If you didn’t catch Jade Solomon Curtis’ Black Like Me last year (a 2016 DanceCrush winner), then you’re in luck. A newly developed and expanded version is debuting next weekend and is not to be missed. The previous iteration at Showing Out (a co-production of CD Forum, Velocity, and Spectrum) combined three solos in which Curtis’ performance wowed with three distinct, developed characters, exquisite technique, and soulful presence. The full version, going up March 24 and 25 at Fred Wildlife Refuge, adds two more character solos, plus an expanded title: Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger. “It had always been about the word nigger; I just hadn’t put it in the title,“ Curtis says. “I recognized that it frightened people, and that said a lot to me. If anything it said, ‘this is something you need to be doing. Don’t run from it.’”
The former Spectrum Dance Theater dancer is just as articulate and passionate in speech as she is on the stage, and her thoughts on the infamous racial slur are compelling. “This is a special word. The connection that it has to the murder, to essentially the genocide of a people, and not just physically, but mentally stripping people of their culture, of their history, of their names, of their language,” she says. It’s for these reasons that she believes the word cannot truly be reclaimed or transformed: “I don’t see the positivity in it, and I don’t feel it either when it’s used at me or around me,” she says, “It’s an attack on the minds of Black people.”
But how exactly does a dance piece start to address this complex word? Curtis notes that people often view minority groups as a monolith, where “our perspectives, everything about us is exactly the same. And Black Like Me is actually about it not being that.” The movement is an amalgamation “blending everything that I had ever acquired—the different languages within the dance realm: African, jazz, tap, ballet, musical theater, club dances—blending it and bringing it all together, because that is what represents me, essentially. I’m not just this one thing.”
Through presenting these five characters, Curtis dives into different facets of her Black identity. “All of these people exist inside of me. And they have to exist inside of me for there to be any honesty or integrity in who I portray…They are all characters that when people look at me this is what they see. When people look at me this is what they say. When people think of me this is the image that’s attached to that.” Curtis says her partner and collaborator Arif Gursel gave her the best way to talk about it when he said “It’s as if these five characters are standing in a circle and the word nigger is in the middle.”
When asked to describe the different solos, Curtis is hesitant to give too much away—she has a couple of surprises up her sleeve—but she does discuss the seed for one of her newer solos, a section she calls Colored on the Wall.
“I was walking down the street in Capitol Hill. A friend and I had just left a club…it was 11 o’clock at night and this guy who identifies as white was sitting in the windowsill of a restaurant and he said, ‘I didn’t know niggers came down here,’ and I was like, ‘Am I in Seattle? What is happening?’ At first I was pissed. I was really angry and upset. I had not to my recollection been called a nigger ever and I’m from Texas… I’m in this progressive and liberal city where people are supposed to be all accepting. This is the most diverse city ever and still I’m walking down the street being called a nigger?”
Curtis apologizes for always talking in story form, but she says it’s how she communicates. Rather than being long-winded, however, Curtis is a masterful storyteller. The details are direct and vital. They ground her concepts into concrete and imaginable circumstances. Perhaps it is this same intelligence that makes her choreography so arresting and relatable. The second story she tells me is of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a Harvard professor who was arrested in 2009 after a neighbor thought he was breaking into his own home.
“Paralleling these two stories, walking down the street, being called a nigger, and this man treated like a nigger, brought me to this piece called Colored on the Wall and it’s about no matter how accomplished or successful I get as a Black person, I’m still viewed as a nigger. I could wear my suit jacket and my tie, I could look very nice and put together, and people are still going to throw that hoodie at me. People are still going to throw that image on top of me.”
Another of the solos, Under Fire, addresses Curtis’ response to the Black community using the epithet. “We are giving in to these self-fulfilling prophesies…I think about the definition that’s still in the dictionary for that word. It has not been transformed because, if it had, it still wouldn’t be defined as it is. A lot of these derogatory words haven’t been reclaimed as much as we like to believe that they have. In this piece, there are gunshots put in place of the word nigger [in the music], and that’s to re-emphasize the genocide and us killing one another. There’s a lot of gestures where I am shooting at the audience, shooting at the sky, shooting at the ground. That has to do with me. I feel like this word is connected to our ancestors and we are not honoring our ancestors by calling ourselves niggers.”
Curtis has beautiful ballet technique, and I ask how she reconciles her ballet influence in this work considering the form’s history of racism. Can ballet be reclaimed? “I think that is activism itself,” she replies, “That’s not reclaiming something; that’s just claiming. You can’t reclaim something that was never yours. There’s nothing like seeing black and brown bodies do ballet. It’s phenomenal. And mainly because growing up in that world and seeing that world, I ran from that world. I ran. Because I never saw someone who looked like me. And when I did see someone who looked like me, they were like the token—the only one! And that didn’t make me want to aspire and break out into that field. That question is being asked a lot right now. Where are all the black and brown ballerinas and why don’t they exist in this world that wasn’t created for them? Maybe that’s why. But things are definitely changing.”
If they’re changing, it’s because of the work of POC artists like Curtis. Recently she founded a non-profits arts initiative, Solo Magic, as a platform for bringing activist-minded individual artists together, and it’s already changing the way she works. Curtis may be dancing solo, but she’s definitely not alone. She describes how, for one section of Black Like Me, she and Gursel created music and dance simultaneously, in the same space, responding to the same Richard Pryor clip. “It was truly a collaborative process and I have never done anything like that before,” she says. She’s also working with lighting designer Reed Nakayama, who, Curtis assures me, isn’t lighting the work a way a typical dance show is lit. Vibe Heavy, a digital marketing and music production company, is producing two original music compositions for the piece, and she’s also collaborating with local DJ Topspin Aka Blendiana Jones. Atlanta-based artist Daniel Barnes is helping with animation and media design, and special guest Walter Beach III (1964 NFL champ, author, and political icon) is flying in to be part of the show.
It’s clear that Curtis has big ambitions here in Seattle. After living in the energy of New York City, she used to hate the long winter months where everyone seemed to retreat into hiding. Now, however, she values that annual introspective period. “You can really focus on creating and creating your reality—like who are we, and what are we doing? In Seattle you can really figure out what it means not just to be an artist but an entrepreneur, because that’s what we are.”
“The thing I know, not just myself, but about artists, is that we survive and we thrive. Like we can’t help but to create and to make magical work. We can’t help it. When things get shitty, our works get greater. Stripping us of our funding is not going to keep us from creating. We are the reason that everything is so visually and aesthetically pleasing. We make that. We spark that idea.”
See Jade Solomon Curtis perform Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nigger on March 24 and 25 at Fred Wildlife Refuge. To purchase tickets and find out more information go to SoloMagic.org and click RSVP. Performance is 21+ with a dance party following the dance show. A free, youth only (ages 13-20 ONLY) performance is presented in the early evening on Friday, March 24. RSVP for the youth event HERE.