The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 17, 2023
States of Hope
Sometimes writing a review is easy. This is one of those times.
States of Hope, a dance/theater biography of sorts, is a superb program that does exactly what Hope Boykin says it will do in a note to audiences that’s memorialized in the program: she shares “experiences and insights in [her] excavation of self-discovery, reshaping, and renewal – [her] dance memoir of sorts. As narrator, with seven vocal bodies, [she shares her] movement language in poetic moments and prose.”
That’s a tall order, but that’s exactly what she does.
As further evidence of my keeping my ear close to the ground to keep up with developments in dance in the NYC metropolitan area (I’m being sarcastic), I’d never heard of, or remember hearing of, Hope Boykin until her recent appearance on the cover of October’s Dance Magazine. Maybe after I catch up on performance reviews I’ll actually read the accompanying article.
So I attended this program to see what the hubbub was about, going on opening night because all my other available nights during the run were filled. I should be so fortunate with other chances I take. States of Hope is not perfect (whatever that is), but with a bit of tinkering it could be. Everything about it illustrates why Boykin was Dance Magazine cover girl.
Boykin wrote, directed, and choreographed States of Hope. She also co-designed the costumes. That kind of egocentricity is often a recipe for disaster, but here it works extraordinarily well. And I suppose it should: Boykin is telling her own story. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that States of Hope is a vanity piece; it’s not.
The idea of telling one’s own story in a theatrical production isn’t new, nor is compartmentalizing the various aspects of one’s personality. But this show does it far better than any other similar piece that I’ve seen, or that I know of. And it got there the hard way: nothing fancy; just by intelligent writing, interesting staging, a story that’s exceptional even if not in its outcome, and Boykin’s ability to connect with collaborators (including but not limited to the selected dancer/actors) who enhanced whatever component of the piece they touched.
When I read what the piece was “about” – Boykin’s continuing journey of self-discovery as visualized by seven components of her personality, I anticipated a sequential demonstration of Boykin’s inner voices. What Boykin presents is far superior. She dissects her individual persona – at least as she sees herself – into seven different component parts, each portrayed by a different stage character: the Determined, the Daughter of Job, the Cynical, the Angry, the Worried, the Convinced, and the Conformist – each portrayed by a different dancer/actor. In the order listed above, they’re Jessica Amber Pinkett, Bahiyah Hibah Sayyed, Fania Minea Tesfagiorgis, Martina Viadana, Terri Anaya Wright, Davon Rashawn Farmer, and Lauren Rothert. The only common denominator among them, based on my cursory review of their program bios, is that all were trained at the Ailey School and/or performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Boykin reserves for herself the title of “Narrator,” but although she speaks during the course of the performance, the bulk of the speaking is divided among her seven stage alter egos. [I hasten to add that these characters are personality components, not different personalities. This isn’t The Three Faces of Eve (who actually had 22 distinct personalities), and has nothing to do with Dissociative Identity Disorder (aka split personality disorder), a serious mental illness.]
This shouldn’t work, but it does. Though you may have heard of none of these performers, you should down the road: each one delivers a top-notch performance – one that goes far beyond simple script-reading or robotic choreographed movement. And each one lives and brings her Hope character trait to abundant and illuminating life. There isn’t one misfire in the bunch: Pinkett embodies hapless perseverance; Sayyed the one to whom bad things always seem to happen; Tesfagiorgis the somewhat haughty but realistic cynic; red-haired Viadana, who radiates potent anger at almost every opportunity; Wright, who paces up, down, and around the stage as matters of concern – which were everywhere and always – develop; Farmer, the cast’s lone male, is an ever-ready source of conviction, if not wisdom – something like a true believer that ultimately the system works; and Rothert is the one who urges the others to accept the cards they were dealt and not make waves. Not one was anything less than convincing.
As I’ve described States of Hope, it sounds like there was constant script-friction, but that’s not at all the case. As components of what Boykin sees as her personality, all her personality components work together as one entity, albeit with continuing cranial battles. That States of Hope is as entertaining as it is is a bonus.
The piece begins with Boykin walking down the left orchestra aisle toward the stage, speaking the beginning of the piece’s script to whoever can hear her. She walks slowly, without looking at the audience in general or any member of it in particular, until she reaches the foot of the aisle. Then she sits in an area audience left, at the foot of the orchestra seats, which had been set aside for her – and at that moment the script’s vocal responsibilities shift to the dancer/actors on stage who are sitting or standing on an assortment of box-shaped objects. And that’s when I got so immediately involved vicariously in what was happening and which character trait was saying what that I can’t possibly regurgitate proper sequence or complete sentences of this remarkably intelligent script. [I’m aware that States of Hope had a very lengthy gestation period, but the effort was worth it. Everything – the words, the staging, the choreography, the spartan but more than sufficient set, and the lighting – worked optimally.]
My recollection, limited as it may be, is that Pinkett carries the laboring vocal oar here. As the Determined Hope, that’s not inappropriate – because as the piece proceeds most everything that happens is the product of the central character’s (Hope’s) determination. The other characters are ideas, failures, strategies, trials and tribulations that pass through the Determined Hope’s mind, culminating in what appears to be the final resolution.
The only criticism I have arises from what I see as the significant difference between the portion of the piece before, and after, intermission (which I’ll designate Act 1 and Act 2 for purposes of clarity, although the two parts are not so designated in the program. [A minor additional peeve is running the words of Boykin’s company together for no apparent reason.]
Act I is simply miraculous. Nothing stops moving long enough for grass to grow, and the scripts bon mots are liberally sprinkled among all of Hope’s personality components. One character interacts with another, then another, or with multiple characters, without missing a beat. Dance per se is limited, but not invisible – and because of the clever staging, it’s easy to overlook the fairly constant movement. Throughout this first act, I sat at the edge of my seat awaiting the next pearl of wisdom nestled within the “ordinary” developing dialogue as competing and contrasting aspects of Hope’s personality respond to whatever is happening, or has happened, on Hope’s macro-level.
I referenced the set and lighting previously. They’re as brilliantly conceived and executed as the script. The “boxes” strewn around the stage are consistently rearranged as different seating areas or stage dividers, and they also serve as light reflectors and independent light generators, so the boxes always look different with each set shift (handled well by the stage cast). The lighting and set were designed by Al Crawford. And kudos to Mahogany L. Browne, who Boykin acknowledges helped birth the script. And the accompanying score, also by Ali Jackson, is so restrained as to almost not be there at all – which is just as it should be. The only artistic component that left me clueless were the costumes, which Boykin designed with Corin Wright, which seemed to evolve from one color and/or style to another for no rhyme or reason. But maybe if I see the piece again, I’ll figure that out.
As this segment evolved, I considered the divided components of Boykins’s personality to be separate entities, which they were – but at the same time weren’t. And as each would present her (or his) portion of the script, I saw them as telling their stories in the process. The thought that came to mind as I watched was that it was a chorus of individuals (a chorus line of sorts – and I use those words advisedly), seeking the optimal way to come together as one.
After the thrill of Act 1, Act 2 lagged a bit. It began with a brief dance, with no supplemental dialogue. There wasn’t anything particularly negative about it choreographically, but it looked out of place. And the ultimate resolution of all this, that Hope the whole person would overcome her emotional infighting when she finally is able to love herself for who she is, including each of her component impulses, feelings and personalities, is just too easy. Cue Whitney Houston singing “Greatest Love Of All.” From the sublime to the … less sublime.
When this piece is presented in this area again, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were sooner rather than later, I suggest eliminating the intermission, and tightening the last segment so it doesn’t reach the conclusion a viewer would have made at the outset. But whether it does or doesn’t, when States of Hope does return, missing it isn’t an option. Hope doesn’t always spring eternal.