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Jessica Abrams
Music and Dance Reviews
Performance Programs
Performance Reviews
United States
Greater Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA

Poor Dog Group's 'The Murder Ballad' was a Tale of Lust, Murder and Redemption

by Jessica Abrams
May 3, 2015
(Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater - in the Walt Disney Concert Hall)
631 W. 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012
In 1938 historian and musicologist Alan Lomax brought vaudeville performer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton into a studio to record some of the latter's work. Morton had been a performer on the New Orleans jazz scene in the twenties, but at the time of the recordings had left it behind to work as a bartender and club owner in Washington, DC. The recordings were originally intended for use by music researchers within the Library of Congress but they ultimately expanded into more than eight hours of Morton talking and playing piano. Out of that came "The Murder Ballad", a thirty-minute musical passion play, a searing tragedy of sexual hunger, violence and, in some small way, redemption whose raw, crude language manages to startle a listener even in a post-rap world. The piece may have been composed in New Orleans prior to 1938, but the sessions with Lomax bound it for eternity.

Last weekend at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, in downtown Los Angeles, "The Murder Ballad" was resurrected once again by Poor Dog Group in a dance/theatre piece set to Morton's haunting tale. A group of artists who met at the California Institute of the Arts, Poor Dog Group is, according to its website, "a group of theater makers committed to collaboratively developing original theatre through critiques of history and found source material that speaks to the current political and social landscape." They found such layered material in "The Murder Ballad", with its female point of view and insight into racial, gender and socio-economic dynamics.

The piece began with Jessica Emmanuel walking on stage clad only in a pair of shorts and a loose t-shirt and turning the recording on herself. From that moment on, at times jerky movement was peppered with moments of extreme stillness, which resulted in our never losing sight of the fact that very little could happen onstage that could outdo what was happening in the music.

What's striking about the song is that Morton, with his raspy voice – made more so by the scratchy recording – sounds like a woman. And it is with this voice that the tale of a woman who loves a man so much that she kills (and is jailed) for him is told. Emmanuel, with her lithe body and strong technique (which, in the interest of the piece, was kept to a minimum so as not to take us out of the story) served as a blank canvas on which all pain, female and otherwise, could be painted. When her body undulated as her legs performed an almost balletic adagio, her breath audible, there was both a force and a fragility that underscored the tragic nature and yet the strength of the woman in Morton's song, a song at the end of which she comes to the realization that "times a comin' that a woman don't need no man".

The piece was Emmanuel's, but Jesse Saler, who appeared toward the second half held his own beautifully. His whiteness and maleness served as a perfect counterpoint to her black femaleness and it gave the piece a sense of danger and foreboding. He was jailer, lover, hillbilly and slave owner all at once. At one point they broke out into a dance that could only be described as "voguing" – arms forming shapes to the beat of the music – but which again, seemed to fit perfectly into the theme of the piece. At one point Saler just stood there with an evil grin on his face as the music rasped on.

Poor Dog Group succeeded in bringing to life a timeless tale last weekend at REDCAT – a tale that, whichever time period or role the audience chose to imprint on it, created a palpable sense of discomfort at the rawness of the story and its proximity to events, both personal and political, happening now. The production walked the fine line of adding another layer to Morton's piece while still keeping it front and center. Is the piece timeless, or did it seem so when brought to life on stage? The answer lies somewhere in the mystery of the theatre going experience and our own individual relationship to it.
Poor Dog Group's Jessica Emmanuel in 'The Murder Ballad (1938).'

Poor Dog Group's Jessica Emmanuel in "The Murder Ballad (1938)."

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Gunther

Poor Dog Group's Jessica Emmanuel in 'The Murder Ballad (1938).'

Poor Dog Group's Jessica Emmanuel in "The Murder Ballad (1938)."

Photo © & courtesy of Steven Gunther

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