Race, sex and religion all are subjects of debate and drama.
And New York choreographer Bill T. Jones brings all of them to the stage in a complicated dance and theater piece called "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin." The production fascinated audiences in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, N.Y., and it comes to Hoch Auditorium on Feb. 5 as part of the Kansas University New Directions Series.
The issues raised in "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin" are certainly thought-provoking, and the production itself, with a scene featuring nudity, is out of the ordinary. So, although the KU performance is more than two months away, Jacqueline Davis, director of KU's Concert, Chamber Music and New Directors Series, is already working to make sure her audience understands and appreciates Jones' artistic intentions.
"I HAD seen Bill's choreography, and I knew he was the one of the most important choreographers of the late 20th century," Davis said Saturday. "I felt that Lawrence should see his work because it's such a good place for the arts, and since it would be performed in a university setting, it would be possible to develop forums and discussions."
Area performers will get a chance to audition for the piece, which uses performers from the community where it plays. That audition is scheduled for noon Dec. 8 at 242 Robinson Center.
Jones is artistic director of the New York dance group Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co. Zane, Jones' partner, died of AIDS in 1988; Jones created his "Last Supper" based on an idea Zane had.
In four movements, the piece uses the famed Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' as the foundation of a multi-media production that touches such diverse themes as religion, sexuality and race.
IN EXAMINING issues of faith and freedom, the production shows Jones' struggle to come to grips with his mother's and his own faith, Davis said. For example, Jones brings on a clergyman from the community where the show is produced for an unrehearsed, respectful question-and-answer period.
In the final movement, called "The Promised Land," Jones takes the text of Martin Luther King's "I Had a Dream" speech and has it read backwards as more than 50 artists, both from his company and from the community, perform. At the end of this movement, the performers appear in the nude.
For such a complicated production, Davis said, presenters such as herself have a responsibility to help the community understand the artist's intentions.
"YEARS AGO, presenters in the United States were passive deliverers," Davis said. "Because of the tremendous amount of changes over the last 10 to 15 years among presenters, we realize our responsibility goes much further.
"It includes a responsibility to the audience to allow them to understand the work more fully. And it's become clear to me over the last couple of years that we have an obligation to the peformers to create a context for them before they come."
To prepare for the event, Davis met with other groups who plan to offer "The Last Supper" as part of their seasons. They saw a version of the performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, and they talked about how best to bring it to their audiences.
RECENTLY, DAVIS has discussed the content of the piece with university and city officials. Depending on his schedule, Jones may stay after the performance to discuss it with audience members.
In addition, Robert Shelton, university ombudsman and associate professor of religion, plans to set up discussion groups about the piece. He has scheduled a gathering of any interested people for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 in the Skilton Lounge of Murphy Hall to discuss the work and suggest some appropriate background reading.
"When you get something new like this, you don't have the same kind of automatic background as you do in a classical piece," Shelton said.
Jones' use of nudity has been supported by dance observers, including Laura Shapiro in the Nov. 19 issue of Newsweek.
"In the final moments of Jones's piece, some 50 dancers are massed onstage, nude," she writes. "They include as many races and physical types as the audience; and their naked bodies and calm, open expressions create a transcendent vision of courage and community."
Davis said the last passage tries to show what humans have in common beneath veneers such as race and religious affiliation.
"It shows the universality of us all," she said.