“My family began the black migration of Minneapolis,” writes the choreographer Ralph Lemon on the first page of his memoir Come Home Charley Patton (Wesleyan; $30). The clan originally came from Lancaster, South Carolina, which, Lemon points out, is still a segregated town: most of the blacks live on “Back Street” (now White Street), and most of the black men are in jail. Some of Lemon’s ancestors were able to pass for white, and did. Some were darker and had to sit at the back of the bus. Lemon, who was born in 1952, experienced racism during family trips to the South, but mostly learned about its deep history through conversations with older relatives, snippets of which appear in his new book.
As a young man, Lemon wanted to be a painter, but like the choreographer Paul Taylor, he discovered dance in college. After graduating, he trained with the modern dancer Nancy Hauser and joined her company, then moved to New York City, the mecca of postmodern dance. In 1985, he started his own company, working mostly with white performers, but a decade later he dissolved it in order to seek out a more personal way of making dances, less dependent on creating movement for a group of dancers in the studio and more on following his own wide-ranging musings. Over the course of a decade, from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, Lemon developed three pieces for the stage—Geography, Tree and Come Home Charley Patton—exploring his ideas about race, philosophy and identity. It is for this series (known collectively as the “Geography Trilogy”) that he is best known.
“How does one use, how can one use, how should one use a volatile historical fact as creative fodder?” Lemon asks. It’s a tricky question, and it has loomed large in his choreography. Onstage, Lemon’s materials are movement, words, and his own very personal, nonlinear way of presenting the issues that concern him: history and memory, race and philosophy, the body in motion, the act of performance itself. Through a lengthy process of writing and thinking, improvisation in the studio, and paring down over the course of numerous public workshop sessions, Lemon turns years of research into dance-theater meditations that only tangentially reveal their sources. Even after the initial performance, the process of research and distillation continues, with Lemon creating books filled with notes, reflections, lists, and cartoon-like drawings and watercolors, a kind of travelogue of his journey from the germ of an idea to its execution, from the vague to the concrete. Come Home Charley Patton is the third of these impressionistic memoir-cum-scrapbooks.
Charley Patton is perhaps the most intimate, as it deals very directly with the tormented subject of race and Lemon’s family history. It is named after a Delta bluesman, whom Lemon describes in Come Home as “more myth than real person,” a man who “married eight times and reportedly had his throat slit when he was forty-two.” His quest for the “environment of the Delta Blues” is just one way of dissecting the politics of race. Again and again, Lemon finds that it is white people who seem most attached to the history of this musical idiom. “Why is it that black folk aren’t the ones opening these blues museums that seem to be popping up everywhere?” he asks.