Opera explores gentrification through Brer Rabbit, funk music • Brooklyn Paper

Opera explores gentrification through Brer Rabbit, funk music

Hop-era: Musicians and cast members of “Brer Rabbit the Opera: A Funky Meditation on Gentrification.”
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

Displacement — thereby hangs a tale.

A Bedford–Stuyvesant artist and her collaborators are exploring gentrification through the twin lenses of African folk tales and funk music, with a production called “Brer Rabbit the Opera: A Funky Meditation on Gentrification.” And you can get a sneak-peak at a work-in-progress performance of the show at Bric House in Fort Greene on Jan. 22 and 23.

The script takes its cues from folk stories of the wily rabbit — a character known practically everywhere the African Diaspora has touched, the artist said.

“I was really interested in the idea of briar patches as a metaphor for predominantly black neighborhoods,” said performance artist Aisha Cousins. “One of the most famous stories is where he gets caught by his nemesis, and the way he gets out of it is he tricks his nemesis into throwing him into a briar patch under the pretense that he’ll die there — but he escapes, because he was actually born there.”

Cousins traveled around Brooklyn collecting folks’ personal stories about gentrification as material for the opera, which is set in a futuristic analog of the predominantly black Bedford–Stuyvesant called the Briar Patch — a neighborhood that, like the Bedford–Stuyvesant of today, is at a tipping point.

“I was interested in unique things about gentrifying black neighborhoods — what’s there, what’s lost — and cultural loss was a major theme,” Cousins said.

Cousins wrote the script, and Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber will perform the music.

The Arkestra is reminiscent of immortal funk band Parliament Funkadelic — and like George Clinton’s group of extra-terrestrial groove jockeys, the Arkestra’s versifications aren’t always G-rated, Cousins said.

“It’s funky, but at a certain point, there is language and innuendos where, if your kids under 13, you might have to start explaining things you don’t want to explain,” she said.

The performance marks a departure for Cousins, whose previous projects include an alternate census of African-Americans in Weeksville and re-mapping streets in Bedford–Stuyvesant with the names of black historical figures.

“The pieces that I do are usually much more low-key — usually performance art in the museum sense,” said Cousins. “They don’t usually go on stage. It was really interesting working with people who think about how to stage things. It’s really amazing watching Greg compose the music.”

Cousins, who has lived in Bedford–Stuyvesant since 1989, said she was inspired by the neighborhood’s quick-onset gentrification, which is shifting the area from neighborhood to for-sale good.

“It’s weird to be in a place that’s kind of become a commodity for other people,” she said.

“Brer Rabbit the Opera: A Funky Meditation on Gentrification” at Bric House (647 Fulton St. between Rockwell and Ashland places in Fort Greene, www.brica‌rtsme‌dia.org). Jan. 22 and 23 at 8 pm. $15.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg‌er@cn‌gloca‌l.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.

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