“Healing is just as important as protest,” choreographer Camille A. Brown wants to remind us. Although Brown and her dancers echo the serious assertion that Black Lives Matter, they seek to spell out why with their bodies. “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” will unfold at the Power Center on Saturday, as part of the UMS winter season. A dance piece set to an original score performed live and culminating in a moderated interactive discussion with the audience, the piece is a celebration of identity — both personal and that of a collective cultural history.
It harkens back to the unbridled joy and expression (in metaphor, if not lived reality) of childhood. The piece’s movement vocabularies thread through generations of African American history, from West African drum beats to coded resistance in the Antebellum South, club social dancing leading up to the civil rights movement and on through the decades to Michael Jackson, the electric slide and urban rhythms of stepping and street games.
Maybe you paused at the title. What does it mean?
“‘Linguistic’ — when people hear that they automatically assume … is there text?” Brown said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “That’s not the only way people communicate, it’s the language of the body.”
The term “play,” too, has a few meanings. There’s the obvious activity of merriment: playing children’s games on the street like Double Dutch. A play can be a gambit — a strategic or aggressive move in pursuits like chess or love. Or there’s play as in a theatrical performance. Brown draws on all of the definitions and challenges us to an expansive understanding of the word.
The title’s first part, “BLACK GIRL,” may seem self-evident, but after deconstructing the title’s description, we’re left to question the meaning of those words as well. What does it mean to be a Black girl? To whom? What are the images or stereotypes we see?
“What about childhood, what was my childhood like? I realized: wow you don’t see your childhood, you don’t see those games, you’re depicted as those stereotypes.” Brown said. “I wanted to do something different than what I saw out there.”
Kyra Gaunt’s book, “The Games Black Girls Play” sparked the concept of Brown’s piece and as it took off from its original form, it evolved, drawing life from the dancers’ own stories. Like social dance, the established structure of the choreography gives way to personal interpretation and style. Each individual contribution adds a layer of flair, of experience and of memory. Through these shared stories, the dancers articulate a time before their identity was a label tacked on to their bodies — a time when they just simply were, in rhythm and in movement.
“‘BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play’ is rooted in childhood memory, but it’s rooted in all of our childhood memories and all of our experiences,” Brown said. “So it’s not just me telling my story, it’s the company telling their stories. We had a lot of conversations. When you go back and you think about that period of time and when you think about identity: what was that point in your life when people started classifying you? You are short, you are dark-skinned. You are. You are. How did you feel about that? Going back, people really (began) unpacking that personal history.”
The piece is organized into three sections following the maturation of a Black girl in urban America. Brown herself plays both a young girl, around 14, and later embodies a Black woman in motherhood — a challenging feat for a petite and youthful choreographer.
One section is dedicated to the movement lexicon of West and Sub-Saharan African and its subsequent translations through the generations of African-American dance vernacular, detailed in the rich reference and resource guide found in the program. The “Pattin Juba” was a term used for the body percussion of slaves in the 18th century when dancing and drumming were forbidden, as a way to connect to their heritage. Elements of the juba can be seen in social dances, including The Dougie, and even in urban street games like Double Dutch.
“The aspects of rhythm and creative identity are timeless, but the way people do it is progressive,” she said. The thing about Double Dutch, even though it’s a childhood game — when you think about it and really dissect it — it’s music. It’s musical compositions: its phrasing, it’s polyrhythms, you know it’s an extremely sophisticated art form, but because children do it, its seen as trivial. Also hand clapping games — I don’t know if you’ve played numbers, but that’s a hard game!”
A renowned choreographer and dancer, Brown had to ask herself and her dancers to strip away some aspects of their formal dance training and get into expressions of socially-learned movement and style that were more personal and entirely their own.
“I told my stylist I want us to be able to walk off the stage and walk into the street and we don’t look any different from anyone else,” she said. So it was just a lot of stripping and it’s like, what does it really mean for you to be yourself and how would you dance your dance being yourself and not just being dancer number eight.”
Brown feels this piece in particular offers entry points for audience members to see their stories, whether or not they are Black or female, or even “dancers.”
“When I create movement I’m not necessarily speaking to dance aficionados — I want it to be accessible to the people who do the electric slide at the party … And I think often times, especially at university, people see a dance show and they’re like ‘I don’t know that — don’t got nothing to do with me. I won’t go,’ but its actually really for them,” she said. “And I’m always excited when I see students in the theatre. Always.”
With African-American social justice in the vanguard on college campuses and around the country, “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” suggests that parallel to the response of activism, is the equally important celebration of cultural identity. We often focus on clashes and on protests highlighted by the media, and Brown reminds us to acknowledge the healing aspects of our communities.
“We definitely need to talk about the issues, but we also need to talk about the joy … and the authenticity, and the movement, and the social dance and the relationships because that, in a sense, is answering the question: well why do black lives matter?,” she said. “This is why. There’s a history there, there’s sisterhood there, there’s a lineage there. Those are the things that I wanted to elevate in this particular piece.”