Performing Arts: Theater
March 9, 2021
When Nina Simone wove “Good King Wenceslas” into her rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” a lyrical portrait of loneliness became all the heavier when wrapped in holiday subtext. In Use Your Head for More, Justin Hicks integrates the same tune to a much different effect, as the aural centerpiece of his series of audiovisual portraits, commissioned and streamed by Baryshnikov Arts Center.

A tender groove of percussion and autoharp, unusual harmonization and coy melodic fragmentation all but conceal the carol until the singers share in a deep and joyous unison “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo… doo doo doodoo… doo…doo.” Along the way, Hicks initiates and veers from the melody with soulful riffs and runs, filling it textually with quotes from and reflections on his mother, who often told him to “Use your head for more than a hat rack.”

Hicks’ mom is, of course, not the originator of this phrase, but her implementation of the idiom is certainly unique. In a Zoom-ed conversation with Hicks and his collaborators, moderated by singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, Hicks explains that his mother employed “Good King Wenceslas” as a code song – if she needed someone to pick her children up from school, they would be equipped with the tune to confirm that they were sanctioned by mom and were not a kidnapper.

We never get this sort of clear context in the piece itself, 40-minutes of collaged material prompted by Hicks discovering a tape of a conversation he had with his mother in 2005. The text is largely mom’s words, spoken and sung through Hicks’ voice, supported additionally by sisters Jade Hicks and Jasmine Enlow, who chant and harmonize throughout the video. Three siblings, each about two years apart in age, have come together to create an “emotional heirloom,” a thought surprising to their mother, quoted in the work as unable “to imagine remembering something [they] woudn’t…couldn’t…”

Visually, Hicks’ wife Kenita Miller captures and mutates the couple’s Bronx home on camera, fixating on textures, shapes, and spaces in such a way as to seemingly chance upon Justin like a big foot sighting. Never do we see him up front and in focus. We get the skin cells of his hands sliding along a green, grainy wall, his face, blurred, emerging from a cloudy dark, and the topography of his back as he solemnly and delicately traces his way through the house in a blue suit. Lines and lyrics dubbed, the visual Hicks is a stranger in his own home, yet in a complete, multimedia familial embrace.

Tuce Yasak’s lighting just as well expands the sense of space. Dark, cool shades contrast a vibrant gold wash, punctuated by throbbing horizontal waves. These treatments cycle through every filmed area, layered in multiple exposures by editor Breck Omar Brunson. Through Brunson’s editing and Sean Davis’ mixing, we experience heightened aural potentials of regular household items – lamps switch on and off into a gamelan- esque rhythmic spectrum, and doors creak with a cello’s resonance.

This sort of repurposing doesn’t stop at being just another quarantine project – it is so much more an implementation of practices inspired by a mother who raised her children to practice radical and indiscriminate creativity in the name of survival. The same ethos that made clothes out of scraps finds music in all things, and demands that this imaginative power be used for good and never wane.
EYE ON THE ARTS,NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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