A promotional image for Spectrum Dance Theater’s A Rap on Race.
Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater dropped on St. Paul’s Ordway Music Theater on Saturday. In its best moments, the event was a notable experiment that illustrates how art can further discussions of racial inequality in America. Some moments were marvelously expressive and expressionist. Others, like the source material that inspired it, were frustrating in the execution.
A Rap on Race was premiered by Spectrum Dance Theater in 2016, in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre. This multidisciplinary work is the brainchild of actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith and Spectrum Dance Theater founder Donald Byrd. Smith (best-known to television audiences for her role as National Security Advisor Dr. Nancy McNally in The West Wing) is well-known in the theatre world for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, a piece of documentary theater about the LA race riots. (This non-vampiric Twilight went to Broadway and was enshrined in PBS’s Great Performances series.) The same year that Twilight opened, Byrd was making his own splash with The Minstrel Show, a sardonically named and award-winning show that the LA Times praised as “A dance with reality”.
In creating A Rap on Race, Smith and Byrd were motivated by an ideal: that a multidisciplinary approach integrating movement, dance, text, imagery, and music can bridge a gap of empathy and understanding. This is important because many have argued that this empathy gap is the source of racial tension in American society. The resulting creative ferment is an intriguing effort, but the ideal is not yet fully realized.
This artistic experiment delves into issues of disempowerment and injustice that are felt by African-Americans, but which go unseen or unnoticed by mainstream society, which therefore remains oblivious. A Rap on Race is based upon, and takes its title from, a series of recorded and published conversations between the prominent African-American author James Baldwin (at the time living in self-imposed exile in France) and anthropologist Margaret Mead. During this meeting of great minds, Baldwin and Mead shared their perspectives on race relations in America circa 1970. In the performance, dialogue excerpted from the Baldwin/Mead audio tapes is juxtaposed with duets choreographed as responses to the discussion and its insights.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
A Rap on Race opens with a scene recalling the opening of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach (itself a product of the 1970s). Jack Mehler’s set is a monolithic structure of web-like metal girders; these elevate Mead and Baldwin, seated at a round table, upon a circular dais. In the brief opening scene, the structure, the two characters, and the dance ensemble are silhouetted against a brightly colored cyclorama. The dancing figures merge with each other and meld with the abstract set design, making marvelously expressionistic patterns. However, this effect lasts for only a few minutes. Disappointingly, the rest of the performance fails to build upon this striking effect of movement, music, and design.
The conversation between Mead and Baldwin is moderately dramatic: the audience slowly realizes that the two great thinkers hold irreconcilable points of view. Baldwin expressed his pent-up rage against the injustice and discrimination inherent in American society toward African-Americans. Mead found it hard to accept Baldwin’s adamant feelings toward the society she grew up in. She, surprisingly, became frustrated with the limitations of her logical analysis of the racial situation. At Saturday’s performance, however, the performers Donald Byrd and Kathryn Van Meter gave somewhat monotone and lackluster performances that undercut the potential drama.
I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm.
The staged discussion scenes alternate with dance pieces, without any overlap. The diverse ensemble – usually in duets – touch, hug, lean on, lift each other with virtuosity. One of the show’s conceits is that dancers suddenly stop and casually walk offstage, signifying that their contribution to the discussion is now complete. However, I found it difficult to perceive how the duets directly related to or reflected specific spoken remarks.
There are some moments that showcase a highpoint of integration between the conversation and the movement, like the solo dance pieces by Nia-Amina Minor. (Minor, in her second season with SDT, is seemingly the lead dancer of the ensemble.) With staccato micro-movements of hips and torso that seem to express internalized conflict, her dance solos pieces become non-verbal monologues that strongly reflect the issues Mead and Baldwin raise on the dais above.
The dancing unfolds to a jazz score entitled The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, composed by Charles Mingus. The music has a contemporary feel, but at times reaches a screeching atonal sensibility that seems intended to express tensions within the conversation at hand.
An interesting counterpoint to the performance of A Rap on Race was the pre-show community discussion about the Mead and Baldwin dialogues. As part of the discussion, Karen L. Charles (Artistic Director of the Minneapolis-based Threads Dance Project) and three Threads dancers presented excerpts of their work The Secrets of Slave Songs, to a score of gospel-style music. The three dancers’ glyphic movement was used to physicalize inner experiences of prejudice and discrimination. This show-before-the-show struck me as a strong, authentic example of how the intersection of art and social concerns can bring voice to marginalized communities.