Before Twitter and Facebook, before message boards and the Internet, before television, the telephone and even the telegraph, the backyard clothesline was a universal destination for news, gossip, work and socializing.
On Friday, Jan. 16, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon will bring “The Clothesline Muse,” a multidisciplinary performance celebrating the links between domestic labor and community empowerment, to Edison Theatre at Washington University in St. Louis.
Presented as part of the Edison Ovations Series, the special one-night-only performance begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $36, or $32 seniors; $28 for Washington University faculty and staff; and $20 for students and children.
For more information, call 314-935-6543, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit edison.wustl.edu.
A family affair
“The Clothesline Muse” represents an inter-generational collaboration between Freelon and two other distinguished African-American creators: choreographer “Mama” Kariamu Welsh and visual artist Maya Freelon Asante. It is also a family affair. Asante is Freelon’s daughter. Welsh is Asante’s mother-in-law.
The project began in 2006. Welsh, a professor of dance at Temple University, was struck by Asante’s delicate tissue-paper quilts, which reminded her of fabric drying in the tenement backyards of Bedford Stuyvesant, where Welsh was raised. Inspired, she developed an original dance piece that used Asante’s work as a backdrop.
But the subject was rich and “we dreamed of expanding the piece into an evening-length theatrical work,” Welsh said. And so, in 2011, she approached Freelon about composing original music. Freelon, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shared similar recollections of the communal clothesline and quickly agreed.
In writing both songs and book, Freelon drew on historical research, interviews with contemporary domestic workers and the stories of her own mother and grandmother. The result, which premiered in 2014, is a deeply felt homage to African-American washerwomen and an exploration of the role they’ve played in American history and society.
The story centers on two characters. Freelon plays Grandma Blu, a pithy, no-nonsense laundress with a gift for gab and a vast repository of family lore. Baset Sat-Ra is Mary Mack Douglass, a college-bound teenager who must write an essay to apply for financial aid. Linking their conversations are live music; a set that includes archival photographs and film projections; and six dancers performing movements based on folding, drying and other everyday gestures.
“In this fable, the clothesline is not just a place where clothes are hung to dry but where the important stuff of life happens,” writes Lisa Bardadrson for thINKingDance.net. “And as we learn through Grandma Blu, laundry isn’t just about dirty shirts and socks; it’s about coming clean on what we stand for and believe in.”
Tickets and sponsors
“The Clothesline Muse” begins at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16. Tickets are available at the Edison Box Office. Edison Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd.
Edison programs are made possible with support from the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission, St. Louis; and private contributors. “The Clothesline Muse” is funded in part by the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Theater Project, with lead funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.