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Brother General Gabriel Performance Premieres At Richmond’s African Burial Ground

Dancers rehearse for the premiere of the on-site work "Brother General Gabriel."
Dancers rehearse for the premiere of the on-site work "Brother General Gabriel" commissioned for the University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival, co-directed by Independent Historical Strategist Free Egunfemi and Choreographer and VCU iCubed Professor of Dance MK Abadoo. Photo by Christopher Risch Photography.

This week, Richmonders are honoring Gabriel, the 24-year-old blacksmith who planned a revolution to end slavery. On the anniversary of his death, dancers will premiere “Brother General Gabriel” as part of the University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Brother General Gabriel will be performed Thursday October 10th at 6 and 7 pm at the African Burial Ground and Historic Gallows site in Shockoe Bottom. 

Intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza contributed audio and photography for this story.

Transcript:

It’s a humid October evening at the city’s African Burial Ground and dancers work through a rehearsal. Three push against a stone wall, two others synchronize their movements and point toward the setting sun. This sacred site includes the gallows where Gabriel and others planning a revolt to end slavery were executed on October 10th, 1800. 

 Free Egunfemi: He enacted a brilliant plan to overthrow the system of inequity that he was born into, namely slavery.

Untold RVA Founder and Independent Historical Strategic Free Egunfemi is the co-director of site-based performance “Brother General Gabriel.”

Egunfemi: The narrative was deliberately submerged. It's not something that shows up in history books or even local, oral traditions until the community really has resurrected this narrative for the purposes of amplifying self-determination, intersectionality and resistance. 

Egunfemi teamed up with choreographer and VCU iCubed Assistant Dance Professor MK Abadoo for this work. 

MK Abadoo: The diligence of his craft, as a blacksmith, intersecting with his awareness of freedom struggles happening around the world and a deep love that he had with his partner Nanny, are all a part of what kept him going or what inspired him.

Abadoo says the core cast is mostly women, with two men - including a 24 year old playing the role of Gabriel. 

Abadoo: As a national community, even international communities would have imagined leadership, it might be one singular male general. The leadership of the future is multiple women. And so you see, the Brother General Gabriel character is a leader in this work, but then very much the generals emerge from the matriarchs in the work.

Dancers rehearse for the premier of Brother General Gabriel
Dancers rehearse at the Richmond City Gallows Historical Site, Shockoe Bottom, where Gabriel was executed in 1800. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza)

Audience members will be given a headset to immerse themselves in a soundtrack for the performance. 

Abadoo: I think they'll feel like time travelers, they'll feel welcomed to the past. They'll feel solidly dropped into themselves, with their senses very much alive. 

This dance builds on nearly two decades of the annual Gabriel Forum, organized by the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project. This year also marked the second annual “Gabriel Week,” organized by Egunfemi with partners across Richmond to host educational and social events that recognize the continuum of fighting for social justice. 

Egunfemi organized Gabriel Week with social and educational events throughout the city.
Free Egunfemi and her daughter at events during the second annual Gabriel Week. Photo by Mya Daniels Jones.

Egunfemi: We didn’t have a word to describe the contributions that are made from the heart.

Egunfemi created a term for this work - Commemorative Justice - which elevates Black history while creating opportunities for Black economic development. With a recently announced $100,000 Soros Equality Fellowship, Egunfemi plans to build a model for implementing this work around the world. 

Egunfemi: I really feel that what we've gained as a city with the collective work and responsibility of this amplification of freedom narratives, which I call Commemorative Justice, I believe that it can inspire the rest of the world on how they can do the same thing wherever they might be.

Abadoo and Egunfemi hired nearly 40 people for the Brother General Gabriel project. They are also co-teaching a VCU and University of Richmond course called, “Dance and Commemorative Justice.” For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, VPM News.