the aisha of is, presented by Sasha John Technique and performed by Aisha Sasha John at the 2018 SummerWorks Festival, is one of those performance pieces that you just have to cheerfully admit is not created for you, and that’s okay.
The only thing is, I’m not completely sure who it’s for. Primarily, it feels like hallmarks of mystifying ritual that culminate in a cathartic experience for a committed performer; a ritual that, for the most part, I was only allowed to glimpse.
After pouring out a libation, Aisha Sasha John retreats to her computer and is projected at the back of the stage via webcam. She carefully applies lipstick and cues up music, then types a welcome to “is,” which is a state in between numerous concepts of being.
Because the projection goes all the way to the side curtains, it can be difficult to read some of the words on the edge. Then, a black and white video designed by Marvin Luvualu, Emerson Maxwell, Max Chandler and John plays, showing her in various stages of smiling and reacting; when the curtains are drawn over it, there’s a compelling 3D effect to the footage.
John has a hypnotic intensity when she’s in motion, next sliding across the stage in a dance that follows the video. Her concentration and focus are clear. She sheds a layer, then dances what seems to be a waking up ritual, quietly muttering to herself – I couldn’t catch a lot of it, but it sounded like a mantra of self-doubt. In the near-dark, with projection design by Vishmayaa Jeyamoorthy and Jennifer Lennon, John then washes her face in a bowl and applies product to her skin, followed by a change into a striking fringed dress.
Through it all, I found myself intrigued, tired, and frustrated in equal measure. I hoped for more guidance; I wanted to know what the significance of each of these steps was to the performer, and what their connection to the world of “is” was. I wanted to know more behind the concept of the “Sasha John Technique” which formed the basis of the piece.
I worried that these reactions were just symptoms of a culture that demands that the person who is not understood, particularly if they are someone of a more marginalized status than the person who doesn’t understand, does the emotional labour of reaching out and explaining. Since we live in a culture that makes this oppression both a matter of course and easy to overlook, I wondered if my desire to be led through what was happening on stage was just another manifestation of a white person expecting a Person of Colour to make an experience more comfortable for her. On the other hand, this was a performance rather than a direct conversation. Isn’t that explanation and the resulting connection what theatre and performance are all about? I don’t have an answer, but it certainly left me thinking.
I started to connect at the end of the show. As a theatregoer, I tend to seek out language over visuals, and suddenly after a 45-minute near-silence, there was plenty of the former.
John unscrolls a large poem and reads a list of disconnected but continuous observations, quietly and flatly, where her frustrations with the world – and relationship with her cat – come to light. In particular, there’s a focus on the underlying near-impossibility of being a Black woman in a white world. Her words are clever and thoughtful, some echoing my own experience, some that will always be outside my own and are therefore vital to hear.
the aisha of is, I think, tries to give us the permission to slow down and feel the surety of self in the silence. I wish I’d been able to feel it. For much of the show, instead, I felt shut out as an audience member, trying to figure out what its disparate elements were for. But I don’t think this show is for me. And that’s okay.
- Sunday August 12th, 5:00pm – 6:00pm
- Thursday August 16th, 9:15pm – 10:15pm
- Saturday August 18th, 12:00pm – 1:00pm
SummerWorks tickets are now Pay What You Decide at $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level. Tickets are available at the performance venue (cash only), online, by calling 416-732-4116, and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West), open August 9-19 from 12pm-8pm. Cash and credit accepted.
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 4 shows.
Photo of Aisha Sasha John provided by the artist