Urban Bush Women returned to the White Bird Uncaged series with a new work this weekend, Hair and Other Stories. The company’s first work with stage director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this ambitious, multidisciplinary performance is definitely about hair and definitely about those “other stories.”
The piece runs a little more than two hours with one intermission, and is dense by nearly every measure. The themes, the movement, the performative strategies, and the direct discussion with the audience covers an enormous amount of ground as it “debates the center of perceived American ‘values’ and celebrates the persevering narrative of the African Diaspora,” in the words of the press release. Right away Urban Bush Women acknowledge that some of the territory will be difficult or uncomfortable, but the almost-superhuman generosity of the performers carries us all through it together.
The show opens with a quiet moment between dancer Samantha Speis, who is also the company’s associate art director, and Aminata Balde, who is two years old and impossibly cute. While audio samples from interviews with black women talking about the role of hair and the rituals around its care (or destruction) in their lives, Speis picks a few plain but significant hair care products off a table and hands a comb to Aminata that looks enormous in her tiny hands. With a few deft movements, Speis bundles Aminata onto her back under a printed cloth, and walks off stage with a sense of purpose. We have begun our journey.
Performers Du’Bois A’Keen, Courtney J. Cook, and Tendayi Kuumba then burst onto the stage in gorgeous, colorful outfits designed by the very talented, self-taught DeeDee Gomes. They wheel through a raucous passage of dance, song, and spoken word that nods at performative traditions from hype-men to the oratory of great community speakers or preachers, setting a joyous and theatrical tone while introducing the uncompromising and complex message that they bring to the stage. Their refrain: “Somebody here just wanted to see a show, but we’re going on a journey.”
That line goes straight to the heart of the show. Like other refrains that trace through the spoken segments, it’s very true, and as an audience we should take them at their word. It shows the empathy and energy of what they’re doing—they are not about to let us sit in our seats passively, but they also know what they are getting us into and they’re going to look out for us. And, while less-dedicated performers could have easily just delivered it in a straight monologue, they danced it, they sang it, they joked it, they said it plainly.
This energy and total, enthusiastic engagement and acceptance carried the show first into the central theme of hair, and then beyond to beauty, perception, identity, racism, and colorism. We went further still to the basic ideas of dialogue and empathy, sometimes leaving the subject of hair but never forgetting it. The rituals and objects and language around hair care as black women in America experience it, were mapped out in the first half of the show, through spoken word and skits that flowed in and out of dance and movement. This vocabulary was well-known to the audience members who share that experience, given the nods, laughs, and the occasional “uh huh!” that the pieces triggered. For those of us who haven’t lived that experience, there was ample material for us to learn from and appreciate. I certainly left with a greater appreciation for the term “hot comb” and the shared experience of attempts at hair straightening in the kitchens of loved ones and the literal, searing pain that it can cause in the search for a particular image of “beauty.”
The wide toolset used by the show reflects the complexity of its subject. Alternating between movement and dance, spoken word, projections, and audience participation allows this incredibly talented troupe to engage different dimensions of the conversation with carefully-measured combinations of abstraction and direct narrative. Passages of movement tended to carry the transitions between the sections, sometimes leading into full dance pieces that cleared the slate for the next stop.
A steady momentum kept the journey going through the many vignettes, and shifts in tone and topic play through the dialogue between direct audience engagement and the passages of dance or story. Narrative sections sometimes pivoted deftly from laugh-out-loud moments to stark reality checks, such as the reminder of the simple, horrifically lopsided comparison between the total number of years African Americans have been in America versus the short slice of time that they have been considered full citizens by the government.
These twists and turns made the journey a sort of high-energy ramble rather than a path straight to a single point. Aminata’s wary-yet-determined involvement in many of the dances was a fascinating and charming manifestation of this exploratory energy. She has an uncanny amount of stage presence for a two year old, and when she clapped for the audience to follow, it was as steady and strong as an adult’s lead. One of the most touching moments of the show came when the troupe stood in a line, heaving for breath as the music faded, and Aminata slowly realized that something was going on that she didn’t understand. She looked around, toddled over to Speis, and reached for her hand.
It was one of many moments that addressed the fundamental critique faced by any artwork that attempts to confront a complex political issue—what does the medium bring to the conversation? When is it better to dance about racism than to just talk or organize? How can you avoid turning the art into a sort of raw material poured into an engine that drives the message forward? This show refuses to make a trade-off between dancing and speaking—it does it all and more.
For those who have lived the “other stories” of Hair and Other Stories, art with this degree of energy and honesty is a better route to a true representation of their experiences than any kind of explanation. For those of us who have the privilege of walking down the street without strangers feeling entitled to touch our hair whenever they want, we get a detailed, loving history of the terms and culture around caring for a kind of hair that does endure that treatment. More than that, we can also feel the way that the gaze and biases of strangers can take you over just because of your hair. We get to test some of our own ideas in the replies that Cook and Kuumba ask us to say out loud. And we get the pleasure of their excellent singing voices when it’s time to listen again.
The interdisciplinary methods of Urban Bush Women combined in a particularly affecting way to share the experience of a typical situation where this happens: in an elevator. Chanon Judson brought her command of space and expression to bear on three different versions of the drama that unfolds by simply stepping into an elevator with her own, natural hair. (“1. Black people. 2. White people. 3. People!”) We could watch her stature dissolve from the posture that electrified the stage in a dance piece just minutes prior, to a position of vulnerability that won’t be described better in words than it is by her movements.
It may not be something that can be explained well in words, but what she was able to communicate in this movement made it entirely clear why it is necessary to not just talk but to dance this conversation we most desperately need to be having.