If you missed the latest offering at Asheville’s BeBe Theatre, you missed what was surely one of this fall’s most exciting programs of live performance.
For those of you who may not know, the BeBe is one of those intimate, slightly scruffy, hole-in-the wall venues where audiences go to see local artists do their most experimental work — much of it genuinely avant-garde. The artists themselves feel welcome there, in part because they can make their work virtually hassle-free and on the cheap. And though that work rarely shows up on the radar of the commercial theatre scene—even in so small a town as Asheville — yet one has the sense that years from now people will still be talking about it.
This past weekend, the BeBe hosted a program of diverse performances called Big Bang. To describe Big Bang as a variety show would be an understatement: The variety was mind-boggling in a characteristically Ashevillean way, ranging from African dance and drumming to sketch comedy, body building, singing, martial arts, and storytelling. Yet the program showed remarkable coherence thanks to the nearly all-female cast and the overarching feminist theme. “Celebration” is a well-worn advertising tag for such events, but this show really felt like an authentic celebration of women’s power and creativity. And as the evening demonstrated, one mark of authentic power is freedom from the need to “bash” anybody.
The stars and prime movers were undoubtedly Boom Chix, an all-female ensemble (well, except for one guy who occasionally filled in) of drummers and dancers whom I’d previously seen perform under the name Chix With Stix. If you’ve never seen them, you need to. If you have seen them, then you know that under Jessie Lehman’s musical direction, they are nothing less than amazing. Rarely will you see performers with such irresistible stage presence — the joy and vitality literally radiate from their faces and bodies. Nor can it hurt that they’re all beautiful women. But their simultaneous execution of the most athletic choreography with the most intricate percussion is something that simply astounds. I wish there had been a printed program for the show so that I could praise these performers individually.
Boom Chix’s material combines West African rhythms and dance with a contemporary American sensibility and a fine feel for the dramatic. Most interesting, however, was what in one piece I took to be a new development for Boom Chix: an attempt to introduce a narrative element into the performance — in this case a story about soldiers at war. Given that most of their work consists of brief pieces that are more or less pure spectacle, it was exciting to see them exploring a more substantial arc on which to arrange their musical motifs. I couldn’t help imagining what a longer or even evening-length work from this group might look like some day.
Another highlight of the program was a triptych of sketches performed by two female members of The Feral Chihuahuas, Asheville’s home-grown sketch comedy troupe. While the vocal quality at some moments was a little too shrill (or perhaps just too loud) for so intimate a space as the BeBe, the performers handled their well-written material with great confidence and skill. The three sketches were all distinct and frankly hilarious, playing deftly along the edge of good taste. As someone who has found that The Chihuahuas’ work occasionally relies a little too heavily on GOF (the Gross-Out Factor), I welcomed this subtlety and restraint.
Kathy Meyers and Julie Gillum, two dancer-choreographers whose work individually, together and with numerous other local artists (including myself) and troupes has been a mainstay of Asheville dance for many years now, presented another hilarious comic scenario, this one with a certain amount of critical bite. The piece was one that fans of Meyers’ modern dance troupe Moving Women will have recognized. Gillum, dressed as a 1950s children’s TV personality, read to the audience out of a typical children’s book from that era, the title of which might as well have been, How To Be The Perfect Wife. Meyers, meanwhile, acted out the book’s instructions, until … well, until she just didn’t feel like it any more. At which point we get a rather reckless strip tease, a crotch-shot it will be difficult to forget and coffee poured liberally over heaving bosom. None of which seems to have much effect on Mr. Husband, who sits reading his morning Mountain Xpress with a look of quiet contentment on his handsome face.
I should also mention the show’s one singer, an artist who calls herself (I believe) Unitard. This young woman appeared dressed as a kind of blond Raggedy Anne doll and wearing a massive accordion, on which she accompanied herself skillfully and beautifully. It’s become a cliché to describe a singer’s voice as haunting, but that’s the effect Unitard’s voice has. I’m assuming the compositions were original — in any event, they were lovely and very moving, and like lonesome arias in the midst of an operatic whirlwind, they brought a necessary element of vulnerability, introspection and pathos to an otherwise brashly outward-directed show.
The sad truth is, Big Bang is almost certainly a one-off. The way things go in theatre, it’s highly doubtful that this particular combination of excellent female performers will ever appear together again. Of course, that’s also one of the beautiful things about homegrown live performance. Another is that one can now keep an eye out for these same performers in years to come, in other combinations and at other venues.