By NIM WUNNAN
A few hands went up. “Who here laughed?”
Nearly everyone’s hands shot up. “Who here said to themselves, ‘I don’t know if I can keep watching this?’
Lots of hands went up, slowly, and a broken, nervy laugh bounced around the room. It sounded relieved, grateful that someone officially acknowledged how deeply discomforting so much of the material that “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” dissected and brought to life made the audience feel.
Developed over two years of choreography and research, “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” is Camille Brown’s response to the history of black performers in American popular culture, the restrictions they encountered in their lives and careers, and the limited, stereotyped roles to which they have been confined. Something would be very wrong if we were still comfortable with that material as an audience.
While Brown does begin with an historical perspective, she is not just looking backward. The caricature used to restrict black performers and non-white narratives on screen and in real life can seem antiquated, irrelevant, and even quaint on old jazz reels and in “Amos ‘n’ Andy” broadcasts, but it’s when you see how easy it is to trace an unbroken line from that era through the 20th century, past the Jeffersons and Fat Albert, through “Diff’rent Strokes” and the Fresh Prince and straight into the contemporary superstars of Hollywood, TV, and music that those caricatures start to feel a whole lot closer and you begin to feel a little queasy. Aren’t we supposed to be past all that? Shouldn’t they be antiquated, dusty, and irrelevant? Shouldn’t it be a lot harder to find them in today’s roles for black performers?
According to Brown, the impetus behind “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” was the crushing frustration that she and many of her friends and contemporaries felt by continuously running into the wrong answers to those questions as performers and consumers of culture. One of the big questions she needed to explore was, ‘Why?’ Why do these roles and images and even specific aesthetic details persist, where does the restriction and oppression that produced them still exist, where does self-selection and choice come into it, and where does it get muddy and complicated?
While the piece draws from a massive amount of research, Brown acknowledges Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (in which black writers and performers create a modern minstrel show thinking that it will cause outrage rather than the success it finds) as a major conceptual foundation for “Mr. Tol E. RAancE.” Brown has created a dance performance that manifests and explores, both abstractly and directly, the complexities of institutional racism, fame and the ruthlessness of Hollywood, and the power of cultural images to overtake personal freedom, just as Lee has in his movie.
The performance starts with a projection of an animation by Isabela Dos Santos done in a graphic style that references both blacksploitation films from the 1970s and the hyper-jocular style of vaudeville and minstrel shows. After the movie-style opening credits, the dancers exploded onto stage, introduced by the athletic piano of Scott Patterson which amazingly keeps pace for the entire 45 minutes of the show (Patterson claimed to have lost two pounds that night). For the first section of the show, a video pastiche of some of the most famous and influential roles and images of black entertainers is projected in dialogue with the dancers.
The vocabulary of their movement begins with the vaudeville and minstrel show roots of these images, but then deftly mixes aesthetic notes from a dizzying array of styles and genres. The dancers update and complicate their sample library as the video progresses from jazz-singer era song and dance to sitcoms that are still in syndication.
The influence of “Bamboozled” is clear here as the dance pass through simple satire into something more unsettling and edgy. In white gloves and, in Brown’s case, bright red lipstick, they transform the early images of the carefree, vapid minstrel into overweening grins and frenetic affability. In itself, that is a sound design strategy, but it’s the potent combination of energy, precision, and deeply-researched understanding of the material shown by the troupe that makes the work cross a line into something more personal, making everyone with an empathetic bone in their bodies shift a little in their seats at the ghoulishness behind these caricatures.
The embodiment of and reference to these images and roles becomes harsher and angrier as the cultural references draw closer to the present, but the character of the show is much more complex than simply a protest piece. The work goes deep into its material and finds humor and beauty and frustration and ugliness and…and… and. Shannon’s opening statement endeared me instantly to her. She said, “I feel like I just had some orange juice, some Sprite, and… some milk.” The laugh she got for that acknowledged how we were all still trying to recover from the mix of flavors we’d just experienced.
“Mr. Tol E. RAncE” takes a strange, hybrid form which seems necessary given the complexity of the material. The video, the post-show discussion, and the satire of a quiz show that interrupts the dance, all provide complementary lenses on the material. However, the show wouldn’t hold up if the choreography itself wasn’t so stirring as to deserve so many perspectives. The theatrical progression of the night makes me reluctant to go into detail about the heartbreaking solos from Waldean Nelson and Brown for fear of spoiling what they reveal about the progress of the aesthetic narrative. So just know that they’re very striking, enough to make the evening worthwhile by themselves.
In an era of ubiquitous, page-long artist statements and never-ending lectures and symposia, it’s understandable if you’re a little skeptical about the necessity for a Q&A follow every performance. I think we’re used to people taking a very long time to say nothing when they are talking about contemporary art, probably because it’s hard to justify why the work deserves special attention without surrounding it with discussion.
However, “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” is actually about something. It’s about a lot. It addresses so much cultural and emotional material in so many different ways that it basically requires a conversation with the artists afterwards. Brown and her dancers were disarming and articulate as they engaged a significant portion of the audience in conversation about what had just happened. Their discussion of their personal relationship to the material provided some remarkable access to the thrill and confusion they experience while entering such complex territory.
Prompted by comments on the technical and ethical difficulty of choreographing and practicing a passage of extended booty-slapping, dancer Mayte Natalio explained that she began to keep a notebook to track her thoughts and reactions to the material as they developed the show. Donning the masks of these images brought her into contact with times in her past in which she herself was guilty of perpetuating them and times when she’s seen their corrosive effect on identity among her peers, and she had to learn how to “get in and get out safely” from the material. And that’s what the show and discussion does for the audience—it plunges them deeper into this material than we in liberal Portland have the guts to go, and it brings us all back out, safely.
Presented by White Bird, “Mr. Tol E. RAncE” runs at 8 pm Thursday, December 6, through Saturday, December 8, at Lincoln Hall at PSU.