I start off with deep suspicion when I see that a dance has required the services of a dramaturg. Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE, which repeats the 10th and 11th as part of the American Dance Festival’s Reynolds Theater series, required two dramaturges and a theater coach, as well as the choreographic work of Brown herself. But those folks, often a superfluous burden to a dance, did a good job. This is a highly theatrical work, but the dancing is at its heart, and there is no dearth of fantastic movement.
But be forewarned: there’s an ambush at the end. Apparently — so she said — Brown wanted to make this piece in order to have a conversation. So before the audience can collect itself after the cast takes its bow, she’s back with a microphone, announcing this “dialogue.” After brilliantly performing a complex work, expressing a thick braid of idea and emotion through their lively bodies, the dancers drag out chairs and sit in a deadly straight line across the stage. There’s a professorial moderator wearing a t-shirt demanding “Black Nerds Unite.”
Well, that’s one way to make sure white and black folks know they are still separate.
But we knew that already — these black “entertainers,” as they are styled in the program, have bandied about the n-word in a way that would get white people booed off the stage, if not grievously injured. They had a microphone during this segment of the dance, and were holding it to their mouths, but they didn’t seem to have it turned on. Looking back, I could see frantic activity in the sound booth, but the problem wasn’t on that end. I didn’t really want to hear all that trash talk any better, but its inaudibility made a hole in the artwork. Brown works through a long history of black performance in the US, trying to get at what’s art and pure cultural expression, and what’s a painfully contorted masking in response to pressures of cultural and financial dominance. She needed that gangsta noise to come through loud and clear.
Mr. TOL E. RAncE opens with some very clever video and animation (Isabela Dos Santos) designed to look like vaudeville stage curtains and television credits. On stage, Scott Patterson plays marvelous piano throughout, except for a brief interlude of recorded material. Images from old film and TV shows flicker on the back wall as the dancers begin to appear. The first images show amazing dancing — you can see the nuances of it well, as the film has been slowed — by some of the great dancers of the early 20th century blackface minstrelsy style. Obviously, this style, its causes and effects, carries a burden of shame for any thinking person, black or white — but that can’t negate the beauty of the dancing.
Brown effectively connects this form of entertainment to subsequent ones, most of which come from TV. I recognized some, but not all, of the TV shows she uses to model the evolving (or not) model of the black entertainer in the US, but clearly most of the audience got the references. Once again I wonder, why don’t people blow up their TVs? Why continue to suck up the poison? We — and this “we” includes all races, unlike some of the “we”s and “our”s that peppered the moderator’s language — have really gotten ourselves in a deep ditch, culturally speaking, when a serious artist goes shopping for material in that emporium of the lowest common denominators.
Mr. TOL E. RAncE is earnest and angry and loving and funny — but it is also the work of a young artist. If you had a doubt, Brown’s own statement in the program and from the stage would quell it. She was frustrated by the things you have to do as an artist to get money and opportunity. “I didn’t understand why I just couldn’t be supported as an artist without doing superficial things.”
However naïve the artist and however irritating the finale, the actual dance is very good, and at moments, great. Brown’s style combines vibrant impetuosity with control in such a way that the control is almost invisible, and she made her points very well. I hope I’ll have the chance to follow her growth. But the “dialogue?” It would have been better in a classroom.