Yellow Towel Review Mar 4, 2016

by Daemond Arrindell

When I walked into On the Boards last night to view Dana Michel’s Yellow Towel I was already in a mindset of comparisons. It’s often how I process, by comparing things. It’s the wonder of simile and metaphors and the workings of a poet.  Kendrick Lamar’s new album, or rather EP “untitled. unmastered” was set to drop at midnight and as hip hop’s most influential artist currently (in my opinion) I was primed to see what would come of it after the immense success and risk taking and historical relevance that was his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly. See? Comparison.

In the case of Dana Michel’s show I was drawing a comparison to something much older – Whoopi Goldberg’s Tony Award winning one-woman show. The one that arguably got her cast as “Celie” in The Color Purple. In Whoopi’s case, she’s playing four different characters, in the pre-politically correct 80s, one of whom is a little girl, who wears a t-shirt on her head to mimic the blonde hair she wishes she had due to the lack of positive representation of black women in media. The synopsis I read of Yellow Towel, references a very similar story of a young Dana Michel. Let the comparing continue.

Dana Michel is a choreographer and performer. Whoopi is a comedian and actor. Whoopi’s setting was simple black box and almost no props – just her characters speaking to the audience and breaking the fourth wall repeatedly. Whoopi’s show has very little if any silence. And as a comedian she aimed for laughs where the subject matter got touchy. Dana does no such thing. She uses her own body and blackness as the central prop to speak through – its beauty and its lack of beauty (or rather our society’s refusal to see it), its agency and that which is taken from it.

The program states that some of the show is improvised, though it is not discernible to me exactly what and how much. The fluidity Michel presents from one section to the next is seamless and at the end I was amazed as to how much time had passed. This is not to say there was no discomfort. Again, with the comparison – where Whoopi goes for the laugh, perhaps for accessibility, perhaps because it’s safer or easier, Michel makes us sit and bear witness.  The opening of the show has her standing downstage right, practically in the lap of the front row, her back to us. She is reminiscent of an addict on a really bad trip, complete with instability, trembling and a fear that she might actually fall. There is no stillness and yet there is almost no movement forward or backward. The talkative and lively audience went silent as soon as they caught sight of this character.  The tension was immensely thick and did not disperse even when she incorporated sound and words which also became tools but not ones that were always linear.

Yellow Towel is not a straightforward story to follow, nor should it be. It seems more experiential and visceral – in the body and the senses for us, the audience to be open to. I think this is why there was such a wide range of responses. And it should be noted, that this is a Black Woman onstage bringing a non-linear narrative of her own experience to life through movement and sound unapologetically for an audience where I was the only other Black person and one of maybe five people of color.  I did mention discomfort, right? Once again – the comparisons. There was the couple that walked out about halfway through the performance and the pair of women behind me who were laughing – also unapologetically - during certain sections that may or may not have been aiming for levity.  For the record, I don’t cast any sort of labels on either pair. I do not know their stories, nor the intentions in their hearts, I can only say that I felt compelled to do neither during this performance.  The majority of the audience seemed to be more or less where I was at and was, at the bare minimum, in full appreciation of Dana Michel’s commitment and artistry.

Yellow Towel is not what I would call a piece of theater/performance art to “enjoy.” Rather it is one to be experienced. There are complexities Dana Michel has built in and showcased that bear the need for discussion, and some ya just gotta sit with and hold onto. But regardless of your own personal resonance or taste, the craft, power, presence and vulnerability this show is teeming with makes it its own unique body of work and that transcends all notions of comparison.