Most of us would like to think that childhood is a joyful place. But as I sat in the audience at Heather Maloney’s in this place this past weekend, I had to wonder. Staged at the On.Stage Black.Box Theater at the Miami Dade County Auditorium, in this place asks whether we are shaped by our joy, or by our suffering.
Maloney’ creative process began with a kind of memory game, where each collaborator recalled as much as they could about their early childhood house. From this structure, she built in this place. Three characters, played by Maloney, Joanne Barrett and Shaneeka Harrell, entered into their early memories via the spatial imprints of their childhood homes. Within a palette of only white, subtle blacklight, and shadows, they each traced the paths of former hallways, entering imagined rooms. As they physically moved across the stage, bringing us into partially remembered spaces, they narrated sounds, impressions, and emotional imprints that have not yet been dissipated by time.
Given the premise of the piece — childhood memory — its melancholy tone was unexpected. The performers never smiled, and the laughter in the ambient soundtrack seemed very far away, unreachable. Rather than some Hollywood-style flashback, in this place was a restaging of traumas inflicted upon the vulnerable. Most of these emotional wounds were of a subtle kind. In a repeating refrain, performer Joanne Barrett returned to the image of having her hair combed, “sometimes a little too hard.” This flashing recollection hints at momentary emotional violence between mother and daughter. We also heard about the self-inflicted pain of shame.
At other times, the childhood impressions were catalogues of details so minute and yet so endless that it gave a sense of mental breakdown. Whose room was where, what was on TV, what did the cabinets look like? As absurd as it may seem, these are the things that inform the childhood mind and weave a sense of the world inhabited. Any one of us can go back into our own memories and find something similar.
In this place describes childhood as a fall from purity and the discovery of obstacles to love. It is colored by pre-sexuality and a sense of longing for something that can never be found. Echoes of Freud’s philosophies resonate. The costumes mirrored the gap between symbolism and reality, innocence and experience. The women were dressed in plain white clothes, at odds with their murky memories. At one point, Maloney’s character entered into an exaggerated large skirt made from a white parachute that filled the stage. She then pulled it close her as if contracting an extension of her body.
Release and protection came as the three performers’ memories were traced simultaneously. Their stories were overlaid in both the time and space of the performance. As one became weakened within her own memory, perhaps curling into a protective posture, the other two women were close by. They stood as witnesses. Sometimes they carried each other or held hands and feet. As one character would travel back, the others would create the architectural space for her to stand on by repositioning the white cubes on stage.
Maloney’s challenge as a choreographer may be to release a layer of artifice from her movement. The experience of in this place was most visceral when the characters seemed to really “be there”– when their voices and movement were least theatrical. Their humanity was then exposed, and we were invited to empathize with the characters, to see ourselves in them.