SINCE 2006, Abeni Cultural Arts has enlivened Savannah’s performance art landscape with thematic depth and soulful choreography.
From Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity and the recent The Art of Social Change to ballet recitals and youth hip hop shows, the dance company has covered a wide range of disciplines and topics in the last decade—all while making a point to keep its shows appropriate for all audiences.
“We’re very strict with our material with the family stuff. We make sure it’s straight, clean and G-rated—like, Disney in 1945 G-rated,” says managing director Darowe McMillon with a laugh.
On its ten-year anniversary, however, Abeni is taking on a more mature tone. Its latest production is Kokumo After Dark, a deviation from its usual all-ages themes into the darker realms of sexuality, suicide, alcoholism, abuse and other oft-hidden issues. The performance runs Friday through Sunday Aug. 19-21 at Muse Arts Warehouse with weekend matinees and a special late-night show on Saturday.
Taking place in “the time of night where secrets are kept,” the show features the Kokumo Dance Collective, the adult branch of the performance studio that also hosts Little Miracles kids group and the Ijaba Youth Ensemble.
“We’ve always wanted to do an adult-oriented show that dealt with harder subject matter and touched our performers in different ways,” says McMillon.
Dancer Sharonika Simmons, 23, believes After Dark will have an effect audiences as well.
“There are people out there who are going through these problems, and we’re reflecting them through dance,” says Simmons, who researched her part as a domestic abuse victim by learning from survivor websites and watching the film “Enough” with Jennifer Lopez.
“It’s harder to portray because I’ve never been in that type of situation before, so I’ve had to work to feel those emotions.”
Stage manager Leigh Abernathy has helped keep the sets and costumes simple so as not to overshadow choreography, which also diverges from Abeni’s traditional disciplines.
“I would say that the choreography tends to the contemporary,” says McMillon. “It can’t be confined by modern or jazz or another genre. The dancers have to be able to express themselves.”
He describes a varied soundtrack that incorporates modern hip hop from Kanye and Beyoncé as well as a jazz tune by Ben Tucker and a gospel selection to illustrate “that moment when everyone comes to Jesus and has to deal with their issues.”
Other characters deal with secret gay relationships, the effects of drug use and depression.
“We’re not judging those secrets, we’re just exploring them,” assures McMillon, promising that each vignette concludes differently.
“We’re telling a complete story, though not everything necessarily gets resolved. Like real life, it’s open-ended.”
While there is nothing shocking or violent in After Dark, the company recommends that anyone younger than 18 be accompanied by an adult.
“These are deep subjects, and some children might need a parent to help explain them,” says assistant manager Telley Fulton, who thinks the show could start important conversations.
“It might also help open up communication between parents and kids about these kinds of secrets in their families.”
Musician and longtime Abeni collaborator Gary Swindell will perform an hour-long pre-show before each performance at Muse Arts Warehouse, which founder and artistic director Muriel Miller calls “our home theater.”
“It’s intimate, everything is right there for people to see,” says Miller. “You can’t miss anything.”
After Dark is meant to fill the dearth of serious dance performance art to Savannah, and the company plans to continue addressing mature themes in the future.
“Our adult group is very inspired, and we will definitely do more of this type of work as we find more stories to tell,” says McMillon.
Miller agrees that now that Abeni is all grown up, this is just the beginning of a more challenging and robust creative flow for Kokumo.
“There so many other topics that we wanted to add, like dealing with HIV and AIDS, so maybe there will have to be an ‘Episode Two,’” says Miller, who also dances in the production, though she is circumspect about the specifics of her role.
“I guess people will have to come and see what my secret is,” she says with a smile.