(E)cho (Q)ueue Review
By Tammy Johnson
“Gas up Re-Re!” said Edward, “We’re going to the Power Plant tonight!” We drove that rusty Renault Alliance two hours South from Milwaukee to Chicago, hoping to lose and find ourselves on the dance floor. Little did I know that I would sweat out my perm to the mastery of house music legend, Frankie Knuckles. Edward introduced me to house music that night, and I never looked back.
The Chicago house music of my youth was the kissing cousin of the Detroit and New York techno scenes of the ‘80s. The primarily Black, Latinx, and queer communities which made these dance floors their church, are still at it today. I was transported back to that time as I rocked in my seat during Stephanie Hewett’s (E)cho(Q )ueue.
Hewett describes (E)cho (Q)ueue as “an experimental multimedia performance piece that reinforces techno music as an inherently Black American invention by examining its lineage and synthesizing Afro-Diasporic rhythmic and tonal forms with movement.” Yes, it was that and more. It was church.
They are sacred. Techno dance spaces are sacred spaces where these communities, particularly queer Black folk, could come and just be themselves. (E)cho (Q)ueue reminded us of this. The piece begins with a ritual cleansing by angelic robed dancers, Audrey Johnson, Laila Shabazz and Hewett. Oh, we were going to have a good time. But the foundation of our fun is a history that needed to be named, understood, revered and exalted.
The story about techno as told by Black people is about showing up as our full selves and showing out without hesitation. Hewett, Johnson and Shabazz reminded us that the party vibe is about much more than partying. Preparing to party is a ritual. The trio thumb through the crated vinyl records and adorned the walls and themselves in a manner fit for ceremony. Taking turns to testify with their bodies, and dancing with their shadow selves, it was evident that this is how Black people work out struggles of life and create a path to a freedom of our own making. And yes, like church, I felt an urge to join them and their holy ghosts on the floor.
In any dance club worthy of a beat, the floor and walls conspire to move your molecules. The use of video imagery in (E)cho (Q)ueue did much of the same, propelling the storytelling without interrupting that spirit of the piece. A video of dancers vibing on chains felt familiar. All of sudden we were club kids dancing with projected images on a wall, losing yourself in the beat. Techno transformed the chains from tools of restraint to links of liberation. Joslynn Mathis-Reed’s homage to Jitney dancing and the Detroit techno scene brought the audience even closer to the experience. “I feel super free to express my whole being,” asserted Mathis-Reed as she bounced between train tracks. She lovingly reflected on how her mother supported her musings through techno records. And we are right there in the basement with her singing, “Titties and ass! Titties and ass!”
The storytelling through the audio voice overs of Mckenzie Angelo and others remind us that the dance floor is also a place of grief and mourning, as well as resistance. The DJ stand is transformed into an altar as Mckenzie goes deeper into the Detroit and Brooklyn’s scene’s history. Mirroring the spiritual traditions of Black folk, she calls out the names of ancestors like DJ and producer, Kelli K-Hand. A snippet from the Dreaming Live podcast is our community griot, spitting truth about the financial barriers created by predominantly white electronic music aficionados. “They priced us out of the game!” he laments.
But it is still our game. The trio returned to validate that sentiment with white boots and wigs that accentuates the groove of a P-Funk classic. Then Hewett doubles down with a transportive solo that weaves in and out of the liminal space of the techno’s historical shifts.
This could have easily been an academic thesis wrapped in expertly executed movement episodes, with hints of nostalgic references for affect. But it wasn’t that kind of party. It’s difficult to manage multiple voice overs, videos, costume changes, and lighting mood shifts in a way that creates the right container for compelling storytelling. The production team of Madre Guía, Abdoulie Jallow and Joslynn Mathis-Reed did that, and well!
(E)cho (Q)ueue, much like the techno history that it celebrates, is a moving experience, but not just an experience. Much like the Black church that many in the techno community come from, it lifts up the spirit of the art form and the voices of the people who created it.
Tammy Johnson is a dancer, producer, culture keeper, writer, somatics coach, equity consultant and godmother extraordinaire, living in unceded Ohlone land, known as Oakland, California