Jade Solomon Curtis moves across the stage with intention and purpose. Her entire body is permeated with the emotion she needs to convey. She easily convinces the audience by manipulating her limbs.
Curtis found her passion for dance while in middle school. The Lubbock, Texas, native received her bachelor of fine arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and is the subject of an Emmy award-winning film. She moved to Seattle several years ago to work with Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater.
The dancer/choreographer sat down with Real Change to discuss her upcoming show, “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger” at Fred Wildlife Refuge. The performance is being held at a nontraditional space to attract a broader audience.
Petite and self-assured, Curtis has spent a lot of time contemplating the topic. She’s listened to her inner voice and is honoring it with a multidisciplinary show with several collaborators.
For Curtis, there’s no compromising on using the word “nigger” or “nigga.” The title of her show is jolting but this isn’t about shock value.
You were with Spectrum Dance Theater for four years and also served as program director. Did that experience influence your upcoming show Black Like Me?
Definitely. I worked a lot with youth and primarily ages from 13 to about 20, 21 and one day we had a class around the Mike Brown verdict [the grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson]. I had some students in the class who were visibly upset and distraught. They were all of my students, so not just one particular race. And so we did an exercise where we had a conversation about it. I told them I was Black. I think that oftentimes people, once they get to know you they tend to disconnect you from things that are happening in the real world because they don’t see you as that, but I do. That could very well could have been a cousin, a brother, an uncle, my dad. So I wanted to make sure I had that conversation with them and let them know, hey, I’m feeling this way. I’m here in class today but we need to talk about this. So we had a conversation then I had them create movement that connected with the words that they were saying and what they came up with was genius.
Let’s talk about the title. You’re not saying “n-word.” You’re saying “nigger” and that for me was jarring. Why did you do that?
I initially titled it Black Like Me with the intention the word “nigger” was the impetus for the work. I was afraid of using the word mainly because it’s jarring to me. Saying the word hurts me. I was just afraid. Then I started digging deeper into my research and having conversations and seeing people’s reactions to what the work is and what I’m talking about is, and the fact that they were reacting the way that they were said to me that I can’t be afraid of it and it needs to be in the title and it needs to be something that people are taken aback by because that’s how I feel every time I hear it in music. I don’t care if it’s an “a” or an “er” behind it. To me it’s the same word. I think it forces the conversation of redefining and reclaiming and transforming a word that I don’t believe can be.
You talked earlier about the reaction to the work because you were doing different variations of the upcoming show. What were those reactions?
Their reactions and the conversations that I had around it and around the fear of it. And the avoidance. I’m tired of people avoiding it. I’m tired. I’m tired of it. I use the example when I moved here in 2011. I was just leaving a club with a friend, a former company member of Spectrum, and we were walking down the street and this White guy was sitting in the windowsill of a restaurant. He was like, “I didn’t know niggers came down here.” First of all, for me, I’m sitting here thinking Capitol Hill, especially that area is the most progressive and liberal area right? Primarily because it’s younger and it’s more vibrant. That was not my experience, especially that evening. This is something that is happening in our most progressive neighborhoods; what’s happening outside of that? Sugarcoating it, which I feel like is what “nigga” does.
You think about hip-hop. Most people say I don’t listen to it for the lyrics, I listen to it for the beat, I like the way it makes me feel. But you’re not thinking about all of that language that actually you are internalizing and that’s contributing to perpetuating the trauma that not only you’ve experienced in your present life but that your ancestors have experienced and therefore is a part of your genetic makeup. So we can’t avoid that and addressing it head on is the only way I know how to do it. No tiptoeing.
Do you listen to rap and hip-hop?
No, not really. Mainly because I can’t handle the lyrics. I can’t listen to music that I feel like degrades me, belittles me and doesn’t empower me.
As a Black woman who listens to rap and hip-hop, I feel a little guilty.
Someone asked me before, “Do you intend to change people’s minds?” That would be wonderful, but if anything I just want to help contribute to more conscious individuals. If you’re going to listen to that music, know what it’s doing. Know that you have power.
What can people expect when they come to the show?
My intention is to have all these different collaborators come together and present. We’re contributing to the same message but giving different perspectives and giving different connection points for everyone in the audience. I think that what they can expect is just a really well-rounded conversation through art and also in actual conversation.
How do these conversations work?
The first conversation is an integrated conversation. I’ll be dancing and then there will be two panelists discussing pre-curated questions. The whole point of that section, it’s called Untitled, we are essentially discussing time. Does time have the ability to transform a word and this word in particular?
Why should someone come see the show?
I feel like this is a global conversation. This is not just a conversation in Seattle or Baltimore or D.C. or New York but everywhere. Because a lot of people support hip-hop music, and I think that in order for the conversation to grow or rather to transform and transcend and to get anywhere it needs to be global conversation.
Our talk reminds me of Richard Pryor who used the word, went to Africa came back and said, no, I’m not going to do this anymore. Was there any one experience in your life that got you to this place or have you always been at this place with the word?
Richard Pryor is actually a part of the show. I was never able to reconcile Black people or White people calling me a “nigga.” It never felt any different. It never felt like to me that I was the homie or the friend. It just never felt good being addressed that way or me saying it out of my mouth. There wasn’t one particular incident that made me transform everything and turned everything around 360. I’ve always been that way. I’ve always felt this way.
Do you have a goal in mind for the show?
Yes. This is also the launch of my non-profit initiative called Solo Magic. This show is essentially the first time I’m bringing together artists to collaborate around a singular message. This is something that I want to continue doing.
My primary goal is community engagement and not just Seattle community. Getting people to come to Seattle and see art in dance done by a Black woman.
What would you say to a White person who may be interested in this show but doesn’t use the word “nigger” or any variation of it and doesn’t consider themselves racist? What can they get out of this show?
I think that we all affect one another; we’re all influenced by one another. If it’s not something that you feel as though you are affected by and that you contribute to there’s someone next to you who does. So bring them.
WHAT: “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger”
WHEN: March 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available online
WHERE: Fred Wildlife Refuge, 127 Boylston Ave. E., Seattle