In Black Bois, which sold out its world premiere run at On the Boards pretty quickly, choreographer/dancer Dani Tirrell assembles a many-gendered supergroup of Seattle performers, each of whom could easily carry their own full-length show. Together they create a show about the irreducibility of black experience. Tirrell and the cast fight back against a world that tends to flatten and fragment blackness into digestible, dismissible bits and instead gives you all of it—the pain, the rage, the joy, the grief, the eroticism, the spirituality, the madness, the clarity, the multiplicity of the individual and the deep-rooted particularities of the communities.
As with any supergroup, there's risk of clashing egos and competing visions. You all remember Zwan? Didn't think so. But this cast of singers, dancers, music makers, and muralists worked together in a way that was probably best articulated by the show's poet, J Mass III: "When I breathe in / we breathe out."
J Mase III sits in a chair near a dangerous-looking number of candles in the corner of the stage, where he variously hosts, performs, and generally presides. In another corner there's a big screen for video. Downstage Benjamin Hunter leads a four-piece band. In an outstanding display of range, Hunter plays violin, a drum, a banjolele (I think), and sings original songs that serve the action onstage. We hear blues, classical, gospel, and rock.
The cast of eight dancers gives us an equally wide range of genres. Throughout the show we see a melange of modern, hip hop, vogue, breakdance, jazz, classical, Maori-style group dances, and even a little yoga. General forms shift, too. One moment we're participants in a game show about the way white people construct black masculinity, in another moment we're watching a solo dance number, and in another we're watching a spoken word poetry performance set to music.
While all that is going on, Roache the Muralist is in the background drawing black-on-black drawings using what looked like a big brush and water. Big masks or the silhouettes of dark figures serve as temporary backdrops to the dance drama onstage.
It sounds like there'd be too much going on, but Tirrell binds it all together using a narrative structure that's tight enough to wrangle all these genres into one coherent performance, but loose enough to let individual artists shine. Broadly speaking, the show is organized into a series of vignettes associated with an emotion (anger, joy, grief, love, desire, etc.) A real-world event or story kicks off each vignette, and then the cast of dancers immediately transforms that story into movement.
After watching a video about the wrongful imprisonment of Kalief Browder, for instance, Markeith Wiley gave a stunning monologue that seemed to arise from psychological pain evoked by Browder's story. He called all the "European" people in the audience "white devils" and "savages" before appearing to have a psychological breakdown. His monologue then morphed into a solo dance that morphed into a group dance that evoked electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, J Mase III performs a poem seeming to describe Browder as someone who got "caught by a system / set up to frame them for its crimes."
Speaking of great performances: Someone just give Randy Ford $100,000 and let her do what she wants for a while. During her solo part for the show, she power-strutted across the stage and stared down the audience like a falcon. I got the sense that she was about to execute something, and then she did, busting out complex choreography that fluidly shifted from modern, to bounce, to vogue, to her own thing, to holding what looked like some kind of level-three Utthita Hasta Padangustasana for approximately two minutes. All the while, a video of women dancing what looked to me like variations on Mapouka played behind her, pointing to a direct link between certain kinds of West African traditional dances and the moves she was making in front of us all. It was a microcosm of the show: smart choreography that wore its influences proudly and still managed to make something feel new.
Stefan Richmond also blew me away. They'd performed with exceptional precision and power in Tirrell's House of Dinah a few years back, and they've only gotten better since. Richmond was part of Intiman's emerging artist program in 2016, and Seattle should be looking forward to seeing more from them in the future.
After the show on opening night Tirrell came out to a standing ovation. Tirrell said the show was a year in the making, and that it's been particularly taxing on everyone involved. "We don't want to be talking about this shit all the time, but we know the work is important," Tirrell said. "The next thing I'm going to do is about flowers and glitter."