BLACK GIRL: LINGUISTIC PLAY
Directed and Choreographed by Camille A. Brown (In collaboration with the woman of CABD)
Music : Scott Paterson and Tracy Wormworth
Set Design: Elizabeth C. Nelson
I must make the disclosure that I am a friend of Camille A. Brown, the highly decorated choreographer, (Bessie Award winner, two time Princess Grace Award Winner) hence reviewing her work could be seen as a conflict of interests. I have been remotely privy to her process, and had seen some brief clips of sections but all in all when I arrived at the Joyce Theatre September 22nd, 2015 I was relatively in the dark about what I was about to see.
Black Girl… the term itself is at once provocative, and evocative. It is weighted and complex, a term that can mean a myriad of things depending on the tone of its utterance. Said with raised eyebrows, pursed lips, pointer finger erect, and a swiveling serpent’s head brings to mind all that is equated with being “Ghetto” low class, ignorant and “Street”. This Black girl spits phrases like “Oh no you didn’t,” “Oh see, I will cut choo” box braids, baby mama’s, hands on hips…that sass, and verve, that fire, aggression and strength that enables her to “hold it down” is regarded as a negative. When said clear and strong with head held high, an unseen fist in the air, this Black girl (although she embodies the same adjectives as the first girl) her clarity of self, and ownership of her history, makes her more threatening. Where they both can “read” the former wields her tongue like a machete, the latter like a scalpel. Finally “Black girl” when whispered gently, with lips that slowly curl into a sly grin, and an almost imperceptible nod of the head, indicates that the speaker has just revealed one of world’s best kept secrets, “Black Girl Genius”. This is how post show talk back moderator Mark Anthony Neal so eloquently referred to the deliciously complex and ingenuitive matrix of what is “Black Girl” magic.
When the curtain rose, besides the varied leveled platforms, the first thing you notice is a huge chalkboard riddled with brightly colored childlike doodles. It appears as though someone has taken a slab of inner city concrete where children have mused away an afternoon, and turned it upright. In this simple gesture Brown and set designer Elizabeth C. Nelson have at elevated inner city play into art. Tracy Wormworth begins a slow and deliberate solo on a bass guitar, the feel and sound is reminiscent of a jazz club either before it opens, or before it closes, there is faint haze in the air (Scott Paterson’s score creates a haunting backdrop for the work). Brown in front of the chalkboard board begins a solo that could be considered her thesis statement of sorts, a physicalized foreshadowing of what is come. Clad in cut off denim shorts, a fuchsia top tied into a midriff, braids and lips matching her top, Brown put me in mind of a character out of an 80’s Spike Lee Joint as she referenced both physical behaviors and social dances from that time. It brought my teen and childhood years back to me in a rush. Clearly other members of the audience (undoubtably Black) are having the same experience as there were sniggers, and “Humphs” and a smatterings of “ok nows” as we recognize the Whop, the Dougie, a pose or gesture. We “get” what is happening up there, because we recognize ourselves. There was a particularly brilliant section when Brown in profile performs various forms of “Black girl” walks from B girl, a sassy church step touch, heel toe, stomping to tipping.
It is at that moment that I realized that regardless of my relationship to Camille, I understand that this story she is telling, is my story, our story and I must write about it. It is something of a secret to those outside of our culture, and the white people in the audience, though they may like it, and some critics might even hail it, they will almost certainly not fully understand the depth and complexity of what they are witnessing, the history, the legacy, genius. It’s like that old At&T commercial you have to “Know the Code” and without it you can only appreciate the work from a superficial perspective which, can be a completely fulfilling experience, but not its totality. It is like listing to a song in another language, you can appreciate it for its beauty, but that is very different from understanding not just the translation but the cultural sentiment of the lyrics. This is not a judgement, it’s a truth. A great deal of culturally specific work is mis, or under-understood. That is in and of itself is not the problem, the problem is when critics cannot admit their ignorance to a genre or topic, thus reduce it down to something far more simplistic than what it truly is. This happens a lot with artist of colors and critique, there is a diminishment of their work, with an underlying feeling of resentment because the writer (in their ignorance) was made to feel callow and outside the work. So instead of simply admitting that is beyond their personal scope, they reduce it.
The second movement is a duet between Brown and Catherine Foster. Foster and Brown have been friends and colleagues for many years and it shows in this virtuosically rhythmical duet that has its roots street games and at times hinges on their ability to almost become one person. The duet really takes off when the two do that familiar rock back and forth as if preparing to jump into the Double Dutch ropes, from there it does not stop. In the intricate weaving of Double Dutch “footies” steps, drill team stomping, rhythms akin to hambone, tap and African dance even a dope reggae beat, Brown draws a map of the history young Black girls on urban streets are engaged in as they play everyday. The welling up of nostalgia and pride was overtaken by that by sorrow as I watched, for it was the first time that I could see the beauty of my culture honored and respected, to see the artistry, the elegance, ingenuity… the “genius” in Black girl…Linguistic Play.
The middle of the duet brought with it a bit of comedy as the two girls (through a murmured soundtrack) hear another group of girls talking about them. The familiar “She thinks she cute, she ain’t all that…” when Brown motions to take her big gold earring off (Black Girl code for preparing to fight) audience members in the “know” erupt. BLACK GIRL strikes a perfect balance of showing the brilliance, the beauty and the feistiness of Black Women without the stereotypical booty shaking and twerking. There is a tenderness and a strength that is seldom presented. Camille A. Brown does for Black women in dance, what Shonda Rimes has done for Black actresses, she as made them human with all the messy, divine complexity inherent in that condition.
The third movement was a tender coming of age story with a sentimental arch beautifully danced —nay acted by Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser. The two begin carrying on the street play theme until puberty hits and Fraser discovers boys, and the power of her feminine form has over them. The two compete for male attention trying to out flirt one another unto battery, all against the chalkboard. They literally smudge out their innocence. It is a story many women (of all races) are familiar with, after the heartbreaking battle they find themselves estranged, Fraser feeling guilty for instigating, Capote distraught. Eventually they find their way back to one another. Sisterhood is the anchor for this work something you see precious little of when it comes to Black Women especially on reality television. With popularity of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Love and Hip Hop, and Basketball Wives, one would think that all Black women do is fuss, fight, and pull weaves while wearing ill-fitting, too-tight clothing. Here, Brown presents something more akin to the everyday reality.
It was around this time that I started to think about what’s happening in the media today, the cultural appropriation of the Black Girl image that is on trend. Where we have grown accustom to white women stealing our hair styles (whether getting their hair braided on a beach in the Caribbean) or using bronzers and spray tans recreate our color, but it is the ubiquity of the appropriation of our bodies that is most disturbing of late. White girls rocking alien looking butt implants, and over injected lips that, on their lighter bodies enjoy a sublimation from “Ghetto” Booty and “Nigger” lips to something sexy and attractive (Kylie Jenner). It is an insult. Vogue’s Patricia Garcia citing literally fake-ass Iggy Azelea and Kim Kardashian for making Big Butts fashionable, Please. This is the feeling that came over me in the theater. I was upset that my cultural birthrights are being syphoned off co-opted. Then former NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal came to mind. This woman who “Identifies Black” hence felt she was well within her right to present herself as such, NEVER HAD THE EXPERIENCES THAT I WAS WATCHING ON THE STAGE. She didn’t play these street games, get chased out of white neighborhoods when it was getting dark because you were on “their” block, she never sat between her mother’s legs and got her scalp greased and hair combed at night before she went to bed with her head wrapped a scarf. She was NEVER a BLACK GIRL. She “became” a “Black” woman when she was in her 20’s. It is a fact that you feel but feelings aren’t facts you can “feel” like you are Black, the fact is you are not… But I digress (into my feelings).
Yusha-Marie Sorzano performs an exquisitely nuanced solo, she is searching, troubled, perhaps a bit lost, she is joined by Mora-Amina- Parker who appears to be a mother/sister figure. One of the most poignant moments of the duet is when Parker, with Sorzano seated between her legs combs her hair and soothes her soul concomitantly. This gesture is one familiar to all Black women (Dolezal excluded), it is ritualistic, sacred, a rite of passage, for you will go from getting your hair done, to doing someone’s hair. Whether it is your Mother, sister, aunty, cousin, girlfriend or even the girl down the block you paid to do your braids, this act is so heavily layered with meaning. In this act of grooming there is nurturing, caring, bonding, sharing, tenderness, sternness, joy, pleasure, pain. There is such intense intimacy in those moments of getting your hair combed that the sense memory evoked from watching the gesture performed is almost palpable for Black women. Where this duet seemed less defined then the previous two, in the Talk Back when Brown explains the final gesture (Soranzo rests her head on Parker’s feet) by explaining that it illustrated her own in longing to simply…rest. Black women seldom get to …rest. In hindsight (and with a bit more information) it is clearer. Speaking of more information, Brown did not miss a beat, almost in anticipation of the “lack of understanding” she adroitly added a reference and resource guide in the program, undoubtedly to help laypeople and writers decode the work. Likewise the Talk Back is built into the running time of the piece, which aids those who are culturally illiterate in gaining a greater understanding and hopefully an appreciation for the work over all. In addition audience members get share their experiences which Brown, who no doubt takes in and uses to further refine and tweak the work.
BLACK GIRL” LINGUISTIC PLAY is a timely piece, it is a necessary piece, it is a work that truly pays homage to the Black Girl experience, as Brown said in the talk back when asked about the platforms of her set, “I just wanted to elevate us as high as we could be” and she did. She gave a very different view of the perception of who and what Black girls are, as did the square mirrors hanging at various angles from the ceiling did. BLACK GIRL: LINGUISTIC PLAY is nothing at all what you might expect just hearing the title, but everything you need to know about Black Girls.