A report by Bill DeYoung for Catalyst.
Bob Devin Jones, writer, actor and prolific theater-maker, hit a rough patch following his recovery from Covid-19 in 2020. It wasn’t exactly writer’s block, but something, he felt, was off.
Jones got his groove back by delving into the collective works of Martinique-born poet, artist and politician activist Aimé Césaire (1913-2008). “I have a friend from Haiti,” Jones said, “and she said Aimé Césaire was their Shakespeare. He’s that well-regarded.”
The Dali Museum enlisted Jones to co-curate the exhibit Aimé Césaire: Poetry, Surrealism and Négritude, and commissioned him to write a performance piece based on his impressions of Césaire’s writings.
The result, “Until the River Never Grieves,” includes three actors and three musicians. It will debut Oct. 11 at the Dali, and continue on the 13th and 14th at thestudio@620, the performance space Jones executive-directs.
It is a series of observations, through the words of both Césaire and Jones, on the historical African experience, through the lens of a word coined by the French: Négritude. Co-founded by Césaire, the Négritude movement drew on surrealism in developing an anti-colonialist awareness of Black culture.
“I was inspired not to write about him, but what his words invoke in me,” Jones explained.
“He embraced surrealism. So like a lot of times, subject and verb don’t agree. The title of the poem, though, gives you an indication of what he was ruminating about. And what I love about his poems is that they often fly over a very discordant landscape.
“And then in the last line, or the penultimate line, he just brings it all together. Which is an experience. Not ‘this means this,’ or ‘this is a verb’ or ‘this is a noun,’ it’s all at one and at the same time.”
In Plato’s poem Allegory of the Cave, he added, “you’re supposed to get more knowledge, more light, as you crawl out of the cave. But sometimes with Aimé, it’s more light, more life, more abundant, and so you can’t always just pigeonhole it.”
At the beginning of “Until the River Never Grieves,” Jones wrote:
The poet masters the inscrutable nuance of language
One word at a time
In a Promethean effort to illuminate the evidence of things not yet tasted
The poet uses the grace of his wit
With the unrelenting clarity of a shimmering steel scalpel
And later …
The hurt dirt of Africa holds the memory and the bones of all humankind
This archaeology is heady work if you can get it
He, Aime, got it
Like a bent calypso’d clock torqued in the middle
Beseeching the heavens to embrace the shadow
The darker brother
and shadow the embrace
“The original piece I was going to write was going to be incendiary,’ Jones explained. “You know, ‘say it loud, I’m negritude and I’m proud.’ And it didn’t happen that way for me. It’s a quiet affirmation of what my 67 years on the planet have taught me.”
At a Tuesday evening rehearsal inside thestudio@620, Jones and his cast worked through “Until the River Never Grieves,” getting the work, in the parlance of theater people, on its feet. Kingslay Solomon, Edward Leonard and Carlos del Orbe are cast as “Aimé Nos. 1, 2 and 3.”
All I ask, Jones told his performers, “is that you give one hundred percent. So that way, anything you do will be capital. And that’s all I want.”
He stressed the strength of language, and talked about the rhythm of words, and the power of deliberate delivery.
“Sound vox has power in and of itself,” he said. “Martin Luther King preached his own eulogy the night before he was assassinated. Not many of us get to do that, because we don’t know the day or the hour. So when you do give words vox, they have power.
“And Aimé’s power on me is so persuasive that it got me writing again.”