On Wednesday, February 24, I had the privilege of witnessing Brooklyn’s own Urban Bush Women’s portrayal of dark swan at the South Side Cultural Center in Providence. Sponsored and emceed by FirstWorks, the evening was a satisfying mix of community discussion, local flavor, and world class artistic expression. Opening for Urban Bush Women were several local treasures including spoken word champion and local actor and playwright Christopher Johnson, the founders of Mixed Magic Theater Company in Pawtucket, RI Jonathan and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley, and the award-winning local triple-threat Rose Weaver.
The performances took place in the intimate theater on the 3rd floor, where the Wilbury Theater Group is housed. The space is amorphous and inviting, with low lighting and an intimate feel due to the proximity to the stage. After a community discussion on dance, race, and social justice, the audience was led upstairs by Malian djembe player Sidy Maïga, who teaches drumming locally at the Providence Library. The entire group, young child to senior citizen, white, black, Hispanic and everything in between, all danced up the stairs like we were part of a glorious parade, and filed into the makeshift bleacher seats and settled in for an unexpected show.
All the opening acts, though different in medium, held a common thread for this viewer. They all proclaimed strength and love for their communities and showed that proudly to an audience full of people willing to learn about them. We were bathed in the words of Maya Angelou, spoken poignantly by Ms. Bernadet Pitts-Wiley. We were lectured in the ways in which women should hide their femininity and be shamed for their bodily cycles, only to be told, “That’s a load of bullshit” by Ms. Rose Weaver. As an audience we were led through spoken word and dance to a mental space prepared to witness the provocative and important work that Urban Bush Women then shared with us.
After a brief intermission, the women set onstage in the dark. A soft, light, sweet melody cut through the darkness and welled inside the viewer. Before the lights were barely visible, I could tell the women were moving, but only just. I felt their movements in my own body as they shook the floor, radiating up my chair and into my core. Slowly, slowly, the lights lifted, and we saw the backs of them, convulsing and vibrating as a stark juxtaposition to the lilting notes that engulfed them. For several minutes the dancers shook their bodies, sometimes becoming more violent, sometimes moving backwards and forwards, sometimes stamping their feet, but never turning to show us their faces. Without the opening discussion and artistic acts I am unsure how the audience would have been prepared to receive this work.
After several grueling minutes, the dancers finally turned and faced the audience, presenting themselves, their bodies, and the rawness of those first few minutes of unbridled vibrations. They presented their bodies to us both for our consumption as a viewer consumes art, but also as a declaration of power and acceptance of their own bodies and their own pleasure. In what at first appeared to be irony, they gyrated, closed their eyes, and explored their own bodies both above and below their clothing. The intimacy and power in their stance was so overwhelming, to look around the room would be to see tears streaming down the faces of many audience members. The dancers fluctuated between an outward attitude of “come hither”, to defiance and strength as shown by waving their middle fingers, to an inward pleasure of one’s own beautiful body. One of the dancers, a tall, caramel-black woman with the stance of a goddess, stated over and over in fast speech barely audible, “black girls do not possess a collective heart that can be broken, just look”.
In the talk-back, the dancers were clear that there was no single way to interpret the piece, but that each person individually could decide for themselves what was important in the work to them. To many of the dancers, they felt the process of getting to a place where they could be intimate with their own bodies in front of an audience and show pleasure in their own femaleness was a process and a struggle. Audience members alike were speechless to the effect the women showered over them. As one of the performers said, “Why do our bodies and our power illicit fear? What are men so afraid of?” In history, media, pop culture alike, women’s pleasure appears to be forgotten, hidden, or intentionally pushed aside. Women are taught that their bodies are dirty, their pleasure is not as important as the pleasure of their partner (in cis, heterosexual, patriarchal relationships that this writer is accustomed to and most familiar with). It was a “celebration of blackness”, and of the parts of our female bodies that are so often cast off.
The movements, costumes, and music touched not only on the inner power of the women onstage but on the power and experience of many of the older female audience members. Several of the women in the audience who were black and grew up during segregation shared how they were told their bodies were ugly, their power useless. To see young black women not only appreciate their bodies, but to appreciate them on stage in front of an audience was transformative for many people in the audience, both black and white alike. From a purely female perspective, regardless of race, to stand up and proclaim power and pleasure for oneself and in oneself is truly a uniquely female journey.
Above and beyond, the whole evening had this writer feeling a sense of community. So many different people were there, from different social circles, age groups, and cultural backgrounds. It was inspiring to share this common experience with local performers and other dance and theater enthusiasts who I do not often have the chance to commingle with. What FirstWorks and Urban Bush Women have so expertly done is used their medium of dance to cross cultural and racial boundaries, bring people out into their community, and spark discussions that could truly effect change in a society so torn by the damaging effects of racism and sexism. What became most apparent, however, was that we are a society that is ready to heal ourselves from within, together.
Article by Contributing Writer: Julia Krasnow
In response to First Works’ Community Renewal Event with Urban Bush Women, February 24th 2016.
Photo Credit: First Works