Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Donald Byrd, Active Witness

Mikhail Calliste, front right, Michele Dooley and Nia-Amina Minor rear
photo @ Brian Smale, courtesy Spectrum Dance Theater

To witness, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, is to attest to a fact or an event. A witness is somebody who is present and able to testify that an event truly happened.

In this sense, the audience for Donald Byrd’s latest piece, “Strange Fruit,” were all witnesses to a haunting work intended to portray the emotional truth and impact of lynching on American culture. The piece, which premiered April 25-28 at Seattle’s Washington Hall, was simultaneously a hideous evocation of the brutality wreaked on African Americans, and an ode to the human spirit.

The first thing audiences were confronted by was the set: a large tree trunk dominated the rear of the performance area; flat video monitors hung from its “branches,” comprised of a web of rounded metal poles suspended from the ceiling. The videos alternated between images of mob violence, fire, bright white static, and portraits of the three main soloists in this performance. Mikhail Calliste and Michele Dooley portray a man and woman who are pursued relentlessly by a vicious mob; Nia-Amina Minor appears as a character who is part healer, part spirit. She joins the audience as a witness to the brutality and ultimate deaths of the pursued couple.

Again and again, Calliste and Dooley struggle unsuccessfully to escape the mob; they are smashed down, raped and beaten. Each time they appear to be defeated, they summon the strength to rise up one more time. Minor comes to their aid, lifting them up when their determination falters. Ultimately, she guides them to peace when their strength and determination aren't enough to save them.

Minor, Calliste and Dooley are remarkable in “Strange Fruit,” and not only in their execution of the demanding choreography Byrd has created for them. Their faces convey as much as their movements: their pain, their effort, their sheer will simply to live their lives.

These three faces are particularly striking because the rest of the cast is faceless, their entire heads shrouded in light-colored fabric hoods. Most often this hooded group moves across the stage in unison. They are beautiful and terrifying in their lockstep uniformity and their violent attacks against the couple.

Sound designer Robertson Witmer has created a potent and effective backdrop of field recordings, spirituals, nature sounds, and agonizing screams--re-creations of the “rebel yells” Confederate soldiers unleashed more than 100 years ago. Lighting designer Sara Torres conjures a world that is dark and murky.

“Strange Fruit” was inspired by a visit Byrd paid to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, a monument to thousands of African American people who have been lynched in this country. He says he was driven to present this history to audiences who may never have encountered it before.

Byrd has spent almost half a century creating dance and dance/theater; many of his works focus specifically on race, social justice, and contemporary politics. He is an artist, but also an active witness-someone who not only creates dance, but uses his work to shine a light on particular truths that some people may prefer not to acknowledge.

Byrd’s “Strange Fruit” stands among the best of such creations.
Spectrum Dance Theater company members in a scene from Donald Byrd's "Strange Fruit"
photo @ Brian Smale, courtesy Spectrum

Not only is it powerful and thought-provoking; it’s nuanced and delicate. Byrd juxtaposes strong, stage-grabbing movements: Calliste and Dooley’s juddering heads, their wild, ferocious leaps across the stage; with quieter, contemplative moments: Minor seems to glide across the floor; when Calliste and Dooley are beaten down, she nudges their bodies to rise up and move forward. These quiet movements give audiences opportunities to reflect on what we’re witnessing, in ways that might not be available in a work without those tonal and tempo juxtapositions.

“Strange Fruit” was the culmination of Spectrum Dance Theater’s 3-week long Wokeness Festival. Byrd and his company presented dance and convened conversations, all focused on race, racism and social justice in our culture. The art worshipper in me can’t help but think that a work like “Strange Fruit” succeeds in going where all the talking and workshops in the world can’t; it allows us to witness the violence and terror unleashed on African Americans. And it reminds us in a very visceral way of the small beauties we can bestow on one another.