“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
This statement made in 1962 by James Baldwin could have predicted a 2016 performance of the Spectrum Dance Theater.
“A Rap on Race” is one program of the company’s 2015–2016 season, which they have dubbed “#Raceish.” The performance turns a 1970 conversation about race between African-American social critic James Baldwin, who is played by Spectrum Artistic Director Donald Byrd, and anthropologist Margaret Mead, played by Julie Briskman, into beautiful choreography paired with selections from the text. At times, the dialogue between the intellectuals is frustrating: They come from different worlds, and are trying to make sense of an incredible tension that exists between their experiences. The performance of the two — who are elevated in a makeshift living space, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes — draws upon a sliver of the conversation, but manages to touch upon the personal themes of love, touch, truth and what it means to be an American.
The Tony Award-winning Byrd choreographed the performance with 11 dancers. He worked in partnership with Anna Deavere Smith to present “A Rap on Race” in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre; Real Change had the honor of speaking with Byrd over the phone after the world premiere of their work.
What initially drew you to work on “A Rap on Race”?
I was introduced to the source material by Anna Deavere Smith. We were looking for a project to do together. I looked at it and the subject matter is obviously something that I’m interested in.
I wanted to do it a couple years ago but we weren’t able to raise the money to be able to do it. And so, when I decided that this season we were going to focus on race, I was really determined to put this piece in front of people because I think that one of the problems that we have as Americans is we have difficulty talking about race because we’re not willing to talk about it honestly and openly. And we need to talk about it. We need to talk about race. Also, given what’s been happening especially in the last year and a half with all the killings by policemen, it seems to me we needed to talk about race but we really don’t know how. I thought by looking at this piece that perhaps we could use the conversation as a model for how to have a conversation — [by looking at] their willingness to be honest about the conversation and be willing to get down and dirty if they needed to express their perspective and point of view. My hope is that this might give people an example of how we can talk about race and that we need to be willing to do what those two people did. To kind of go there and talk about it honestly and, not to use an old-fashioned word, pussyfoot around. Get in there with it. That’s the first step. As James Baldwin says in the piece: “That’s the beginning.”
How did you navigate the process of presenting the text and dance in a way that didn’t emphasize one over the other?
To be honest, I don’t know. It was the goal to do that. I think with any artistic project you have things that want to happen but you don’t really know if that’s going to work or not. But I did think that somehow, whatever I did, that they needed to complement each other. [There’s] just so much — Anna says, “intellectual heft” — in their ideas. Somehow I had those things kind of energy-wise play off of each other. One of the things that Julie and I talked about and try to do is that sometimes what we’re doing has to pick up the energy of the dance, and sometimes what the dancers were doing was to pick up on the energy and meaning of the conversation of the part. I think it was about the conversation back and forth between those two elements. I was working really hard to have them work together and to feel like there was a relationship and one was not overwhelming the other.
One thing that struck me about Mead and Baldwin’s conversation is that we’re still discussing the same things today with the same ferocity of the 1960s. What do you think the performance element of this communicates that the text alone cannot?
I’m not sure how to articulate what to call how dance communicates. But I think it can communicate is a kind of visceral-ness about the intensity and honesty because it is what it is. It can tell us things sometimes that might elude us when we’re using words. I think what the dance does, in its relationship to the words, amplifies some things that are being said. It bumps it up a couple of notches. It turns the volume up on it and it gives the audience a clue into the subtext of what’s being said — the things they may not be explicitly saying but we can feel it underneath. Sometimes the dance feels kinda sexy, even though it’s not sexy dancing, and Anna said to me that their conversations feel like lovers talking to each other. Even though they are the most unlikely lovers, it has that feeling. It’s the feeling of sex not really like sex. I think the dance brings back elements to it, and it becomes a more full and nuanced, the way real experiences are. When you have a relationship with a person, it is kind of operating on all kinds of levels. Some of it is on feeling, on intellect, but it’s really rich and I think that the dancing fills in often those pieces in a relationship that are not articulated in the words.
In the post-performance discussion after the premiere, you said you didn’t want audience members to hate Mead after this and how you developed a love for her, despite how frustrating the conversation can get. Can you speak to that a bit?
A Margaret Mead person can seem a bit like this well-intentioned White woman and we can think of her like, “Okay stupid White lady get it together, come on,” but what that does is shut the conversation down if you take that attitude. And I think Baldwin sensed that with her, and I think I started to admire how she kept going at it. She really wanted to understand, and [understand] crucially and critically. She had hope of the nature of the race relations in America. She felt that Baldwin was pessimistic. I think that she wanted him to be hopeful like she was hopeful. The thing is not to hate on her because she has the notion of “We can stand shoulder to shoulder and make it work and figure it out.” In some ways, I love her naivety. Ultimately, she does get that the Black experience in America is very different than the White experience, no matter how you look at it.
She wants to say, “Oh, but we have this in common and so I’m hopeful” and I love her hopefulness. That’s what I love about her. She’s remained hopeful. And so I want audiences to love that about her too, that she was a hopeful person and she was hopeful about race relations in America. I think I am too. I may not be hopeful about America, especially about what’s going on with this presidential race, but I think that her hopefulness is something. I love her humanity.
Do you think she would have remained hopeful if she had lived through these past few years?
Whoa, that’s a really fantastic question. In some ways there would be no way for her to escape her White privilege. And maybe that level of hopefulness is a result of White privilege. If you’re a progressive, liberal person, maybe that’s part of the package. I think if she was alive today, she would be where [Baldwin] is in his thinking, at one point where he said, “All I know is there’s work to be done, and I have to figure out what to do, and I have to do that.” It’s not like he was hopeless.
I also think that is what I try to do with all of this, given who I am and [that] I’m an artist and the work I’ve been doing over the years and this season. I’m just doing the work. I’m hopeful some of it will stick and have some impact over my lifetime but somehow maybe 20, 30 years from now, we won’t have to have conversations in this country about race. That’s the vision I have: That we won’t have to have conversations about race. I’m putting my drop in the bucket right now, and I suspect if [Mead] were alive now she might have a similar approach.
Last night you said you wished more people would show up. And while you were mainly discussing the performance, I believe I hear that same sentiment throughout the conversation regarding race and Black lives?
The reality of it is that Spectrum can’t do programs like this unless people buy tickets. I want people to show up because that’s the only way we can have a conversation. I wish people would be interested in and engaged enough to show up. And to show up to see and [be] curious enough to show up and sit there for an hour and 25 minutes. To carry it further, I wish more people would show up for more aspects of life. I’m not saying [to] show up for everything either, but we have to recommit every morning to show up for life. It’s kind of like being a drug addict. I had my issues with drug addiction back in the day, and the thing about when you’re in your addiction, as the language says, you’re not showing up for life because you can’t. I think that people sometimes don’t show up for life. You have to practice showing up for life. You have to commit and practice one day at a time.