SOULOWORKS celebrates turning 20 with multimedia production

Apr. 30, 2014 @ 01:14 PM

If a theater production could be compared to a bagel, Andrea E. Woods’ new show would be of the everything variety. That’s because, for the first time, she’s been able to concoct an evening-length work that has everything she’s always wanted to include. Her new work, “The Amazing Adventures of Grace May B. Brown,” features dance, music, singing, narration, folk art and photographic images.
“I call the work a contemporary praise dance/folk performance because it uses dance, song, spirituality, music and narration as multilayered storytelling,” Woods writes.
The multimedia work celebrates the 20th anniversary of Woods’ company, SOULOWORKS/Andrea E. Woods & Dancers. It premieres Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater.
For this production, which Woods wrote choreographed, directed, performs music and dances in, she drew on her varied experience. She performed for six years in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. She’s a musician, too, and, in her new show plays banjo and thumb piano. She’s a scholar as well with an MFA in dance and an MAH in Caribbean cultural studies. She’s traveled to Cuba and elsewhere to study dance that developed as a result of the African diaspora. She’s also a videographer and associate professor at Duke University where she teaches “Dance for the Camera” and modern dance.  
For her new show, she draws on African-American culture and history, including her own family history. Her great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War on the Union side; he died at age 102 in 1929, Woods said in a recent telephone interview. She uses a photograph of him in her show.
Another autobiographical aspect centers on how she and her two siblings were raised in Philadelphia. Her mother would remind them, “’You come from a place where you were loved. You have a responsibility to fight and stand strong but you do it from the home base of love,’” Woods recalls.
While the mood of her new work is mostly positive, Woods doesn’t shy away from addressing injustices that include child abuse. “There is a realization that life isn’t fair,” Woods said.
She also explores the nature of grace. “Grace is always present and we have all earned it just by living life,” Woods writes.
Then, there’s artistic process. “I take it beyond the personal and use a little bit of fantasy and fiction … ,” Woods said.
The new work also represents a collaboration with dancers and other artists.
“I love my cast,” Woods said of the women in the show. Ages range from early 20s to 60s, she added. Storyteller Dorothy Clark serves as narrator. The four dancers, Aya Shabu, Kara Simpson, Jessica Burroughs and Chanelle Croxton have contributed to the choreography. “They have great imaginations. … I get a lot back from them. It’s like standing in front of the ocean and waves are coming at you,” Woods said.
“I’m a storyteller with movement,” Shabu said in a telephone interview. “I was a writer with writers’ block so I started to dance and dance became a career. … The autobiographical aspect of her [Woods’] work resonated with me,” Shabu added. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, native came to Durham in 2003 and performed with Chuck Davis’ African American Dance Ensemble for two years before joining another Durham-based company, The Magic of African Rhythm, where Shabu currently serves as manager as well as a dancer.  “Andrea does something I aspire to. She brings all the arts together to tell this story,” Shabu said.
Costume design and music also help to tell Woods’ story.
Pamela Bond designed the costumes printed with images from African-American narrative quilts by artist/author Heather A. Williams.
Musician/composer/vocalist Shana Tucker created original music she performs on cello, piano and guitar and recorded for the show. She also sings. The music was inspired by text and lyrics written by Woods.
These days, Tucker splits her time between Durham and Las Vegas, where she performs cello live for Cirque de Soleil’s “Ka” show.
For Woods’ show, Tucker also contributed vocals to music flutist/composer Julia Price created for “The Amazing Adventures of Grace May B. Brown.” “It’s this beautiful quilt of sound,” Tucker said of Price’s music.
On working with Woods, Tucker said, in a telephone interview, “I believe that she knows exactly how powerful she is but she is one of the most humble, creative, mentoring souls I know. She’s got such command over her gifts and she’s so ready to share them. I feel I become a better artist when I work with her.”

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Andrea E. Woods’ “The Amazing Adventures of Grace May B. Brown.”

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council, 120 Morris St., Durham.
TICKETS: $12 adults; $6 children/seniors/students at the door; cash only.