• Marc Domage

In Haitian vodou, Baron Samedi ("Baron Saturday") is one of the many lwa* and his realm is sex, resurrection, and death—womb and tomb, our most significant containers. Though he's married to another powerful lwa, he likes mortal women, tobacco, and rum, and often wears a black top hat and black glasses. He's outrageously lewd but charming, has important duties in greeting the souls of the newly deceased, and has special powers when it comes to magic and healing—but he's moody and might help you or might not, depending on whether he thinks you're worth it. He is known as a spirit of interruption, grotesquery, and jouissance. (At least, that's what I gather from the internet.)

You could say much the same of Baron Samedi, a chaotic, hour-long burst of sinister laughter, jump-cut storytelling, and hip-centric dance at On the Boards by choreographer Alain Buffard (who passed away late last year).

The show is nonlinear and full of stories about—and references to—Africa and the African diaspora, but it's laced together by the gorgeously subversive songs of jazz and cabaret composer Kurt Weill. The best distillation I can find of the spirit of the show was recorded in 1964, when Nina Simone sang Weill and Brecht's "Pirate Jenny"—the sexy cabaret sound, the story about a woman scrubbing floors who's secretly a powerhouse and out for the blood of the people who condescend to her, plus the chilling feeling of hearing the song sung by Nina Simone, who had a special gift in holding the mirror up to the world so it could see the depth of its own beauty and ugliness:

But back to Baron Samedi. The regular black stage at On the Boards has been covered with a swooping white thing that looks tempting for skateboarding. Performers run up and slide down this supra-stage, with an occasional visit from stone-faced bass (and keys) player Sarah Murcia.

  • Marc Domage

The show doesn't progress so much as drift (and I overheard audience members in the lobby afterwards saying that their attentions had drifted as well), but it has sharp, knife-twisting moments. In one story told by David Thomson—an impressively lithe dancer with an even more impressively resonant voice, who seemed to embody Baron Samedi more often than any other performer—he speaks as a former boy soldier who escaped his army by lying with corpses in the street after a battle, pretending to be dead. Once night came, he ran to a refugee camp and was surprised to find white people there: "You know things are hard when even white people are running to the refugee camps!"

David Thomson wearing Baron Samedis hat.
  • Marc Domage
  • David Thomson wearing Baron Samedi's hat.

In another moment, performer Hlengiwe Lushaba stands at the top of the swoopy white supra-stage, shouting invective at the audience in English ("fuck you! Fuck you!"), Zulu, and several other languages. This shifts into a mournfully seductive rendition of "Ach Bedeken Sie, Herr Jakob Schmitt," which shifts into a vignette when Thomson (in sinister Baron Samdei mode) tries to give dancer Will Rawls "a gift." Rawls is reluctant, but is eventually forcibly dragged behind the swoopy stage, where he is quietly raped by the Samedi character while the others sing a chorus (that I couldn't identify) in high, childlike voices. This moment shifts into a story by the one white performer, Olivier Normand, about taking a capoeira class as a child and being dubbed "the transparent one" by his classmates because he was so pale.

  • Marc Domage

And on Baron Samedi drifts, punctuated with breaks of carnivalesque dance and wrestling (sometimes playful, sometimes not so playful) that look like they could be taking place in a midnight graveyard party full of Samedi's minions.

The show has a few devastating moments, as when Rawls, dressed in a garish purple dress with a rag wrapped around his face, wears a sign that says "prostitué" ("prostitute") and sings a love song in a broken, barely audible voice and then is quietly inspected and displayed for other characters who bid on him/her like s/he's being auctioned. Other moments are gauzy and ephemeral, as forgettable as a small dream that vanishes moments after you wake up.

But the spirit of the thing—merrily playful then grim and menacing, like Weill's most famous song, "Mac the Knife"—lingers long into the next day.

*Aka "loa," aka "spirits," some powerful, some not so powerful, some sexual, some asexual, some with spirit-spouses.