There’s opera, there’s blues, and then there’s an opera done by a “negrogothic, devil-worshipping, free black man in the blues tradition.” This is the self-constructed description of performer M. Lamar’s contribution to Prototype Festival, a Brooklyn celebration of operatic performance that just finished its 2017 run this past Sunday. Dubbed Funeral Doom Spiritual, Lamar filled a two-floor performance room at National Sawdust with a black-veiled orchestra, a wooden coffin, and harrowing projected footage of breathless black bodies, while the artist himself played piano and sung a narrative of torment in his chilling soprano voice for 75 minutes.
Funeral Doom Spiritual began at a slow but intriguing pace. At the very start, only the orchestra was on the stage, playing harsh, arrhythmic sounds while a black and white fire projected on the wall behind them. Dressed in all-black, hooded executioner garb, the orchestra seemed like inverted Klansmen (reminiscent of the figures shown at the start of Kanye West’s "BLKKK SKKKN HEAD" music video). As they droned on, Lamar slowly approached the stage, donned in a flowing outfit that could only be described as Hood By Air meets Medieval garb. After a platform lifted himself and the coffin to the main level, Lamar slowly crossed the stage, stopping to gesticulate in synchrony with the music, until reaching an unoccupied grand piano. Now the funeral had begun.
Centered around the trauma of a lost love, Lamar’s performance shifted between wailing screeches to woeful laments. “Sixteen times the gun cried…This state sanctioned genocide,” Lamar cries out. “Your death has become my life!” The artist enacts the role of a perpetually mourning, supernatural being, whose friend, family member, or lover (it’s never quite clear), has reached a demise at the hand at the “US white supremacist empire.” As footage of the man he mourns lying dead in the coffin is projected onto the wall, Lamar mourns further, “Oh your soul, oh my soul…I can’t lay this body down...O star fall, sweet graveyard…raise des bodies up!”
The lamentation never seems to end, and Lamar becomes increasingly distraught as the opera goes on. At one point, trumpets are introduced to the mix, with scattered off-stage performers blowing their instruments without warning. As the performance near its finale, it becomes increasingly aggressive and haunting. “Scarecrow Jim Crow!” Lamar bellows. “We are demons coming at you to end it all! We will end it all!”
At its grand finale, all of the performers in Funeral Doom Spiritual gain what feels like supernaturally frenetic, uncontrollable energy. The screen turns black and suddenly Lamar yells out “Destruction!” Lights begin to flash in an almost epileptic manner. The screen’s clear visuals suddenly become pixelated and noisy as if receiving some kind of otherworldly interference. The orchestra starts playing faster and faster in a less rhythmic but much more primal manner. Lamar screams and gags as if possessed by a demon of black rage and vengeance, while the word guilty flashes in and out of the screen. The artist’s words “None of you will make it out alive!” are the last sounds you hear before the sound suddenly stops and the stage lights turn off, instilling a lasting sensation of haunting uneasiness that carries the performance into an after-life of its own.
While my senses were deeply affected by the performance, I’m not entirely sure what to think as it ends, beyond the tragedy that pervades black collective memory. But perhaps this is the point of the show. “Funeral Doom Spiritual is a song of mourning for what Anthony Paul Farley calls ‘the motionless movement of death through slavery, segregation, and neo-segregation,” Lamar states in the performance’s press release. To mourn is to have an attunement with one’s feelings and perhaps to overanalyze these sensations on an intellectual level takes away from the raw, emotional aspect of lamentation.
Funeral Doom Spiritual was incarnated in four performances at Williamsburg’s National Sawdust, as part of the Prototype Festival. For more info on the show and the rest of the festival’s performances, click here. Check out documentation of M. Lamar’s work on his website.