Dances on a return to the native land

Ralph Lemon brings his experiences of world travel back to where it all began

For Ralph Lemon, reality has become almost as abstract as his art.

A University alumnus and founding member of the Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Lemon returns to the Twin Cities this weekend with his work, “Come Home Charley Patton.”

The last chapter in a trilogy of multimedia works addressing the nature of culture and displacement, it marks the end of a 10-year journey that has taken Lemon thousands of miles around the world, chronicling the reactions of a man on the outside looking in.

But after such a long artistic journey, Lemon said he is not quite sure what he will think Friday when Mayor R.T. Rybak designates the day Ralph Lemon’s Day in Minneapolis.

“I’m coming to Minneapolis with a group of incredible performers and an amazing technical staff, and we’ll try to bring this work into a new space,” Lemon said. “That’s been my focus right now. This is all quite abstract at the moment.”

Given his challenge, Lemon’s focus seems to be in the right place. Bringing his complex multimedia experience to the Pantages Theatre is no small order.

The first two works in Lemon’s trilogy marked his attempt to grapple with the cultural and political nature of being an outsider in new lands. “Geography,” which appeared at the State Theatre in 1997, explored his connection as a black man to Africa and its numerous cultures.

His second work, “Tree,” was presented at Northrop Auditorium in 2000 and took Lemon to Asia as he explored the land’s exceptionally diverse belief systems.

But for “Come Home Charley Patton,” Lemon said he was ready to bring his new perspective back to what he thought he knew best.

“Part one was leaving home and the necessity of that,” Lemon said, “and going to a place like Haiti and Africa and then parts of Asia – of spending seven years going out and reinvestigating, reanalyzing and rethinking my placement as an artist in this world.

“After seven years, I was interested to see what coming home would be like. After all that foreign mumbling and stumbling around as an artist, what would it be like to come back to something I should supposedly know or know better?”

The result is a work that deals with U.S. subcultures, places and groups Lemon found as foreign to him in the overseas experiences of his first two works.

“Come Home Charley Patton” chronicles Lemon’s lengthy U.S. journey, connecting with historical events that, for him, mark both dark and bright moments in the nation’s cultural heritage. These vary from reuniting with relatives of famous blues performers to retracing the footsteps of famous civil rights activists. And most powerfully, this included exploring numerous lynchings across the country – including one in which three men were lynched in Duluth, Minn. – that have clearly left Lemon shaken.

In his travels across the country, Lemon returned to the real locations of these lynchings and said they were essential in forming his conceptual response to the events.

“Those events were psychically and physically life-altering,” he said.

Lemon said his performance this week transcends a work of just dance or theater.

“It’s working on a lot of different levels: space, musicality, spoken word, dance, music soundtrack, design,” he said. “It works on a lot of different sensational levels, but it’s also very, very visceral. I’ve been pleased by the response I’ve gotten from people who are not dance aficionados.”

And Lemon said this work, which he has already performed in Chicago; Champaign, Ill.; Dallas; Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Newark, N.J., is really his attempt to grapple with a homecoming that was anything but comfortable.

“To be very honest, home is just an idea, and it can be as foreign and abstract as visiting Africa,” Lemon said. “That’s why I chose the American South, because it’s something I know, but it’s also mythological to me. That contradiction is interesting to explore.”