Maggie the Cat by Trajal Harrell
part of Manchester International Festival 2019
A whole heap of cushions. Red, plush, grey – resembling the early stages of a B&M home furnishings sale. An assortment of dress up items suspended from overhead pipes. Trajal stands dressed in black with a white crumpled apron.
“I’m Trajal Harrell and this is Maggie the Cat”.
Maggie the Cat does much more than retell Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – it redefines it. This energised parade takes sissy that walk to new heights and opens our eyes to truly consider whom the servants in Williams’ classic could be without the constraining limitation of being little more than a stage direction or the soft furnishings for a narrative centering whiteness.
Set to an eclectic soundtrack of pop, electro and chant, calmly chaotic is what springs to mind when trying to describe this experience – the swan looks demure on the surface but underneath its feet are going like the clappers. This was very much my brain for the first 15 minutes of diving into the world of Maggie. The combination of vogueing and cat walk couture fashioned from cushions and towels was not only the ideal sight for the voyeur in all of us but summoned a whole heap of questions for me that demonstrate this work’s efforts to go beyond the classic it is modeled on. I journeyed from reflecting on the limitations/possibilities of how we furnish our lives to unpicking chaos as a means of self expression and finally attempting to dissect the psyche of the ‘little black dress’. The surreal and evocative nature of Maggie ensures that you cannot casually sit and watch this production. Harrell has succeeded in completely re-working the home in which the servants work in and by giving them an energy that does not exist in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The contrasts between sensual and demure, poised and frantic really created a feast for the eye of the observer. Coupled with lyrics such as ‘pussy for the breakfast, i want pussy for the breakfast’ and ‘Maggie’s serving British Airways, Maggie’s serving Ryan Air’ (from Harrell and Perle Palombe) created a fantastical delight that resembled what could be a an aspect of a live action version of Fantasia – which would be rather spectacular. The only element of Maggie that leaves some confusion is the unclear rationale for including some white dancers to represent the servants. Harrell may be attempting to communicate something additional to removing the silence that surrounds the portrayal of the black servants in Williams’ original work. But given that this very silence was an initial springboard for the creation of Maggie, the intention behind this casting decision remains unclear.
The repetitive cat walk struts and re-assembly of the space is peculiarly incredibly compelling. I went from initially thinking will this be overdone to thinking there will never be a time for this to stop. The ensemble themselves bring an incredible vibe to space that is celebratory of themselves and everyone who is seeking the freedom to be themselves. Whilst each member of the ensemble brought a unique contribution to the space, Nasheeka Nedsreal and Tiran Normanson brought infectious energy into their performances that were true highlights of the evening. And whats more, Songhay Toldon = FACE. FACE. BEAUTY. FACE. Hire him, if you need this level of excellence in your life.
Harrell has created a piece of work that is quite hard to describe but should definitely be seen. Part re-telling, part social commentary, part celebration, Maggie leaves you feeling like you need to take some time for yourself and reflect, reflect on how we’ve lived before and how we live now. He is one of a handful of choreographers whose work makes me really sit back and think ‘what did I just witness’, and that’s the kind of work that can speak volumes both artistically and socio-politically.
Verdict: Maggie the Cat is one of those ‘what did I just watch’ pieces that would take forever and a day to dissect. An important piece of dance that brings together the erratic and the stillness of life, whilst bringing black characters who have always been sidelined centre stage to just be. Absurdly brilliant.