Every now and then a touring show rolls through the Marcus Center that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. The big budget shows blast theeir way across the main stage making way too much money and tiny, little touring acts of far greater substance get ignored altogether. Thankfully, there was a respectably sizable crowd at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall for dancer Jade Solomon’s one-night-only public Milwaukee performance of Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger. A series of short narrative dances were punctuated in the middle and at the end with a couple of conversations about the nature of the word. The latest performance in Jade Solomon Curtis’ tour was at times deeply moving and disturbingly thought-provoking.
The show opens with delicate movements against a large video projection featuring an aerial shot of wind through tall grasses. There was a serene warmth in the visuals accompanying slow, hopeful music while a snowstorm whipped around in the Milwaukee winter evening outside the venue. The simple summery movements of tall grasses in the background establish the immensity of the backdrop the dancer is working with. It’s a nice place to start in a journey that jolts over into some deeply disturbing territory. The video screen behind Solomon is a large wall of visuals that also act as interstitial extensions on the theme. Some of the visuals are more powerful than others. It's particularly disturbing to see dash-cam footage of cops being overtly racist on a screen that large.
Anatomy of a Moment: Colored on the Wall
Disturbing shock isn’t the sort of thing often played on in small stage theatre. It’s difficult to get an overwhelming visceral jolt to come across in the context of a performance. When it’s carried across with the kind of power Jade Solomon is working with, it can be very powerful stuff.
The second piece on the evening is “Colored on the Wall.” Jade Solomon Curtis appears in a neon green hoodie and baggy shorts of the same color which glow dazzlingly in Reed Nakayama’s cool blue light. Solomon Curtis’ balletic hip-hop dance movements assert themselves with inspiring power and confidence that never quite edges over into aggression or violence. Solomon Curtis glides across the stage with a beautifully graceful dominance amidst techno beats from VIBEHEAVY. Solomon is a beautiful silhouette in radiant green. It's hypnotically gorgeous stuff amidst moody dance music until the boom is lowered in a powerfully visceral emotional gut punch. The dancer hits the ground screaming. The music switches to the upbeat power of the Otis Day and the Knights’ celebratory 1978 cover of “Shout.” The massive video screen backdrop explodes in lightly animated archival photos of blacks hung from trees. The video has the tragic victims from those old photos slowly swaying amidst the upbeat celebration of Otis Day while Solomon screams. The layering of scream, upbeat music and grizzly images from history had me picking my jaw up off the floor. In ten years of going to over 1100 shows, I can scarcely remember a more viscerally jarring moment in a theatre seat. This sort of emotional assault is attempted so rarely and it’s so rarely done well. I’m still getting chills writing about that moment, which will likely haunt me through the rest of the winter.
Jade Solomon dances with a lot of other weighty themes in the course of the program. “A Star Named Nigga,” analyzes the stereotype of hip-hop culture with Solomons’ distinctly precise and passionate balletic fusion. “Under Fire” is an exploration into aggression and self-destruction. The dancer’s passion and intensity are strikingly unflinching.
Direct Discussion in Two Parts
It’s all abstract movement except for the conversations. There’s one in the middle of the program and a more traditional talkback at the end of the show. There’s a kind of fearlessness in holding something that feels like a talkback in the middle of a program...but it’s more than that. Local talent and others including educator Walter Beach III and the show’s sound designer DJ Topspin discuss the word at the heart of the program. Mics are available to the audience to join-in the discussion. It may be obvious that the word is vulgar and oppressive regardless of who speaks it, but there ARE more complex issues that make an open discussion of the word an interesting exercise at times.
The Marcus Center performance of Black Like Me is the last date listed on Jade Solomon’s tour schedule. For more information, visit Jade Solomon Online.