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‘Heart of Brick’ recognizes the quieter moments of Black queer nightlife

A theatrical show from musician serpentwithfeet gets its American premiere

Imagine a nightclub stripped bare of the blaring music, strobe lights, and anonymous bodies crowding the dance floor. Instead, Heart of Brick, a new theatrical production from experimental R&B musician serpentwithfeet (aka Josiah Wise) offers seven dancers and a singer with an otherworldly falsetto.

This clutter-free approach makes room for the more intimate moments of connection that Wise, 35, and his collaborators have found in their experience of Black queer nightlife: the first tentative touches between soon-to-be lovers, the self-effacing humor embedded in flirtations, and the cajoling and teasing among friends.

“A lot of times we think about the bombastic and flashy parts of the club,” Wise said, “and that is definitely an essential part to nightlife. But I think there’s also really quiet moments that happen. Moments when maybe you don’t feel as cute at the club, and, and you get some encouragement. Or maybe you don’t get encouragement, and you go home and process that and then you come back the next time and feel more confident. What is the moment when you flirt with somebody and you’re not sure how into you they are … is it just going to be a dance floor romance? Or is it going to extend? I wanted to make songs for each of those moments.”

Wise has released two studio albums (Soil in 2018; Deacon in 2021) and collaborated with artists from Björk to Ty Dolla $ign. As he wrote songs for a new album (the release date hasn’t been announced), he began to think of how they might take theatrical form. A producer connected Wise’s team with The Joyce Theater in New York City, which has long been a home to concert dance, it seemed a natural fit. The group that brought Heart of Brick to the stage included director Wu Tsang, choreographer and dramaturge Raja Feather Kelly (A Strange Loop), and Donte Collins, the 2016 winner of the Seth Frank Most Promising Young Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets.

“We were really drawn immediately to the idea that the story was about Black queer spaces and would be told and shepherded by Black queer artists,” Ross LeClair, in-house producer for The Joyce Theater, said. “But the idea that this show would be the representation to go along with this new music and would be performed with this music [live], felt like something we don’t see very often.”

The show had its world premiere in Germany last month and begins its American tour this week in New York. The production will make stops in several major cities through the fall, from Los Angeles and Seattle to Boston, as well as smaller towns such as North Adams, Massachusetts, and Bentonville, Arkansas.

From the first scene, Wise addresses the audience, turning spectators into confidantes. His eponymous character, serpentwithfeet, is cozy on the sofa and reluctant to go out lest he should run into his ex. But a sense of adventure is rewarded when he encounters a bouncer named Brick. A love story unfolds and Wise’s mundane decision to go out leads to a metamorphosis. While the show is not autobiographical, the reverence for the dance club is real.

Choreographer Raja Feather Kelly tried to embody the thin veil between the subconscious and conscious in Heart of Brick.

Alex Kikis

“Going out clubbing, going out dancing, raised me a second time,” Wise said. “I learned more about my body. I discovered more about the way it took up space. I found a new sense of humor and a new way to establish community. Also just discovering new music that I hadn’t heard was always a magical thing. It was sort of like a second coming-of-age.”

This idea of club culture as an opportunity to come into one’s own and integrate different identifications, drop various shields, or forge new personas resonated with the show’s collaborators. 

“I avoided going out to nightclubs,” said Kelly, whose dances often refer to pop culture. “I was like, I’m not good enough. I’m not what the boys want. I’m not what they call ‘trade.’ … So what is the thing that gets people going, right? For me, my MO was dance. I’m not trade, I don’t have a clique of friends, I’m not a big drinker, I’m not going out to do drugs and lose myself, but I’m gonna go and dance and think about my body, I’m going to live that.”

Collins, who co-wrote the book with Wise, said their experiences in the club have been tender.

“It’s a place that you show up open and agree to the music or to conversation or to just be present with your breath,” Collins said. “And I love that. I think there are few places where you can go and be unabashedly in your body and with other people who are unabashedly in their bodies and not be judged.”

Along with the celebration of the body, the present moment, or a particular night, the club can also be an environment for finding peers.

“Who are my people? What’s my culture inside this culture? For some queer people, the nightclub is a bridge to that second coming-of-age,” Kelly said. “It’s certainly a place where if you have the means and the interest to go out and explore, you start to learn more about how the culture exists, and how the culture manifests, and how you want to participate in that, which can be both social and very political, very personal, and very public.”

Collins agrees. “Queer men are often robbed of acting on desire young, right? We’re closeted. And we don’t have queer community young. So often our teenage desires and longings are acted out in our mid- or late 20s. I mean sexual desire, but I also mean just a desire for closeness, a desire to see yourself in another person.”

In this space of discovery, new love and friendship blooms between characters and, ultimately, triumphs over doubts, gossip and a close encounter with death. Wise’s conversational lyrics — “I don’t want to make a mess, I don’t want to move too fast, but let’s not avoid the deep end” and “I’m your safe word”— have the suave quality of ’90s R&B in Wise’s crooning, but ripple over layers of orchestration that refer to a wide range of musical forms. Like some of Wise’s previous music, fantastical elements are at play and the plot of Heart of Brick has the feel of a fable. Among the lovers and clique of friends, there is a prophet character, modeled on both Pilate from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Puck from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“I think of it as this Afro-surrealist experience that doesn’t waste the audience’s time,” Collins said. “He [Wise] wanted it to be mundane and clear. He also wanted it to be light, but to have a lesson, to have that sort of fable feeling. There is no veil between you and the language.”

The dancing also aims for accessibility, favoring the movement language of love, desire, and empowerment over more abstract gymnastic or virtuosic steps. Midway through the show, a warm exchange between Brick and Wise turns into a slow duet. When three more pairs join in behind them, their simple movements and unison dancing amplify a shared experience.

“It’s a thin line between these people just behaving and then dancing,” Kelly said. “And what I wanted to get at and what I think serpent [Wise] and Wu [Tsang] and the performers wanted to get at, is that very thin veil between subconscious and conscious. You can catch someone’s eye, and you’re like, wow, we’re having the same experience, right? How do you embody and exemplify that consciousness while everyone’s in their own little world? Unison is impossible [in the club]. And yet you feel the sensation of everyone doing the same thing at the same time.”

Those feelings of synchronicity and fellowship found in the club were mirrored in the creative process. Wise sought to create a warm environment where support, kindness, and transformation were built into meetings and rehearsals.

“It was like being welcomed into this beautiful queer space,” Collins said. “I felt seen, and I felt valued and that’s rare.”

serpentwithfeet (seated) and Dylan M. Contreras (front) in Heart of Brick.

Justin French

“I wanted to try things that were new and difficult,” Wise said. “And I wanted to also know I will be met with kindness and provide that same thing to the others. I said to the team: ‘I want to be transformed by this process. I want to walk out on the other side of the show as a new person.’ ”

Like any good fable, Heart of Brick comes with a moral, in the form of a friendly reminder to get out in the real world and in Wise’s words, “take a healthy risk and trust.” Wise is taking that risk onstage, performing live in every show, and trusting in the other cast members and audience. He hopes Heart of Brick will pass on that encouragement.

“Each time you go to the club, it could be a new fairy tale. It’s like a children’s story for adults,” Kelly said. “What lesson are you going to learn at this club? Maybe it’s a lesson about rumors. Maybe it’s a lesson about embodying yourself.”

“You theorize about what a queer utopia could be,” Collins said, “but you have to feel it. And the only way to feel it is to go [out], to curate it. I think it’s a lesson that you learn many times.”

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.