Donald Byrd’s work is often a conversation about race, but Spectrum Dance Theater’s A Rap On Race makes the notion entirely literal. A Rap on Race (May 5-22 at Seattle Repertory Theatre) dramatizes a conversation recorded in 1970 between writer James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. The work, created by actor-playwright Anna Deveare Smith and Spectrum artistic director Byrd, puts theater and dance side by side: Byrd and actor Julie Briskman play Baldwin and Mead (both are captivating), talking at a table set above the stage, while the dancers create interludes set to Charles Mingus jazz works. The core of A Rap on Race is the dialogue between Baldwin, a black man from Harlem and grandson of a slave, and Mead, a white woman from a progressive Northern family. As their worldviews overlap and diverge, race and American history are always present, as are the emotions of the speakers. It’s a heated exchange, but Baldwin and Mead listen to each other, even when they disagree.
One of A Rap On Race’s strong points is that it doesn’t impose contemporary standards of speaking about race on their talk. Smith created the performance text to highlight certain aspects of Baldwin and Mead’s dynamic that can make a contemporary audience uncomfortable—like at the beginning, when Mead goes on and on about her family’s good Northern behavior while Baldwin listens more or less patiently. However, they speak in a way that feels very true to their historical personas and presents them as sharp, probing intellectual equals. They disagree plenty, especially on how to change the world for the future—or whether that’s possible—but that doesn’t add hostility to their exchange.
Mead’s anthropological perspective may sound old-fashioned, but she is open-minded and progressive for her era. She is concerned with facts, with things that have happened. Baldwin, a literary man, speaks more poetically; he is concerned with truth, as opposed to facts (“You, historically, write the facts that I am supposed to believe,” he points out to Mead). Mead’s optimism can seem naïve compared to Baldwin’s expatriate pessimism, but it’s not truly so cut and dry. They speak of exile. Baldwin argues he was exiled before he even left the country; Mead counters that he has never left in spirit. Baldwin’s bleak outlook can feel like a dead-end, even when his pessimism sounds completely justified by his experience. Yet Baldwin also utters many of the evening’s most memorable lines, which aren’t dead-ends at all, but cross-roads. “That isn’t the answer,” he says once, “that’s the beginning of the question.”
When the conversation can go no further, the dance takes over down below. Much of the choreography focuses on duets, conversation-like themselves, but un-tethered to language. Dance offers an alternate picture of communication, one where there are no words to mask the subtleties of emotion or uncertainties of meaning. In one section, Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger and Alex Crozier danced together in an almost sloppy way, tipsy or tired, or both. Their movement was wild, but it also suggested a sense of uneasy resignation. They supported each other: bodies pressed together to share weight or leaning away from each other in counterbalance, they went down together, and they stood up together. Later, the full ensemble grappled together in partnerships, but their aggression didn’t translate to knocking each other down. They wrestled, neither partner trying to gain an upper hand, as if believing something good would come out of the act of grappling—a struggle, but not a fight.
The dancers themselves performed with full-throttle physicality accompanied by highly emotional intensity. Evans-Krueger, new to the company this year, is a force. She matches Spectrum veterans Crozier and Davione Gordon, both memorable here, with her intensity and understanding of Byrd’s work. Fausto Rivera and Alexander Pham excelled in a powerful duet sequence. Madison Oliver and Blair Elliot distinguished themselves in striking solo moments. Really, each member of the company stood out as an individual, contributing to the vibrating energy emanating from the stage during each dance section.
Because of the work’s theatrical bent, much of what A Rap On Race has to say, it says for itself. The dance stays separate from the dialogue, and the connection between the two elements is not immediately clear. Choreographically, it does not seek a literal depiction of what Mead and Baldwin have to say (that risks being trite), nor does the dance intertwine with the text for the audience to take in simultaneously. Instead, the dance sinks in over the course of the performance and especially after it’s finished. Then, it becomes a mirror of what’s underneath the words—the emotion, the anger, the passion, the unspoken terms of negotiation that take place in a deep and deeply charged conversation. Days later, the text remains in snatches of memory, certainly memorable, but not as deeply resonant as the pervasive feeling of the dance. It’s a sense of anxiety without the promise of easy resolution heightened by the Mingus score, but it doesn’t feel wholly futile either. Contending with ideas is not pointless, especially when the topic is as deeply entrenched in the American consciousness as race is.
Talking about race and racism in the United States is as necessary as it has ever been. A Rap On Race provides a model for that conversation, but it also sparks questions as to how it translates into twenty-first century terms. Baldwin and Mead spoke to each other with blunt honesty, and Byrd noted in the post show talk-back that they had a “willingness to be foolish and self-righteous” at times throughout their conversation. Today, there is much new rhetoric to navigate in terms of checking one’s privilege and acknowledging systemic racism, as well as a constant court of public approval to reckon with on the internet. It’s difficult to have a truly honest dialogue about race because it means confronting the shortcomings in one’s own attitudes, sometimes in a very public way, in a mainstream cultural atmosphere that pretends racism is a thing of the past. Nevertheless, “having a conversation about race” is too often a vague directive with no relationship to action. A Rap On Race shows concretely how a productive conversation about race works: it is personal, it is messy, it is uncomfortable, it is unfinished.
A Rap On Race continues through May 22 at the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Tickets available here. Spectrum Dance Theater concludes their 2015-2016 season #RACEish with return of The Minstrel Show Revisited, June 16-19 at Cornish Playhouse. More information at spectrum.org.