Performing the Legacy of Caribbean Junkanoo

The supporting cast in Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow’s “Junkanooacome” (2019) in Asbury Park (all photos courtesy of Transformer)

The drummers face each other on the beach and play an African beat in front of an upright coffin with the burning image of a slave ship emblazoned on it. The coffin ship is reminiscent of the middle passage: many did not survive, and those who did expect atrocities for life.

Enter “The Devil”, who is outlining a slave ship-shaped performance room with his broom. Now “House Head” appears in a white face and a straight wig, carries a three-colored walking stick, and a white house on his head. The house manager usually wears a plantation house hat. Jodie updated the plantation house to the White House (which is currently a type of plantation house).

A troop of costumed dancers marches up the beach: “Wilder Indian” threatens with a bow and arrow; “Pitchy-Patchy” is armed with a whip to demarcate the boundaries of the performance space. Jack (ie) in the Green plants a branch in the sand before walking away and waving his green and yellow flag towards the sea.

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Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and a supporting actor appear in Junkanooacome (2019) in Asbury Park

I went to Asbury Park Beach and saw a performance of Junkanooacome. The main character “House Head” is portrayed by the extraordinary Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, who is supported by an all-black cast consisting of local teenagers and drummers from the west side of the city.

“Junkanooacome” (means “Junkanoo is coming” in Jamaican patois) is Lyn-Kee-Chow’s adaptation of Junkanoo, a pan-Caribbean celebration that culminates with a parade of masked dancers. Junkanoo was created by enslaved Africans for an audience of enslaved Africans. It honors John Canoe, an important trader, chief of the Ahanta and commander of a private army in 18th century Ghana. Ally with Brandenburg-Prussia, Canoe and his men resisted the Dutch and British for seven years from the Fredericksburg Redoubt.

According to Edward Long, an 18th-century Jamaican slave owner, the Akans (another word for Ghanaian peoples) who supported John Canoe were enslaved when Fort Fredericksburg fell. Junkanoo characters are sometimes associated with Ashanti warriors: the swordsman became a “horned-headed man”; the commander became “Pitchy-Patchy”; Canoe himself became “House Head”, embodied here by Lyn-Kee-Chow.

The legend of John Canoe spread throughout the Caribbean and the United States. The biggest celebration takes place in Barbados. Junkanoo was also celebrated in North Carolina and Virginia under the name of John Kuners until 1900. Bahamian immigrants brought Junkanoo to Florida in the 19th century, where it is still celebrated annually in Key West and Miami.

Junkanoo was celebrated during the Christmas holidays as it was the only time allowed to enslaved Africans. The holiday also coincided with the New Yam festival, which 19th century colonists in Ghana called “Black Christmas”. The glorification of an African who fought against Europeans, coupled with a tradition from the African homeland, brought enslaved Africans from different diasporic cultures together to create something for themselves: a reconstruction of collective memories of the African continent. Enslaved Africans were able to follow their own calendar and create their own sense of time and space that was not controlled or even fully understood by their masters.

Junkanoo historically functioned as a form of resistance through art. The use of mimicry, parody and implicit criticism of British clothing, manners and institutions drew attention to the slave masters – an African look – which led to a newfound subjectivity in the West.

In fact, art can be found as resistance across America: the Cakewalk in the United States, the Colonial Theater in Peru, and the Black Indians of Mardi Gras. The Cakewalk in the United States parodied the dress and manners of slave masters. The difference is that the cakewalk was done for the white gaze and eventually went over to the minstrel show. The colonial theater in Peru was used to protest against colonialism and to call for revolution. The Mardi Gras Black Indians originally performed in mostly black rooms. The connection to the African ancestors is evident in the drums, call-and-response chants and elaborate masks.

The supporting cast in Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow’s “Junkanooacome” (2019) in Asbury Park

The Asbury Park venue gave Junkanooacome a sense of geographic resistance as a black performance in a white room, as Asbury Park encompasses a predominantly white East Side on the beach and a predominantly black West Side where generations of people struggle to keep the economic one and social benefits of their colleagues in the East Side.

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, as House Head, knocks on the lid of the coffin ship. The horned man wearing a horse skull steps out of the coffin to join the other cast members. One of the drummers, Sister Isis, sings “Wade in the Water” while Lyn-Kee-Chow pulls the chain on the coffin and transforms it into a stylized slave ship. She drags the coffin ship over the sand in the surf and lets it fall apart in the Atlantic.

Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and a supporting cast appear in Junkanooacome (2019) in Asbury Park

Junkanoo has established itself as a role model and inspiration for art as resistance. I remember a lecture Zanele Muholi gave a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum where she talked about art as activism. Their very existence is an act of resistance. The ability to disarm the target by masking a battle cry with festivity and play has enabled these traditions to survive in oppressive environments. The predominantly white audience in the sand in Asbury Park, enjoying the colorful costumes, drumming, singing, dancing, and props, viewed the performances primarily as arts and entertainment. However, the seeds were planted. The audience lingered and asked questions in a casual conversation with the performers. It seems like people are finally ready to join the discussion – an invitation that was made centuries ago.

Junkanooacome (2019) was part of the Siren Arts series Into the Mystic, which took place in Asbury Park in July and August 2019 and was curated by Victoria Reis. The series also featured appearances by Kunj (DC), Jane Carver (Philadelphia), Maps Glover (DC), Ayana Evans (NYC), Tsedaye Makonnen (DC) and Andrew Demirjian (Newark).