Robert Moses: Honest Bodies In Untruthful Times

There is a saying ‘ it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.’ It’s an untrusting position with an undertow of powerlessness and cynicism. But it also accepts the adage that power corrupts. Do we really trust our leaders? Do we believe President George W. Bush’s claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did we believe ex-President Bill Clinton’s assertion that he didn’t have sexual relations with that woman?

Those recent lies are not just a product of our age of hyper-reality and simulacra, where we accept the unreal as much as the real. They are indicative of the self-delusion that eats at the soul of responsibility. And it has always been so. William Jefferson Clinton’s favorite founding father was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He claimed slavery was immoral and yet owned 650 of them. In Flawed Founders Stephen E. Ambrose writes that “Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime…Of all the contradictions in Jefferson’s contradictory life, none is greater”. But even more hypocritical is his fathering the children of Sally Hemings, a slave who served as Jefferson’s chambermaid.

Robert Moses’ The President’s Daughter finds parallels between this event and the more recent case of the late Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator from North Carolina, who fathered Essie Washington. She was born to an African American maid, Carrie Butler in 1925 when Butler was 16 and Thurmond was 22. Similar to Sally Hemings, Butler had been a servant in the Thurmond household. Twenty-three years after her birth Thurmond reminded his supporters:
” I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

The President’s Daughter isn’t a smug piece of theatrical finger-pointing – indeed both facts have been known for some time now. Moses’ simple presentation of what happened speaks louder because it is us that have to answer the questions. And so, what do we expect of those who govern us? What responsibility do we have to demand integrity? Is it enough to shrug and accept that lies are told?

It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The misdemeanors of Thurmond and Jefferson came from their power over these women. So do our leaders exercise their power in other irresponsible ways? Corruption is the amalgamation of many small lies or compromises that are not seen by the average person. It doesn’t suddenly materialize, but appears over time as power grows, and usually those yielding the power are clever enough to mask it with noble acts and words.

When we, the public, discover the corruption we claim there is a betrayal of trust placed in the hands of leaders, although often we might have suspected or known it has taken place for some time. Rather than let us bask in our self-righteousness, The President’s Daughter challenges this hypocrisy. We all lie. And we all accept lies from other people on a daily basis. This superficial world, where looking good is more important than being good, is full of lies. So how much is too much? And, ultimately, how honest are you?

Of course, theater itself is a great lie, but Cause is probably as close to the truth as you can get. Developed and originally performed in collaboration with Youth Speaks – the San Francisco-based organization promoting oral and written literacy – it is almost the antithesis of The President’s Daughter in its execution, but a kindred spirit in its expressions of frustration around issues of race, gender and violence. Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said: “I think a writer writes only one book, although that book may appear in several volumes under different titles.” Robert Moses has created an impressive canon of work and some issues may reappear in works and addressed from differing standpoints. This isn’t conceptual laziness but his genuine motivation to constantly engage with hypocrisy and prejudice.

The voice of youth in Cause is replaced by a single repeating refrain – “we regret to inform you …” – in the anti-war Speaking Ill of the Dead, created with David Worm (from Oakland’s vocal ensemble SoVoSó). In Biography, we tune into a 1961 radio discussion with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya and Alfred Kazin. As with The President’s Daughter, Moses encourages reflection from the audience, not just though the words of the aural intercourse on “The Negro in American Culture”, but through our kinesthetic response to movement and stillness.

It is this kinesthetic empathy that reaches out to us in all his work. When all the texts and costumes are stripped away, it is the primacy of the moving body that contains the essence of Robert Moses’ various acts of creation. And this can be fully indulged in his soliloquy Doscongio. Here we witness the body as primary identifier: evolved, complex, articulate, and truthful. Yes, truthful. Because amidst the spin and lies that surround us in our lives it’s the primacy of the body that retains the greatest truth about who we are. Certainly we can lie through our bodies by changing their exterior, whether by cosmetic surgery or just hair dye. But the moving body contains embodied thoughts and memories that sometimes contradict our lying words. In Doscongio Moses focuses our gaze to just one body and the joyous and self-affirming act of dancing. Buoyed by non-vocal music – Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano – it is the most eloquent response to those who seek to silence voices.

Published by Bates Dance Festival, July 2006