Spectrum’s #RACEish series talks about blackness through dance

Spectrum Dance Theater performs Donald Byrd's "The Minstrel Show Revisited." (Photo by Nate Watters)
Spectrum Dance Theater performs Donald Byrd’s “The Minstrel Show Revisited.” (Photo by Nate Watters)

Just as the theater lights dimmed, actors Julie Briskman, playing anthropologist Margaret Mead, and Donald Byrd, in the role of author James Baldwin, ascended a mobile staircase and sat across from each other on an elevated platform. And then stairs were removed.

My first thought was what if there’s a fire?

The entire set up of Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Rap on Race” made me feel trapped — and the feeling became increasingly intense when Mead launched into a diatribe about race that left little space for Baldwin to get a word in edgewise. As the conversation climaxed, the dancers took the stage in pairs in an abstract complement.

I interpreted the dance as the grappling we must all do to be in community. Sometimes the movements were sharp and argumentative, sometimes more like a negotiation and at one point the dance seemed to dissolve into a drunken stumbling mess.

Even the staging was a metaphor for the way in which white and black Americans are perpetually stuck having the same conversation about race over and over again in some kind of racial purgatory. The stage was split in two, the bottom half hosted the dancing, while the crow’s nest, fitted with two chairs, a table and a microphone hosted the conversation between Mead and Baldwin. Stairs flanked the upper stage, but they were more decorative than functional.

As the performance unfolded I found myself thinking back to the first time I had “the talk.” I was 16 and living in Boulder, Colorado. Through a class on multiculturalism, I attended a weekend retreat in nearby Breckenridge.

We participated in standard social justice experiential learning activities designed to simulate race and class privilege. One of the activities was called “Star Power.” We were supposed to trade chips to earn points, but the system was rigged so that those with the most points stayed in power no matter what strategies the other groups employed. Sound familiar?

During the debrief we spent at least twenty minutes talking around the analogy, until I finally just said what I thought we were all thinking: This game is just like race and class in America.

It turned out that was not what we were all thinking. That’s when I discovered the racism I thought was obvious and self-explanatory was neither, and certainly not obvious in a room with people who didn’t grow up in my skin or in my politically aware household.

I’ve had versions of this conversation many times throughout my life, and always with the same results: tears (mostly from white people), guilt (again white), irritation (mostly people of color) and outrage (on both sides). It’s exhausting.

Donald Byrd wants to spark this conversation with Seattle, not through words, but through dance.

“We are doing this because we must. This is a time when arts organizations must step up and contribute to the conversation on race and social justice,” said Byrd, who is artistic director of Spectrum Dance. Since Feburary, performances in #RACEish have been doing just that — exploring race through the medium of dance.

It began with “Rambunctious 2.0,” a series of performances choreographed entirely to black composers. A New York Times article inspired him to pursue the question: where are all the black composers?

“We know that they’re there and that they are making work,” Byrd said. “And people have acknowledged that the quality of the work is high, but it’s not being programmed by the major symphonies and the major chamber ensembles.”

“They kind of show up on specialty programs,” he added. “But not in the regular kind of programming that these organizations do.”

The exploration of black invisibility continued in the second performance, “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which is an exploration of how the African aesthetic has influenced “American” dance.

“Black people write as many different kinds of music as white people write. And the same thing goes for the kinds of dances,” Byrd said.

The influences from the African aesthetic to American dance are often overlooked.

“There’s this underlying undercurrent about how people … how American dancers define which is almost identical to what in the Africanist aesthetic — those five or six elements that are there,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh these are things that are consistent with art that comes out of Africa,’ or, ‘Those are what we look for.’ Those are exactly the things that people say, ’Oh this is what is unique or distinct about American dance.’ ”

The third performance of the series, “Rap on Race,” delves beyond the surface of what is visible and invisible and goes into the murky depths of the truth of facts vs. feelings and lived experiences. It’s based on a weekend of conversations between Mead and Baldwin that took place in the 1970s, but it felt just as relevant today.

I saw “Rap on Race” at a special performance for teenagers. With me were Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker and Aisha Al-Amin, both 16.

“Coming into it, I had no idea what to expect,”  Auwae-Dekker told me. “At first as the play started I was angry about some of the comments made, but as it went on I realized that this is not ignorance, but a conversation with their own strong held beliefs.”

Auwae-Dekker said the performance left them feeling overwhelmed. Auwae-Dekker, who is Hawaiian, also was irked by the lack of inclusion.

“What frustrates me the most is I am a person of color from a very small minority, and I am not trying invalidate the black experience or the oppression that comes with being black or Hispanic but so often you hear about the issues they face, and never what small groups of people of color face.”

Auwae-Dekker said the conversation on race needs to change. “And when I have tried to bring up these topics on my people and culture, people are often passive or just don’t know what to do because this is the first they are hearing on the issues Hawaiians face.”

Al-Amin also felt excluded from the discussion, but thought the conversation was interesting.

“The tension of talking about race, the heated emotions, was all something I could relate too,” she said afterward. “What I couldn’t relate to was the language. Sometimes I feel that language can be very exclusionary and this was a time where I felt excluded from the conversation and I didn’t have a great understanding of what was going on all the time.”

Al-Amin said she would like to have more conversations about race.

“It’s regrettably not a conversation we have often, but when we do there always seems to be this air of defensiveness? As if my personal experiences are shots against them somehow. It’s very strange,” she said.

Hearing a conversation on race that I was not involved in or emotionally vested in was a very educational experience. Because I could hear both sides without being on the defensive or offensive, it was almost refreshing to hear both sides state their ideas,” Al-Amin said.

Byrd hopes that other Seattle arts organizations will follow Spectrum’s suit and this will be the first step towards having authentic communication about race.

“We have to strip away the layers of … superficiality about it and that stripping away the places where people feel the most at ease about talking about race.”

He hopes people start “giving themselves permission and the people who they are in conversation with, also giving themselves and ourselves permission, to kind of talk about race in an honest way and being able to have those conversations without feeling guilty or attacked or feeling like you have to beat up on somebody.”

The fourth and final show of the season is the most graphic. THE MINSTREL SHOW REVISITED. You can catch it June 16-19 at Cornish Playhouse.

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