‘A Song of Songs’ (Photo: Luke Ohlson)
By Billy McEntee
If, like me, you are eagerly awaiting the christening of The Bushwick Starr’s new home, fret not: we may have to wait a few more months, but in the meanwhile, El Puente holds magic as host of the Brooklyn theater company’s latest production.
A Song of Songs—Agnes Borinsky’s gentle and mining meditation on the fuzzy border between love and grief—is now playing at El Puente’s Williamsburg Leadership Center, a venue providing the perfect architecture for this theatrical work.
Before El Puente was the community rights organization it is today, it was a church, Nadine (Borinsky) tells us. And before it was a place of worship, it was an opera house. Before that it was land; before then, ice. As the environs for Borinsky’s piece, this lineage feels right. Not only is Borinsky’s ritual tinged with the heightened emotions of an opera and the inconclusive questions of faith, but puente is also Spanish for bridge, and A Song of Songs is less a capital-P Play as it is a communion of (not-so-) distant emotions, love and loss, bending toward one another.
Riffing on and queering the biblical poem of the same name, A Song of Songs (which Slave Play‘s Jeremy O. Harris co-presents with The Bushwick Starr, in partnership with El Puente and in association with Clubbed Thumb) traces two femmes at a crossroads in their relationship. Nadine wants a new language to discover, articulate, and share love; Sarah (Sekai Abeni) unpacks this emotion in more concrete and physical terms. There’s mundane domesticity (Sarah and Nadine discuss misplaced face wash) rubbing up against fantasy’s splendor (complete with a trip to the underworld) and communal rituals (audiences are invited to contribute flowers and names of lost ones to various altars). The marriage of styles is another way in which Borinsky demonstrates how close “opposing” emotions may be. Why do we grieve if not because of an intense love?
These styles and scenes (more like charming vignettes) easily flow from one into the other in director Machel Ross’s production, which makes dynamic use of El Puente’s abundant square footage and levels. The cast is uniformly strong, especially the third performer, a vivacious Ching Valdes-Aran as Nadine’s godmother who knows a thing or two about the cycles of pain and promise.
Her final rumination on love and adaptation—a gift to this song’s young lovers—is deeply moving. Perhaps it’s the warmth I needed after questioning my decision to walk 30 minutes in the snow to El Puente. Or maybe it was the sage nourishment we all craved as our world teeters on war. If anything, Borinsky’s shared grace was a refreshing reminder of the temporal; seasons change, empires fall, gardens bloom.
A Song of Songs
The Bushwick Starr, presented at El Puente
211 South 4th Street, Brooklyn, New York
Through March 27
Billy McEntee is a Brooklyn-based freelance arts critic. He’s written for Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, and Observer.