This is a condensed version of our review of the premiere of Brown at Monkey Bottom Collaborative last December.
Murielle Elizéon sets the scene for Brown, her hour-long dance solo, by telling the story of reconnecting with her estranged father shortly before his death. "It was a fucking bummer," she says, characteristic of her monologue's taut emotion and brutal brevity.
That's a fucking understatement. Brown leaves you not depressed so much as scoured and purged, sorely intimate with the performer, the other spectators, and yourself. When Elizéon batters herself against floors and walls, it is not easy to watch. But she cracks her vessel for pain with a single gesture of sublime beauty, mightily bending an arc of loss back toward repletion.
Her father's presence in the show is at once pervasive and elusive. His name is etched on a glass urn filled with what appear to be cremated remains. Defiantly literal, the urn is also symbolic of a mortal meeting that became a sort of container—a face and a form—for the unmade memories that previously swirled through Elizéon's life like so much cloudy ash.
Though autobiographical, Brown is neither narrative nor confessional. Elizéon's strained, too-bright smile and edge-of-breakdown jauntiness preclude sentimentality, and the suffering in the urn has many strata, including racism, sexism, cultural displacement, and domestic violence against women. The piece is more like an exorcism than an elaboration. Elizéon beats the mic on her thigh like a dying heartbeat. She has seizure-like episodes, strafing her bare skin on rough surfaces. She carries herself by the hair. She jogs, staggers, loses her breath, collapses.
At one point, she becomes the absent father, tying back her hair with a necktie. But in a vignette too special to spoil, she becomes the present mother as well. If not for this, Brown would be intolerably painful; because of it, the piece heals as well as hurts. But its self-immolation, effort, and futility are too intense to say one "likes" it.
Instead, it is daringly authentic, and a reminder of the difference between entertainment and art. Elizéon's visceral portrait of trauma, abstracted from her backstory until it stands alone and darkly shines, has something hard and true to say to everyone. It's a universal template of damage and resilience, vulnerability and defiance, and the love and loss we carry down the generations.