Black Odyssey, the reimagining of Odysseus set in modern-day Harlem, blends classic mythology, African-American history and modern theatricality, which includes the lyrical movements from choreographer Aquila Kikora Franklin. “I believe the role of dance in Black Odyssey is to help tell the story. That is a part of the African diasporic tradition: storytelling through music, movement and orature,” Franklin tells EBONY.
With many powerful messages in writer Marcus Gardley's retelling of a soldier desperate to make his way back home, Franklin had plenty to work with. “Themes that resonated the most with me are a connection to ancestry, familial lineage and the celebration of Black love, Black knowledge, Black culture and Black joy.” Her staging includes three sirens styled like a glamourous girls' group. “Working with the Muses on the R&B musical pieces, so much of our culture comes through the music and movement,” Franklin shares.
Franklin’s choreographing skills started as a young child. “My first pieces of choreography were alongside my sister. We would watch musical movies and TV shows with dance then make up our own routines and choreography.” Her mom, professional dancer/choreographer Terrie Ajile Axam, gave the young Franklin plenty of opportunities to choreograph and showcase her work at an early age.
Over her 25 years as a choreographer, Franklin has perfected the Mojah style, a fusion of West African dance, jazz, modern and hip hop. “I grew up taking dance in all styles and forms, so all of that background comes out in my choreography. I also use my own personal sense of movement that allows me to move intuitively based on the music, story, or theme of what I'm working on."
It’s not surprising that her mom is Franklin’s dance icon. “She is a professional dancer, choreographer, educator and culture worker. She has used dance, art and culture to educate and inspire thousands of students over the course of her career and she has performed all over the world,” Franklin declares. “She is the founder and director of Total Dance/Dancical Productions, Inc., a dance-arts organization in Atlanta, Georgia, and she is the creator of the original dance form Mojah.” Franklin also admires the work of trailblazing Black choreographers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus.
Opportunities for Black female choreographers are promising in that there are so many opportunities for Black women to independently create and share their work, according to Franklin. “Online and internet communication has opened up pathways that did not exist 20 years ago when I was beginning my career.” But there’s still work to be done to level the playing field. “There are still barriers that work against women in general, and Black and brown women in particular, that we must continue to dismantle.”
Franklin’s answer for definitive change? “To bring more Black women choreographers to the stage and screen producers, directors, and other people who have hiring power must actively seek out Black women who can do the work,” she reveals. “And Black women need mentors and sponsors, people who will open doors, create opportunities, and make space for our talent to be shared and uplifted.” Franklin actually got her position on Black Odysessy from one of her former students, Zudhi Boueri, who recommended her to Classic Stage Company and the production’s director, Stevie Walker-Webb. “They were open and willing to collaborate with me, which was an opportunity for me to share my creative work.”
Black Odyssey at Classic Stage Company, now playing at Lynn F. Angelson Theater in New York City through March 26.