Choreographer Camille A. Brown asks: ‘What is so uncomfortable about a black girl playing?’

White Bird brings Camille A. Brown & Dancers to town for some playground games—and some sharing of black culture

In the Q&A after the opening night performance of “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” Camille A. Brown was asked whether she thought it was easier or harder to engage racial issues in her performances in the “current political climate,” a phrase which sent a distressed chuckle through the audience.

She joked that when the title was just “Black Girl,” she assumed she wouldn’t have a tour. She imagined a genteel couple picking what they wanted to do on a Friday night and shying away from the performance called “Black Girl.” Who wants to think about that on your night out? “We live in a post-racial world, anyway,” Brown quipped, to another uneasy chuckle. To answer the original question, Brown asked another, simple question. What, exactly, is so uncomfortable about a black girl playing?

She’s made my job as a reviewer rather easy, in fact, by naming her show after exactly what it is about: the language behind some of the ways that black girls play. The thesis of this show is that there is legitimate language of movement that has been passed down through a rich cultural history that can be found in traditional schoolyard and side-street games played by girls, frequently black girls. Further: That’s worth watching, and it deserves more space.

Camille A. Brown and Catherine Foster in "Black Girl: Linguistic Play"/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy White Bird

Camille A. Brown and Catherine Foster in “Black Girl: Linguistic Play”/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy White Bird

If you have a sideways, gut feeling that the show will be “racially charged” or “confrontational,” I can tell you that it will only feel that way if you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving this particular form of dance a stage and engaging with it from the perspective of contemporary dance. PICA’s TBA Festival has brought performers from around the world who have done the same thing with the folk dances that informed their upbringing—Brown’s just doing it with a folk tradition that thrives in our playgrounds and city streets.

A special insert comes with the night’s program that provides an excellent survey of the fascinating history behind the material in the show. Heather McCartney writes very engagingly about how footwork, hand jives, call-and-response clapping, and other aspects of social dance came to be a familiar part of any American playground, along with a jump rope or two. I can’t really put it better than she did:

The etymology of her linguistic play can be traced from patting’ Juba, buck and wing, social dances, and other percussive corollaries of the African drum found on this side of the Atlantic, all the way to jumping double dutch, and dancing The Dougie. Brown uses the rhythmic play of this African-American dance vernacular as the black woman’s domain to evoke childhood memories of self-discovery.

The structure of the piece is spare and specific. Most of the time it’s just one or two dancers, starting with Brown herself, on a stage that consists of some low platforms, a backdrop of ebullient chalk drawings, watched over by some hanging mirrors. Scott Patterson and Tracy Wormworth play piano and electric bass to accompany the dancers throughout the show with an appropriately stripped-down-but-complex score that spryly tours a variety of influences. The dissonant refrain from Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” surfaces frequently, providing an unexpected and thoughtful undercurrent to the funkier, fast-paced tempo of the show.

Compared to her last performance in Portland, the set is minimalist. It serves simply to present the kaleidoscopic vision of countless, vibrant styles that Brown and her dancers have brought. There are many invigorating and impressive moments as tap, Juba, hambone, hip-hop, modern and classical styles all blend and shift together.

Hand-clapping, “pattin Juba,” and contact mics on the dancer’s shoes provide the beats that string an inventive, evolving rhythm through the score and between the acts. The sound is as much a part of the language Brown is exploring as the dance, and it’s as complex and avant garde as Steve Reich. Brown has manifested the direct connection between social dance and modern improvisation in the way that hand-jive or double-dutch or tap-dance rhythms line up with the score and the dancing at curious moments.

Through the different acts, each of Brown’s dancers brings her own kind of girl to the stage. A rewarding challenge was to watch how they added particular postures and movements to all the other styles they were working with to channel the sense of childhood or the edges of it as it blends into adulthood. As Brown writes in the program: “What are the dimensions of Black girl joy that cannot be boxed into a smile or a grimace, but demonstrated in a head tilt, lip smack, hand gesture, and more?”

Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote in "Black Girl: Linguistic Play"/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy of White Bird

Fana Fraser and Beatrice Capote in “Black Girl: Linguistic Play”/Photo by Christopher Duggan courtesy of White Bird

They swagger, they stumble, they fight, they make up, and they play. They support each other, and they invent new games and ways to move together as they grow up. The arc of childhood and declaring oneself is not the sole journey of a black girl—it’s what all kids do. During the Q&A, Brown talked about how, without much media representation of childhood in the way that she knows it, she had to see through the cultural lenses of others to find the shared stories they were trying to tell.

Keenly aware of that experience, she is trying to reverse the lens she looks through and hopes that those of us who didn’t grow up as black girls can find common ground in her explorations, which she has done entirely on her terms.

Brown’s not trying to make anyone uncomfortable. This discomfort with “speaking specifically about black girls,” as she said in the Q&A, and the limited cultural roles afforded to black women and girls are the context in which Brown’s piece has to exist. It’s also what surrounds any black girl who wants to go out and play.

Black girls, of course, have to deal with that context and the actions of others that come out of that context. But it’s not their problem if watching them play within their cultural heritage makes someone else uncomfortable. Her efforts to carve out space for the art-forms that she grew up with and has brought to life so vividly here reminds me of a quote from a recent interview with Chris Rock:

“So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. … The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.”

“Black Girl: Linguistic Play” continues at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, through Saturday, October 15.

One Response.

  1. Walter Jaffe says:

    Brilliant analysis Nim. One of your best pieces on a White Bird show.

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