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Friday, September 17, 2010

Emily Johnson/Catalyst: The Thank-You Bar

Posted by Alison Hallett on Fri, Sep 17, 2010 at 3:08 PM

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As Emily Johnson's The Thank-You Bar begins, the audience sits in the darkened backstage of the Imago Theatre, on two rows of folding chairs and a line of cushions on the floor, listening as two musicians slowly record and loop layers of sound. Lyrics overlay a single guitar chord, itself resting on looping radio feedback and ocean waves. The meticulous layering draws attention to itself, draws attention to the construction of a complete, organic-feeling whole from a discrete set of sounds.

It's not long before Emily Johnson asks us again to think about layers—in a video segment, recorded in Imago, about the buildings and trees and soil that occupied the space in the decades and centuries before the theater was built.

Johnson is here using nonlinear, nonliteral means to explore her heritage and her physical an cultural dislocation from that heritage. (I think.) Stories are told, about Johnson's childhood and family (she is of Yupik descent, indigenous to Alaska); an igloo is wheeled out and then deconstructed, its pieces handed out amongst the audience; Johnson and her musicians (Blackfish, also performing on Sunday) do a dizzying, intricate three-person dance; Johnson, wearing a vest, does an odd, fiercely cheerful routine introducing herself by a series of names that are not her own.

The show is essentially performed around the audience, and we were asked to stand and turn and move at several points during the performance. You might expect that this spatial disorientation would be distracting or irritating, but there is something very eager and open about Johnson's performance that made me, at least, want to go along with her, want to help her make the show to work. I found the whole thing very personal and brave; it did not make me think, but it made me feel, and I enjoyed it tremendously.

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