Go Deeper

Jaamil Kosoko and Mother USA want you

Posted June 7th, 2010

When Jaamil Olawale Kosoko was a kid growing up in Detroit, he broke into the ice cream truck that his father, a Nigerian immigrant, drove for a living, and gave out free frozen treats to anyone who wanted them. “I didn’t have any friends,” he says. “I thought people would want to be my friend if I gave them free ice cream!”

Memories like this one, at times painful but always tinted with Kosoko’s sense of humor, form the inspiration for the 28-year-old choreographer’s dances like Or Maybe My Mother was an American Chameleon? A preview of this work-in-progress will be performed this Thursday, June 10th at 8pm for Second Thursday at the Live Arts Studio. The finished piece will be 1/8 of the Festival’s 8 (eight choreographers / eight new works).

Though the piece’s title is a reflection on the “ghost” of his schizophrenic mother, Kosoko is something of a chameleon himself. In addition to choreographing with his company KOSOKO PEFORMANCE GROUP since 2006, he is also a comedian, performance artist, arts manager, experimental vocalist, and sometimes drag bird (you may be familiar with his alter-ego, J-Luv, who co-hosted the 2009 Rocky Awards). “In one piece I’ll have drag, then stand-up comedy, then pure dance and then a soap opera scene. I like that puzzle of ‘How do you make that make sense?'” he says of the interdisciplinary nature of his work. That element is less intentional, he notes, than simply a product of his multi-faceted background.

Kosoko’s childhood was split between Detroit, where he was born and raised, and his mother’s native Natchez, Mississippi, where he moved by himself when he was 11 to take care of his ailing grandmother. Back then, his ability to move seamlessly between worlds had yet to be honed. “The nature of society in the South is different, and my mother’s reputation had preceded her. To be an afro-centric, neo-soul, alternative, schizophrenic who had moved North . . . the whole town knew this crazy black woman.” Through the teasing at school and caring for his grandma at home, Kosoko kept a journal of poetry–a journal he also kept private.

Find out whether anyone ever read those poems by clicking more.

Even when his grandmother passed away three years later and Kosoko returned to Detroit, he felt “this longing feeling. But there was so little art there.” At his Detroit high school, Murray-Wright, there was a dance club that he thought of joining, but instead he ended up in the naval ROTC program. “I wanted to make art, but I didn’t know how, so I found myself in gym class doing push-ups.” It wasn’t until an immensely supportive school counselor, Margaret Montgomery, took him to his first poetry reading and got him a job tearing tickets at the Museum of African American History that he ever thought of sharing his work with anyone else. “I didn’t know that people did that.” Thankfully he was enlightened, because that reading inspired him to develop and express his own poetry. At 16, he was accepted into the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, where in addition to writing he studied photography. “That really was the moment when my life changed. I felt an enormous shift, like a sign that said ‘Oh, I’ll be OK now.'”

From Interlochen he went on to study literature and performance at Bennington College in Vermont, where he graduated in 2005, and moved to Philly at the suggestion of friends. He remembers being dropped off at 30th Street Station and thinking, “What do I do now?” The indecision didn’t last for long, because in the next year he formed his dance company and continued to author poems, getting published in The American Poetry Review and The Broad Street Review, among other publications. “For a long time I kept two separate worlds–my poetry life and dance life. I’ve only recently begun to brush those two worlds up together.”

Or Maybe My Mother Was An American Chameleon? is a product of that blending. “I construct dances from poetic sensibility. Poetry relies heavily on image, and I make my dance that way, too.” The image in this case is a portrait of “‘Mother USA,’ a schizo-strong-manic-beautifully ill woman with a hard past. She’s a parallel between the woman I came from, and the country I live in–the mother country of the world.” The piece, a combination of reality and theater which Kosoko dubs “fictional memoir,” requires commitment not only from the dancers–“They’re telling me, ‘This is a new way of moving for me and it’s challenging and awesome at the same time'”–but from the audience as well. Kosoko’s asking for mp3 submissions from the community (send to jaamil [at] kosokoperformance [dot] org) to use as the soundtrack for American Chameleon. He’s hoping for recordings of the audience’s relationship with their mother and “Mother USA,” from songs to straightforward conversations. “Like a voicemail to your country,” he explains.

The piece is a prequel to the forthcoming Perhaps My Father Was A Nigerian Butterfly?, a parallel rumination on family, fatherhood, and his Nigerian ancestry, inspired in part by Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Kosoko hopes that the blurring of reality and performance, theater and memory will leave the audience wondering “Is this real?” Of course, if the final piece includes that memory in the ice cream truck, a good measure of reality would be the free ice cream. I’d be his friend regardless.

KOSOKO PERFORMANCE GROUP is currently working on a Kickstarter project to raise $1000 for a new work. They are currently 16% funded and accepting pledges until July 25th. Click the link above to make a pledge.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy of Ellen Freeman and Josh McIlvain. Photo of mother courtesy of the artist.