Review: “Grace Notes” Strikes a Flattened Chord

by Sarah Pearl Heard (Staff Writer)

Violence was everywhere this summer. It was hard to digest, let alone to grieve. On September 9th and 10th, Carrie Mae Weems performed her multimedia performance project “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” at the Yale Repertory Theatre to allow us to do so. Yet amid the the show’s sensual dance and song – and shallow sense of peace and sadness – anger, the shock of loss, and the massacre that inspired “Grace Notes” were all conspicuously absent. “Grace Notes” was beautiful, but not quite healing, not quite complete.

Carrie Mae Weems is considered one of today’s most influential artists. In 2013 Weems received the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship as well as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She is known for creating stunning images of Black women.

As she introduced the piece, Weems compared her own role to that of Antigone, the grieving sister in the Greek tragedy who is desperate to perform burial rites for her brother. Weems’s parallel need arose when President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney after the Charleston shooting in summer 2015. “Grace Notes” asks, “What is the role of grace in the pursuit of democracy?” How can the notion of grace – Black people’s dignity – help and heal a reeling nation? Weems explores this question through film, dance, song, and poetry.

Scenes of the multi-episode performance included step performances by Black fraternity Omega Psi Phi and Yale’s Steppin Out, who chanted slogans like, “I’m tired of all this senseless violence” and “If Eric Garner/Tamir Rice/Sandra Bland were here, [they’d] appreciate something like this.” One of the Graces, a trio of opera singers who performed throughout the piece, sang “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” to a man held in a large plastic ball like a womb. One scene projected the names of Black victims of racist violence onto the set while the cast read them aloud and the audience repeated the word “commemorating.”  

But even here, the piece danced around a key component of grief: anger. While a few lines presented by poet Aja Monet sounded the notes of revolution, like, “state violence is as intimate as forced kiss” or, “protest to the petition for presence […] the pirouette next to a barricade,” in general, Carrie Mae Weems’s “Grace Notes” offered was a flattened version of what it purported to offer–that is, a new sense of peace and renewal, and a putting to rest of the restless victims of the massacre of Black lives.

Grace was presented as an alternative, a healing, begrudging salve for all our wounds.  As is common in many Black religious communities, she promised that, “If not in this life, in the next we’ll be free.” But this refrain is nothing new. What we were so desperate for – “to bury our brother with dignity” – Weems fell short of providing.