Song Preservation Society at Union Pool
Vision Festival Experiments with Jazz

Summerstage NYC 2013: "Speak" by Marla Mase and Tomás Doncker

by Dan Lehner


Photo credit: Dan Lehner

Marla Mase has a lot she wants to talk about.

Over the course of the 90-minute “Speak”—a new multimedia/multidisciplinary work based on her album of the same name—Mase and her collaborator Tomás Doncker traversed a fairly large gamut of social and political themes concerning women, including body image, sexuality, and adolescence, as well as more general concerns, like war.

To add to the complexity, Mase and Doncker, aided by a live band during their live performance Saturday night at Herbert Von King Park, draped all of them in a whole host of genres ranging from reggae and punk to roots rock and electronica. As if that weren’t enough, they then included spoken word, popular dance, ballet, and image projection, accompanied by board dancers, actors, and video artists. Like most works of non-linear pastiche, “Speak” aimed at using genre and a variety of media to view a topic several different ways—but unlike most patchwork presentations, Mase and Doncker didn’t limit themselves to multiple views of just one subject. 

There were a few instances where “Speak” was able to make truly effective musings on its subject matter, and each of these moments occurred when Mase and her collaborators were at their most subtle. There were lyrics throughout of feeling invisible, keeping with Mase’s themes of female adolescence, and there was one spoken-word segment in which a fictional “everywoman” muses on what how she should behave and look as a female, keeping the narrative loose and inclusive.

One blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interlude was a “ring-around-the-rosie” style dance which, keeping with the schoolyard nursery rhyme tradition of having lyrics far darker than the tune suggests, effectively painted the lonely, uncomfortable trials of young womanhood.  However, the frequent instances where Mase’s themes were more blunt and conspicuous did not carry the same sort of intrigue. In the case of songs like “Anna Rexia,” a roots-reggae piece about anorexia and general body-image issues, the somewhat sanctimonious lyrics—coupled with projected images of satirical, visually contorted models with their limbs warped down to literally rail-thin proportions—manhandled and overloaded an otherwise worthwhile topic.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were several pieces that seemed to break with their themes entirely. This is forgivable, since most concept works will end up doing that, but many of them, like the intense but somewhat confusing “Squirm,” felt like padding and weren’t able to stand up by themselves. If Mase’s song lyrics were frank, her spoken-word segments were even franker, which cost her a potential advantage of being able to contrast expression between the oblique and the upfront.

“Speak,” despite the importance of its themes and the ambition of its range, often dragged itself down under its own weight. The range of genres from Doncker’s musically capable band was appreciated, but it is difficult to present reggae music as well as one would present punk rock; more than a few genre excursions felt disingenuous, especially if it wasn’t particularly obvious why a certain song was performed in a certain style (“Anna Rexia” was a good example of this).

Mase ran into this problem as well: both her spoken-word segments and singing kept a similar, passionately expressive tone throughout, which worked in some contexts and not in others. In its mission statement, “Speak” aims to "celebrat[e] the raw reality of our human condition as expressed through the eyes, bodies, voices of women,” but “Speak,” in its plurality, can give most audience members a glimpse into something relatable. However, as a grand synthesis of styles (a gesammtkunstwerk), aiming at so many different things, it runs itself ragged.