Cocooned in a fluffy red blanket in his onstage living room, enjoying snacks and a glass of wine that a stagehand thoughtfully hands him, serpentwithfeet a.k.a. Josiah Wise, the creator and protagonist of Heart of Brick, immediately breaks the 4th wall. He confides in the audience that he is having cold feet about hitting a new club tonight as his ex is rumoured to be there. 

Brandon Gray and Shaquelle Charles in Heart of Brick
© Justin French

About the ex: “I loved you since I was 17,” he sings in a seraphic tenor, “my aunt Janine still calls you her nephew. Should I go?” he asks us, worried that he might not look or sound “cute” or “hot” enough. We assure him – this imposing figure with a honeyed voice, artless in manner and drop-dead glamorous in red sparkly pyjamas – that he does. He hesitates, “I don’t know if tonight is the night to take risks.” We urge him, “Go!” 

He takes our advice. serpent runs the gauntlet of club regulars and falls head over heels with club owner Brick, a man of mystery. In the hallowed tradition of Greek mythology, the neighbourhood drunk, who happens to be a seer, warns Brick that killer plants are on the loose. Will Brick die, or can serpent save him? 

A hint of the macabre and a dash of melodrama in this whimsical, wistful operetta will come as no surprise to those familiar with serpent’s debut EP blisters – in which goth and gospel collide with R&B in a quasi-operatic thunderstorm, and a song with ice in its veins (“Babe, it's cool with me that you want to die / And I'm not gonna stop you if you try”) samples Berlioz’ fearsome Marche au Supplice (March to the scaffold.) Rigorous classical training and a youth spent singing in church choirs inform serpent's musical choices and underpin a voice that can soar but also luxuriate in quietude.

serpentwithfeet and Dylan M. Contreras in Heart of Brick
© Justin French

The songs in Heart of Brick, his first theatrical work, contain fewer of the candidly lustful confessions that have graced his other albums – though he does reminisce about “the guy who fixed my car / he got my body hummin’ too.” Overall, this is a work of tender romancing. 

A minimalist aesthetic is expressed in a bare-bones setting with silvery sheer curtains that the dancers pull for scene changes, and a steel ballet barre fitted with a pink neon light tube to conjure up the bar at the club. Dialogue, background vocals, and instrumentation are all pre-recorded – with serpent being the only performer on stage who sings and speaks live. The seven other ensemble members gesture and dance their parts in sync with the recordings. serpent’s light yet lustrous voice, playful and yearning lyrics, expressions of unease at the progress of a new relationship, make absorbing contrast to the witty (recorded) banter among the ensemble. Stunning choreography by Raja Feather Kelly supplies much of the drama. Astonishing dancers all – virtuosic yet controlled – sweep and swirl across the stage in very fine ensemble work, dancers exquisitely in tune with each other, providing a visual counterpoint to serpent’s vocals that is by turns humorous, ominous, poignant. The shape-shifting ensemble snaps usies as they get ready for a night out. As killer plants in strikingly intricate Issey Miyake-like pleated garb, they menace Brick. They embody TikTok psychologists and internet trolls who speculate nastily on who would want to harm Brick. And finally, they swoop in to rescue serpent when he stumbles on his quest to find the magic flower that the seer has told him will cure Brick.

serpentwithfeet and company in Heart of Brick
© Justin French

Heart of Brick was partly inspired by Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston, a fanciful meditation on the Harlem Renaissance and on poet Langston Hughes’ controversial romantic life. Shortly after its release, musician-writer Greg Tate hailed the film as “a collage about the historical condition of being black, gay, silenced, and incomprehensible – both during the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s and in the neojackbooted now.” At the end of the film a Black gay dance club is besieged by a furious mob, backed by uniformed police. They break in only to discover that the dancers have vanished – seemingly whisked to safety by a band of bare-chested angels – while Hughes’ disembodied voice plays on a phonograph record. 

Today, by contrast, the club where serpent finds a new love and new friends, is a safe space, a utopia threatened by killer plants that stand in for the crises that devastate queer and marginalised communities today – from pandemic to climate emergency and police militarisation. In a conventional proscenium staging, serpent and his genre-defying collaborators – including poet Donte Collins and director Wu Tsang – have created a space for collective intimacy built on joyful evocations of queer love, reconstituting dancers’ voices from an intriguing mix of recorded speech, song and viscerally thrilling dance.