IOWA CITY — The love of the club, the essential role of nightlife in Black queer life, and the soft side of masculinity are what audience members will experience Thursday evening, when serpentwithfeet brings his new “Heart of Brick” production to the Englert Theatre.
Featuring serpent (Josiah Wise off-stage) and seven dancers, “Heart of Brick” is coming to Iowa City after debuting in Germany and showing for a week at New York City’s Joyce Theater. It’s “beguilingly gentle and sincere,” writes the Joyce, while also conveying club energy that serpentwithfeet loves.
“It’s always beautiful to find a place where you can let go a little, or let go a lot,” says serpent, by phone from New York. “There is something really powerful about a lot of people charging the air together…. about people charging the space with their voices, with their bodies, with their feet.”
“Heart of Brick” tells the story of romance between two Black men that begins and blossoms on the dance floor. The New York Times describes the show as “a cozy, comfortable experience” that explores “the slow rewards of romance rather than sex.”
The project is years in the making; an article in okayplayer from 2012 describes serpent’s early ruminations about “Heart of Brick,” documenting input from other Black queer men. He talks about being inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and her references to “fluidity.”
“Masculinity isn’t so black and white,” serpent says in the interview. “We’re bigger than our dicks and our brawn, and I think it’s important to convey that.”
“Heart of Brick” also marks a slight turn for serpent, who grew up immersed in gospel music and classically trained. You won’t hear the nods to gospel that are evident in his groundbreaking 2017 album “DEACON,” which Baltimore Magazine describes as a collection of “haunting soundscapes”and “buoyant melodies.”
“This is more ‘in the pocket,’ “ says serpent. “It’s got tighter grooves. It’s tighter rhythmically.” It’s an experience he hopes leaves audience members feeling “more imaginative.”
serpent’s sound started with gospel, classical training
serpent’s early musical experiences seemed headed toward a career in classical music. As a youngster, and at his mother’s encouragement, he auditioned his way into the Maryland Boys’ Choir, then went on to attend the respected Baltimore City College.
serpent eventually earned a degree from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and transitioned away from a classical music career toward experimental R&B music.
He’s now released the EP “blisters,” and full-length albums “soil” and “DEACON” in 2017. You may recognize his voice from forays into pop culture, including FYI, the theme song for Episode 4, Season 2 of “Love, Victor,” the groundbreaking Hulu series about a gay teen boy’s coming to accept his sexuality.
serpent has also collaborated, performed with and befriended the Icelandic experimental rocker Bjork.
Nina Simone and Kirk Franklin are artists who inspired him to meld his classical and gospel training with R&B and new sounds, serpent tells Baltimore Magazine. He also mentions fellow Baltimore native Sisqó; authors Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, Jericho Brown and Nikki Giovanni; Scott Joplin and Shakespeare; and the films “Carmen Jones” and “Looking for Langston.”
He took up the professional moniker of serpentwithfeet as a nod to his love of snakes as “powerful animals we can all learn a lot from.”
“In general, it’s in western culture where we fear snakes,” he said. “I think in a lot of other cultures, the serpent is known to be a symbol of healing, exception and wisdom.”
“Hancher has a long tradition of helping to commission new and exciting work, and serpentwithfeet’s ‘Heart of Brick’ project is certainly something we have been pleased to support as it was developed,” says Hancher’s communications director, Rob Cline. “When you’ve been a supporter of an artist’s work, it is very satisfying to present that work to an audience. We think Heart of Brick will really resonate.”
(photos courtesy serpentwithfeet and Hancher Auditorium)