No Woman Is An Island

Gabri Christa confronts her mother’s fate in language and dance. | Photo by Kevin Yatarola

BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER | Gabri Christa’s quiver holds many arrows. She dances, choreographs, writes, makes films, and teaches at Barnard. She was formerly a member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and later the artistic director of Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center. She’s also a wife and mother, concerned with issues of family and nurture. Right now, she’s fusing creative arts with a focus on dementia, the challenging illness that consumes the memories and emotions of increasing numbers of elderly people around the world.

Her new “Magdalena” tells the story of her mother, Josephina Magdalena Aleida de Jong, now in her 80s and living back in her native Netherlands. The middle one of seven children, she survived a Nazi bombing in wartime Rotterdam, where she was injured by shrapnel and separated from her family. She went to college to become a “teaching nun,” but in 1960 she married a black man from the South American country of Suriname — a less traumatic decision in Holland than it might have been at the time in the US, where “miscegenation” was still illegal.

Gabri Christa Wrestles with Heritage and Family

Christa’s hour-long piece combines spoken narrative, old newsreel footage, delicate films of her own making, and passionate, energetic dancing in an effort to evoke the anxiety and depression that have contributed to her mother’s current advanced dementia. Magdalena’s disordered thinking seems to have begun in earnest when Christa and her older brother left home; the playwright/choreographer has collected personal testimony and scientific data to shape her story.

Christa winds herself up in her past. | Photo by Kevin Yatarola

A tissue of fine and funny verbal detail, the piece takes us from Holland to Curaçao and finally back to Rotterdam, a journey of some 80 years, tracking the relationships and behaviors of three families: Christa’s mother’s clan, Dutch people who gave all of their daughters the same name; her father’s multi-racial Dutch-Caribbean family, better educated and of a higher social class; and Netherlands Antilles-born Christa’s own Staten Island-based household, which includes her husband, musician Vernon Reid, and a teenage daughter.

The white box theater is tiny, with perhaps 40 seats on three sides of a loft-like room. Christa begins sitting among the audience, talking quietly. A white sheet hangs on one long wall, and a string of footlights defines the performance space, surrounding an ancient valise. On top of it sits a tiny, black porcelain baby doll, a gift to Christa’s mother from her mother that seems to have prepared her to embrace the man she married. She opens the valise and carefully stores the doll. Projected on the inside of the valise’s lid are films about various friends and families.

She concludes with a poem she wrote in Dutch as a tribute to her mother (it’s translated for us in the program). And then she twirls herself up in the sheet that has backed the film projections, turning herself into a kind of dervish/mermaid — a testament to both the sturdiness and the fragility of her parents’ union. Christa’s a product of the African diaspora, fascinated by her heritage, challenged by her mother’s illness. “Magdalena” has its rough spots, trying to be both memoir and polemic, but it represents a sturdy effort to tell a complicated tale and bring attention to a looming medical and social crisis.

GABRI CHRISTA | “Magdalena” | Through Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. |  Theaterlab, 357 W. 36th St., third fl. | $20 at

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