Abraham, who is African-American, went to high school in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a historically black neighborhood, and in several of his previous works he drew on his experiences there. For “Pavement,” he went back to 1991, to reimagine the film “Boyz n the Hood,” about gangs in South Central Los Angeles, which was released that summer. He used the film as a springboard for examining life in Pittsburgh’s African-American communities in the Hill District and East Liberty Homewood and reflecting on the state of the black American experience in the two decades since its release.
But Abraham’s conception was even more sweeping. He also wanted to look at the history that had preceded the strife represented in “Boyz n the Hood,” and found a pertinent source in “The Souls of Black Folk,” the 1903 book by W. E. B. Du Bois, whose essays became instrumental in African-Americans’ struggle for equality in the twentieth century. Du Bois’s text made no appearance in “Pavement,” but Abraham included a quote from it in the program, which hovered over the dance: “Men call the shadow prejudice, and learnedly explain it as a natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the ‘higher’ against the ‘lower’ races.” In the light of Du Bois’s words from more than a century ago, the realities as depicted in the film are sobering. From the perspective of 1991, when the ravages of H.I.V., crack addiction, and gang genocide were entrenched, not much seems to have gone right.
In spite of the complexity of such a high-minded idea, Abraham has created a work of great subtlety and beauty. Much of this comes from its setting and décor. Harlem Stage’s Gatehouse venue, on West 135th Street, occupies a former pumping station for the Croton Aqueduct system, built in the eighteen-eighties. The two-hundred-seat theatre there, which opened in 2006, retains the buff and red brick of the original walls, and a patterned arch over the rear of the stage forms a pushed-back proscenium. Having already placed us in one of New York’s preëminent African-American neighborhoods, in an industrial structure, Abraham and his set designer, Dan Scully, then added to the atmosphere: a basketball backboard and hoop hang high up in one corner; the gray marley floor has a bright-orange border marking its perimeter, enlarging on the basketball-court imagery; the orange square is echoed on the backboard. Before the show, the backboard was filled with a projected black-and-white image of buildings posted with “No Loitering” signs, and exuberant hip-hop played.
Once “Pavement” began, though, the only thing really binding us to an urban environment of 1991 was the costumes: casual pants and shorts, tanks and tees, and the plaid shirts that were so ubiquitous then, worn loosely buttoned or tied around the waist. The hip-hop music stopped. The first sounds we heard were from Mississippi Fred McDowell’s blues song “What’s the Matter Now?,” which Abraham cleverly used to point us back to the nineteen-fifties, when the Hill District and East Liberty Homewood still attracted big-name performers, a heyday that soon passed. The slow, lush cadences set a melancholic tone. In a solo, Abraham moved confidently, calmly, his arms and legs swooping and slashing. The effect was hypnotic. But, like the good years in Pittsburgh, the lulling mood gave way to trouble. Other dancers entered, and, in a move that was repeated throughout “Pavement,” one of them took Abraham to the floor, placing him face down and joining his hands behind his back, in a mock handcuffing—a gesture of domination and violence, but performed with a kind of tenderness, like that of a mother putting her child to bed.
Ambiguity and unexpected juxtapositions marked “Pavement” from start to finish. The choreography that Abraham created for his six dancers, and the music he used, kept us pleasingly off balance. Most of the phrases in “Pavement” were muscular modern, with balletic flourishes and a sprinkling of funk. As a group of friends who attempt to navigate the uncertain terrain they inhabit, the dancers—Matthew Baker, Rena Butler, Chalvar Monteiro, Jeremy Neal, Maleek Washington, and Eric Williams—were impressive. They are all clearly accomplished technicians, but low-key and restrained, never overselling the movement. They also proved adept at switching gears from dance to theatre and back, as when Neal and Washington slipped in a fist bump in a more traditional duet; it came out of nowhere and vanished just as quickly, adding complexity to the men’s relationship, and effective because it was so brief.
For his score, Abraham employed a mixture of classical composers (Bach, Caldara, Britten, Vivaldi, Handel), some contemporary instrumental music, and standards and R. & B. None of the selections were very long—only four or five minutes, at most—and the piece resembled a film that jumps from scene to scene, revealing mutable relationships and alliances. We got to know these individuals, people trying to find a way out of the neighborhood, or to hold on to their friends, or just to stay alive. The dancers were skilled interpreters of Abraham’s small and subtle passages; several times, we saw a riveting, awkward-seeming lift in which one man slowly hoisted another up and changed his grip on him over and over, painstakingly turning him, so that the lifted man appeared to be floating. In a work that touched on death and strife, it was as though a soul was leaving a body.
Throughout “Pavement,” the film footage projected on the backboard—simple images of buildings and streets in Pittsburgh—kept changing. Like the rest of the choices that Abraham and Scully (who also did the lighting) made, their approach to the footage was judicious. It never distracted, always reminded us of where we were. Similar details were used sparingly. Plastic crates scattered on the sides of the stage provided places for the dancers, in character, to rest. At one point, Butler, the lone female in “Pavement,” a grounding sort of Everywoman, gathered the colorful sneakers that the men had taken off and tied them to a rope lying on the floor upstage, which was then raised up, remaining there for the duration of the piece.
Shoeless, the men became softer. Abraham did not seem to be playing with gender roles in “Pavement,” but much of the music was in the form of arias sung by the young French sopranist countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose remarkable high, clear voice evoked the castrati of centuries ago—a provocative backdrop for a work based in a testosterone-filled milieu. As in any insular male world, close proximity can foster sensitivity and warmth as much as it can competition and conflict. The opportunity to exploit these possibilities was there in “Pavement,” but Abraham held back, and just let the music play.
The dancers, though young, proved themselves to be gifted actors. Onstage, they occasionally mixed in casual chatter with their dancing, and did it unself-consciously; the roughhousing and fighting appeared real without looking stagy, and always seamlessly blended back into pure dance. Williams and Washington, in a combative duet, managed to convey an undercurrent of pain; though they were often in unison, what came across was sadness, or a feeling that they stood on the edge of a precipice. Washington is a captivating performer, a formidable dancer who is also capable of carefully modulated expressions. In a tender duet with Butler, he ended standing over her as she lay on the ground, his stance and his face signalling a split within himself: threatening and protective at the same time.
As a performer, Abraham is equally comfortable with the theatrical elements. In one of the longer set pieces, he stood on the dark stage as a red strobe circled at the downstage edge. This nighttime police action was punctuated by a monologue in which Abraham cajoled the other dancers as they filtered in: “Come on, man, help me. You know me, we live in the same building. Help me out right quick.” This was the most overtly dramatic passage in the piece, but Abraham stylized it, repeating his entreaties in different combinations, and the dancing of the others in the dark gave the scene a dreamlike quality. It was real and yet not real.
The ground was always shifting. In a recurring motif, the dancers ran around the stage, keeping the same rhythm, whether it sped up or slowed down. The group ran as one—but who was leading, who was falling behind? In the gang life of East Liberty Homewood and the Hill District, as in that of South Central L.A. and Harlem, a friend may have to kill you in order to be accepted; love can survive, even thrive, or you could lose everything. By including dialogue from “Boyz n the Hood,” Abraham gave us a more concrete framework in which to understand the piece, but his references to it were always oblique, always tempered. At one point, Abraham layered Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater” over a scene in the film in which a mother wails when her dead son is brought home.
An operatic intensity seemed apt for a work with such potent inspirations. Late in “Pavement,” the backboard footage showed a building demolition in slow motion, shrapnel flying gracefully through the air. Abraham was face down on the floor, his hands behind his back. One by one, as Sam Cooke sang, the dancers entered and laid themselves down in the handcuffed position, or lay on others. They could have been arrestees, or corpses. But then one body, then another, would wriggle out from under those above, and lie on top. Stacks of bodies breathed. Butler, lying under Neal, turned over to face him. As Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” played, what seemed like a grave now seemed like a place of comfort. Pavement is a hard, unforgiving thing, but for some people it’s also home.
Photograph by Steven Schreiber.