‘Salt City’ is an Afrofuturistic techno choreopoem about gentrification

Jun 12, 2019 at 1:00 am
Sokhna Heathyre Mabin as “Cosmic Mother” and cast at a recent rehearsal for Salt City.
Sokhna Heathyre Mabin as “Cosmic Mother” and cast at a recent rehearsal for Salt City. Africana Digital Ethnography Project (ADEPt)

The multi-purpose room at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History bustles with 100 degrees of raw energy as 11 cast members from the "choreopoem" Salt City dance, stomp, sing, and act. Directors Aku Kadogo, Marlies Yearby, and jessica Care moore sit in observance, giving suggestions and taking notes. The cast hasn't started dress rehearsals yet, so there are no aesthetics to speak of, no fancy costumes or professional audio. But the synergy in the room feels like the cast is under bright lights. Each participant is locked in and bringing out the best in their characters.

Salt City is the brainchild of moore, a local legend and nationally known interdisciplinary artist. It's an Afrofuturistic story about the theme of global colonization, using heavy doses of techno undertones and overtones. The story is set in the future of 3071 where the main character, Salt, is born with a heartbeat of 909 that mimics the drum pattern of techno music. Set in salt mines more than 1,000 feet underground, Salt is transported through space and time to reveal her true destiny.

"Salt was a character I was dreaming about many years ago in Atlanta," moore says. "I was experimenting with different dancers, different choreographers, putting poetry inside their bodies." moore cites playwright and poet Ntozake Shange as an inspiration.

Salt City delves into issues of identity, displacement, belonging, and social justice concerns that echo the form of gentrification that Detroit is experiencing today. "We talk so much about gentrification and the right now," moore says. "That's the story everyone wants to talk about all the time, and it's happening all over the world. Indiginous communities are being taken over by cranes. It's a big scene in the piece in which the cranes are a metaphor about what's happening. It's about global colonization, it's also about what we're going to do about it, so it's not just us complaining."

"We are of value," says Yearby, a Tony-nominated choreographer. "As a community changes, as it's gentrified, sometimes the community forgets its value. We have a purpose beyond this moment. How do we take the legacy of who we are and move it forward to generation to generation and to the future? How do we still remain here? How do we still survive?"

The production and soundtrack will feature the music of artists like Mike Banks, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Nick Speed, Drummer B, John Dixon, and many others. "Techno came at a time when there needed to be a voice about something," Yearby says. "A lot of things were happening simultaneously, including music [and] the actual instruments being taken out of schools. And you find a new way still to be heard."

Salt City has been a true labor of love for the trio, with the production being four years in the making, with each revision and version getting better and better. (moore originally called it a "blue collar ballet.") The project received $64,000 in funding from the Knight Arts Challenge in 2017, and won a 2018 Joyce Award for $50,000.

"This is just another literation of it, we just keep growing it," says Aku Kadogo, who is also the chair of the Department of Theatre and Performance at Spelman College in Atlanta.

The cast is made up of a mixed bag of seasoned vets with theater experience and participants who've never acted before. "This is Detroit. I always think of Motown, where people started as a secretary and they ended up being a star," Kadogo says with a laugh. "We're unearthing people's abilities. You gotta nurture, console, scream at, and pray."

The production runs 90 minutes, and the goal is for audiences to leave feeling entertained, enlightened, and inspired. Sokhna Heathyre Mabin, who plays the Cosmic Mother says, "I hope they are bouncing from music and really lifted from a futuristic tale of hope and transformation."

Salt City has showtimes with doors at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 13 through June 15, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 16 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800; thewright.org. Tickets $10 for students, $15 for museum members, and $20 general admission.

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