Activism in dance: Choreographer Donald Byrd speaks on transforming ‘A Rap on Race’ for stage

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Update 02/6/18: This story has been updated to include the full schedule of performances of “A Rap On Race.”

Donald Byrd is hard to categorize, but few people deny he’s one of the foremost choreographers in contemporary dance. As Byrd himself said in 1993, “It hasn’t been easy for people to say, ‘Oh, he does this or he does that,’ (unlike) a lot of my contemporaries.”

His repertoire has included many commentaries on the work of modernist American choreographer George Balanchine (“Prodigal”), deconstructions on the “quote-unquote black movement” (“Shards”), and, perhaps most infamously, the 1992 Bessie Award winner “The Minstrel Show,” which involved dancers clad in blackface and an infamous segment in which Byrd himself called upon the audience to tell racist jokes and voice their own prejudice.

Byrd, as he mentions in an interview, is influenced by “many American choreographers like George Balanchine and Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey in some ways, not stylistically but in how he sought to move people.” And move people Byrd does indeed, including once to a “few minutes of open conflict” during a performance of “The Minstrel Show.”

Byrd continues, “Jerome Robins’ work, Elio Pomari’s work, and the list (of influences) goes on and on. I’ve started choreographing in the mid ‘70s, but I had been dancing since the mid ‘60s, so whatever I was exposed to and saw influenced me”.

It was during the ‘90s that Byrd met Anna Deavere Smith at Harvard, who is a playwright and actress perhaps best known for her roles in “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.” Byrd recalls Smith said at the time that “there was something about (Byrd) that reminds (her) of James Baldwin.” She turned him onto an interesting book-length conversation by celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead and Black writer James Baldwin, called “A Rap on Race.”

He was drawn to the text 20 years later because, in his words, during the time of the “Trayvon Martin shooting and the Michael Brown shooting that followed later in the series of unarmed Black people murdered by cops, it seemed to me we didn’t know how to talk about race in this country, and so I started to look for ways to maybe provide a model for how to talk about race.”

‘A Rap On Race,’ I thought, would be a good example, since it contains elements that everyone needs to have a serious conversation on race,” said Byrd. “It’s kind of a messy conversation, and so the way they engage with each other is exemplary: it’s honest, direct, and unapologetic. It’s also very respectful, they can yell and scream, but ultimately at the bottom of it is a kind of respect for a different perspective, that you kind of have to be willing to take a risk and dive in there and be confronted and to confront, while at the same time not demonize the person you’re having a conversation with.”

“A Rap On Race,” therefore, was chosen to be adapted by Byrd’s dance company in collaboration with Deavere Smith. “A Rap On Race” alternates between Smith’s selections from the original conversation, read out loud on stage, and danced duets set to Charles Mingus’ seminal experimental jazz album “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.”

Byrd figures the conversation between Mead and Baldwin as a kind of “pas de deux.”

“He dance manifests some aspects of what they are talking about. And so sometimes the dance anticipates what they’re going to say, and sometimes it comments on what they’ve already said,” explained Byrd. “It also acts as a way of placing the period the conversation is taking place in,1970, so some of the elements, stylistically, is borrowed from African-American choreographers working around that time, like Talley Beatty and to some extent Alvin Ailey, and the dance reflects their styles,” Byrd said.

Sometimes the dance penetrates and illuminates currents that were left buried in the original text. “In the conversation that Mead and Baldwin are having,” Byrd said, “one of the main sticking points is the distinction between truths and facts, Mead as a scientist is interested in the facts, and Baldwin is an artist and says ‘I’m not talking about the facts, I’m talking about the truth.’ And so I think there is a truthfulness that this dance tries to excavate from the conversation. This is a paraphrase of what Martha Graham said: “Movement does not lie.” And so in the movement, I believe, there is a kind of emotional truthfulness which is a reflection of what you hear in the text.”

So, uniquely, “A Rap on Race” functions as a danced comment on the state of interracial communications in America, both then and now. The dance is abstracted, representing the barriers of honest talk about race.

“A Rap On Race” is presented by Cal Performances at the Oakland Metro Operahouse on Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].