CAMILLE A. BROWN & DANCERS: Celebrating Black Identity in the Arts
Reflections on a Performance Art Experience by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Alice Jepson Theatre, Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, 453 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173
Performance: September 27, 2019 at 7:30pm
Ticket Prices: $40 General Admission; $32 Subscribers; $20 Students
Info: (804) 289-8980 or modlin.richmond.edu
When Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CABD) comes to town (from NYC) it’s worth rearranging your schedule to make sure you see them. It’s been five years since Richmond was last graced by CABD and the dynamic company’s recent visit to the River City culminated in one-night of performances at the Modlin Center for the Arts. One night is not enough.
The program consisted of a trilogy of CABD’s work on black identity: Act I of the evening-length work “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012); an excerpt of “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” (2105); and excerpts of “ink” (2017). “Mr. TOL E RAncE” was performed in its entirety when the company performed at VCU’s Grace Street Theater in 2014, and if memory serves correctly, it has changed and evolved since then. (A link to my review of that 2014 performance is attached, below.)
“Mr. TOL E RAncE” is a complete theatrical event all on its own. In the beginning, CABD highjacks the usual pre-show housekeeping message, using the performers’ voices to remind people to turn off their cell phones and pointing out the locations of the exit doors. Animation by Isabela Dos Santos provides a humorous and historic homage to black entertainers and artists from the early days of minstrelsy to recent television shows featuring black actors – mostly sit coms. There a projection of a red theater curtain as animated figures with over-sized heads of the likenesses of Dave Chapelle, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, Amos and Andy, Whoopie Goldberg, Sherman Helmsley, Richard Pryor, and many more usher the audience into the world CABD has created for us.
And what a world it is, full of color, and rhythm, resonating with sound and movement and history. The piece moves in the vocabulary of minstrelsy, tap, soft shoe, jazz, even children’s games. We catch glimpses of JJ Walker and the Carlton Dance. On at least two occasions the dancers break out into song, jamming to the themes of “The Jeffersons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” And in case you had forgotten – or never knew – there was also “Living Single,” “The Cosby Show” and more before “Black-ish” or “Insecure” ever hit the small screen. Mr. TOLE E RAnCE is both commentary on the stereotypes of minstrelsy and a celebration of the resilience of black artists.
“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play,” performed by Catherine Foster and Camille A. Brown, is a celebration of Black Girl Magic, filled with hand-clapping games, rhythmic sassiness, double dutch, stepping, and tap. And there are distinct, if fleeting, glimpses into the African roots of it all.
Finally, “Ink” began with a similar perspective of Black Boy Joy, as two of the men from the company performed a duet that carried us from the carefree days of childhood to the complexities of discovering you are a Black man in America. The rapid interplay of rhythm in collaboration with live musicians brings new life to old rituals and moves into the Afro-futurism of superheroes with superpowers. The exercising of superpowers, we realize with a jolt, is the normative operating mode for black people in America.
Brown and her dancers – most of whom are also choreographers and many of whom are conversant in visual and spoken arts as well – are not just dancers. They are actors. They are musicians. They are consummate artists whose work is not just a reflection of their lives, but whose work is a mirror that reveals our own lives. Artistically, Brown’s work most reminds me of the work of Dianne McIntyre and her former group, Sounds in Motion. (If you are not familiar with the work of this phenomenal artist, then look her up!) The music is such an integral part of the work, with Kwinton Gray remaining onstage the entire evening, playing the piano that sometimes provides a resting place – or a hiding place – for the dancers. There is no separating the movement, the music, the word, the costumes, the lighting, the animation. This work is restorative. It is refreshing. It is healing. It is exhausting. It is art.
Here’s a link to my review of Camille A. Brown & Dancers in Richmond in 2014:
Here’s a link to my preview and interview of Camille A. Brown for the company’s 2019 Richmond program:
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Christopher Duggan, Whitney Brown, Modlin Center for the Arts website
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