicated beautifully through sound, movement, text, projection activated over the course of a very brief 50 minutes. The performance celebrates the graces, flaws, and burdens of AJ’s father. Fittingly, it closes with a silent video of AJ’s father’s funeral. AJ on harmonica and Espinoza on saxophone provide live music accompaniment. As AJ’s father’s body is put to rest, AJ plays his spirit on.
The video dims, the lights go out, the room is still except for AJ walking about the room playing. I am crying, and this isn’t about me, but it is about the power of a strong and vulnerable piece to compel genuine emotion. I am crying, AJ departs, the room is still, it is at peace.