By Susan McDonald
Somewhere between the mermaid’s invitation to descend to the bottom of the sea and boos from the audience and cast for a Muppet-like effigy of Esek Hopkins, you realized this outdoor adventure was not a page from history books.
But, it was certainly an adventure.
The Wilbury Theatre Group opened its season with “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins,” an original activist dance opera cultivated and performed by The Haus of Glitter Dance Company.
After living in Hopkins’ historic Providence home for a year, the company and Wilbury’s team transformed its grounds into a multi-stage set for the cast to expose Hopkins’ connections to the slave trade, superimposing conjured tales of what life might look like here had colonization never happened.
The result was a fabulous fabulation extending beyond the trips Hopkins took to Africa to include the effects of colonization on Native Americans, Laotians and Hispanics. Further, it probed challenges facing women and the LGBTQ+ community. The goal was to push people to address and, eventually, abandon racism.
“We are not going to think our way out of racism,” said one character. “We are going to feel our way out of racism.”
While the objective may seem too all-encompassing, the Haus of Glitter team created an experience that made valuable points without preaching, instead using their beautiful voices to relay native stories and songs, and invigorating choreography to entertain.
During Act One, the audience moved around the grounds of the historic home through six mini stages and seven immigrant stories. Each unfurled like a fairy tale, with prose that was alternately chilling and poetic.
Standing before ribbons and flower garlands blowing on the September breeze, Matt Garza sang in Spanish about a Mexican woman drowning her child in the Rio Grande. His powerful voice rose with words that needed no translation to relay pain. Stories from a West African village were relayed in the audiobook-worthy voice of Assitan Coulibaly, a fairy tale with an unhappy ending.
On another stage, spotlights illuminated the lithe bodies of Trent Lee and Steven Choummalaithong as they offer traditional Native American and Laotian dances juxtaposed artfully with more modern break dancing, and a narrator talking of “the constant grief of colonization.”
“Have you ever seen a person explode? My family has,” the narrator said as Choummalaithong rubbed a haunting sound from a metal bowl. “We didn’t ask to be saved.”
The show took jabs at the White society invading foreign lands, then criminalizing immigrants for not conforming to their rules and branding them savage for resisting the changes.
“We were in pain. We were grieving. Most of all, we were angry,” said a narrator in Act Two, a time when all of those stories blended into vibrant dance and steel pan music on a larger, glittery stage.
Company members employed all of the outdoor space, using a stand of pine trees behind the stage as a screen for an original rap video about decolonization. Another narrator introduced dance numbers with folklore wisdom, such as the Malian expression “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”
Anger, resentment and even violence has resulted from the oppression and colonization of foreign lands by White Americans like Hopkins, and while the cast inserts terms like “cishetero patriarchy” into “The Historical Fantasy,” this is not a hate-filled show. It’s positive and glows – or glitters – with hope.
Or, as the Latinx expression notes, “Se hace el camino al andar.” “We make the road by walking.”
The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins ran September 9-17 by The Haus of Glitter Dance Company + Performance Lab, The Wilbury Theatre Group, PRONK! Fest, and PVDFest, with support from Partnership for Providence Parks, & The RI Foundation at the former home of Esek Hopkins.