This Under Armour ad featuring Misty Copeland makes it look like Copeland is one in a long line of Black dancers to be spotlighted, but actually, only last year she became the first Black principal dancer in the history of American Ballet Theatre.
This Under Armour ad featuring Misty Copeland makes it look like Copeland is one in a long line of Black dancers to be spotlighted, but actually, only last year she became the first Black principal dancer in the history of American Ballet Theatre. Under Armour

Tonight in Seattle, Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd leads a discussion called "Invisible: The Dilemma of the Black Artist in America." Admission is free, it starts at 6:30, and the conversation couldn't be more timely, what with the #OscarsSoWhite just around the corner, and #StopErasingBlackPeople at Art AIDS America prepping to open in Atlanta. It also features some great thinkers with great perspective: artist and former museum director Barbara Earl Thomas, head of the national stage directors and choreographers' union Laura Penn, and theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton. That talk kicks off Rambunctious 2.0: Making the Invisible Visible Dance Festival happening February 18 to 21, featuring four world premiere dances that respond to Black American composers T.J. Anderson, Wynton Marsalis, and Pamela Z. I talked to Donald Byrd by phone last week.

You've never been afraid to bring up real-world topics in your choreography. But this whole season is called #RACEish—you're going there. Have you ever been this direct before, and why now?

Your old colleague, Brendan Kiley, he used to say I was too direct. [laughs] I think I have not been quite so, not so much direct, but explicit. I felt like given what’s happened in this country in the last year and a half, how our racial tensions have escalated, they’re very different than they were back in the day. It’s much more deadly, I think. It's a new divisiveness and new division that’s happening, and part of it is because we’re having the same old conversations. We need to be direct. And we need to be okay with it being direct. And we need to be okay with it being uncomfortable.

We do have to come up with ways that we can work together, but we have to be willing to sit in the space of discomfort in the meantime. The politeness has to go away. It doesn’t mean we have to be Donald Trump. We need compassion. Because I’m really afraid in some ways about what’s happened.

This is from Spectrum Dance Theaters Octoroon Ball, to be performed at the Rambunctious 2.0 Festival February 18 to 21 in Seattle, set to Wynton Marsaliss String Quartet No. 1.
This is from Spectrum Dance Theater's Octoroon Ball, to be performed at the Rambunctious 2.0 Festival February 18 to 21 in Seattle, set to Wynton Marsalis's String Quartet No. 1. Photo by Rex Tranter

Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas has said that she sees more conversation about race and racism, on social media for instance, but that more talk hasn't meant more action or change or understanding—that it's just more talk.

I think social media is safe. It has to happen in public forums. That’s how you can begin to be motivated and inspired to take action. It’s like having a meeting, and then at the end of the meeting coming up with a list of action items, and you’re tagged to do them.

You've been living with racism your entire life. Are you exhausted that really dealing with it still seems to be a new concept for many people?

I mean, people are where they are. With just regular dancing, it’s like how come people aren’t getting this? It’s like college. There’s always someone taking something 101.

And it’s like what we hope for from college, that your appetite for learning is increased and you know how to go about learning and how to seek out information and knowledge.

There’s no place for white guilt. It probably worked at one point but I don’t think that’s a useful tool anymore. And also I don’t think it’s okay to say that white people don’t get it because some white people do get it. And there’s some Black people that don’t get it. They are as locked in to a narrow perspective, maybe it’s on the opposite end but it’s just as narrow and diminishing

Did you follow the protests of Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum?

No.

Of the more than 100 artists in the show, I think four are Black.

Protesting that sounds great. Back in the day, in the middle '80s when HIV/AIDS finally got a name, it was really about privileged white men that people seemed to know about. This makes me think about that again. It’s another manifestation of being underacknowledged or underrecognized. How do I say this? It’s kind of a double whammy if you are a black artist and you have been impacted by HIV/AIDS—you are minimized and stigmatized.

It’s particularly difficult because of the stigma around HIV/AIDS in the Black community tended to be much stronger; people didn’t want to talk about it. So there’s an opportunity for Black artists and Black people in general who are dealing with HIV/AIDS to be represented. I think that’s really important.

Are there particular action items that you already know you want to put on the table on Monday night?

Well, I think the first one I would say is that people have to begin to participate. I mean audiences, the general public, like if you’re interested in something you can’t just sit at home and talk about it on social media, you have to go out and interact with other human beings about it.

There’s a lot of artistic value with next week’s Rambunctious show, with music by T.J. Anderson, Wynton Marsalis, and Pamela Z., who are each very different, but because it’s associated with race, it’s a reason to stay away from it. I think the first thing people need is to give themselves permission to be uncomfortable. Go be uncomfortable.

I had a really interesting experience a couple weeks ago during a Black Lives Matter rally downtown. I was going to dinner with some friends, when I saw they were marching up First Avenue. So I pulled out my camera to take pictures. And the cops said, "Get out of the street!" And they took their flashlights and drove me to the sidewalk saying, "I'M TALKING TO YOU! GET OUT OF THE STREET!"

And I thought, first of all, I just remembered I’m Black again—sometimes in Seattle you can forget. And secondly, here’s another really good reason why I should do something.

Can you say more about what it means to you that "Sometimes in Seattle you can forget" you're Black?

If you are a certain kind of Black person here, that then you become what I call an honorary white person on some level. People treat you differently than if you’re somebody they encounter down in Rainier Beach or somewhere.

I’ve been arrested once in my life, during the Giuliani administration. I was literally wearing Gucci shoes, I mean I’ve got my armor of privilege on, so that my Blackness is being protected by all of this stuff, but I got arrested anyway. I go, Wow, they just grabbed my Black ass.

It’s like there’s this joke, it’s what do you call a Black man in a three-piece suit? And the punch line is, a nigger. So you are never allowed to forget that. You might have that temporary amnesia which I had, but you are never allowed to really forget it.

What do you think of Beyoncé's new song and video and Super Bowl performance, in terms of political content? Can she be helpful?

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Absolutely. I mean, people forget that Beyoncé is Black. They’re like, it’s Beyonce. That transcends Black. But she just kind of reminded everybody.

It’s really interesting to me that if you are a mainstream cultural icon, then your race or ethnicity doesn’t matter for a little bit, unless you bring it up, and then people are offended.

Are you going to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at Seattle Art Museum?

Yes. I’m actually doing something with SAM, we’ll do some dance at Remix. For me, what’s really interesting about his work is his idea of representation. His representation of Black people is really subversive. It also presents some problems, I think. I mean, that work is beautiful. It’s a little like when I was a young person, you were told if you’re a Black person, you have to do uplifting work. Work that says no or is kind of fucked up, people don’t want to see it. Not only do white people not want to see it, but Black people don’t want to see it either. So Wiley’s work can completely go over your head because it’s so beautiful.

I really want to remind people we are talking about art. And the art that we are doing, I believe will be really engaging and fulfilling and satisfying. One of the problems with Black artists being underpresented, underproduced, all those under-whatever things are, is that we as a culture and society are denied the richness of their contribution. So we are made less-than. That is the thing that I want to say: come see it, come experience it, because it is good art.

Did you see the movie The Help? In some ways I thought it was awful. But I realized watching it, it took a lot of effort to sustain Jim Crow. It took a lot of effort not just for Black people but for white people. By being inclusive, you can enjoy the pleasures in life. It takes a lot of work to keep somebody out.