BLACK BOIS: A MASTERPIECE

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Born out of a desire to work with Black artists local to the Seattle area and originally presented at On The Boards in 2018, this second presentation of Dani Tirrell’s Black Bois at the Moore Theater brings together the original cast plus a new group of other local Black artists. The show is an ode in itself to the Black artistic genius that exists in this city, showcasing the unique talent of each cast member and the collective artistic excellence of Seattle’s Black community.

Photo from 2018 premiere at On the Boards. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka.

The choreography and movement histories of the dancers represent a wide variety of styles- everything from traditional African dance forms, to club styles like House and Vogueing, to ballet and tap. These varied influences weave fluidly in the bodies of the performers, allowing them to transition easily from the complex rhythms of large group stepping sections, to soft, gestural moments. This dramatic range echoes in their collective ability to vividly express a wide range of emotions, from sorrow, to anger, and overwhelming joy. Their guttural screams land as potently as the music of their laughter.

The layers of dance, music by composer Benjamin Hunter, video, spoken word, and theater meld past, present, and future, sometimes even conjuring those not physically present in the space. The poetry of J Mase III invokes ancestors. Altars adorn the stage. The performers speak the names and honor the stories of those who have passed on, many of whom lost their lives at the hands of white people or through the violence of white supremacy.

One section focuses on a young man named Kalief Browder. Browder committed suicide after being imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years without a conviction. As Browder tells his story on two screens positioned to each side of the proscenium, the dancers, grouped tightly together, descend on dancer Markeith Wiley who is left alone on the other side of the stage. They laugh, point and jeer at him as he vacillates between meeting their confrontation and backing away. The random and senseless nature of the violence Browder endured is concentrated and elevated as the pull of attention moves between the happenings on stage and Browder’s news story. We see images of him being attacked by prison guards and fellow inmates as the tension between the dancers on stage intensifies, creating a palpable sense of powerlessness and frustration. Suddenly, the heaviness of the moment is cut through by a voice resounding from the stage, pulling our focus back, “We hear you, Kalief!” It’s not a resolution or a happy ending, but a refusal to forget and a commitment to keep telling the story. 

Photo from 2018 premiere at On the Boards. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka.

Black Bois is a phrase that unabashedly embraces a range of identities and gender expressions and the relationship between individual and collective identity is a strong theme of the work. In one moment between poet J Mase III and dancer Randy Ford, Mase gently holds Ford’s cheek in his hand as Ford kneels in front of him. They gaze at one another, enraptured by each other’s presence, emanating a transcendent love. Mase speaks to Ford, his words affirming her as whole and sacred as exactly who she is. The rest of the performers, who rarely leave the stage during the entirety of the show, huddle together at the back, watching intently and cheering Ford on as she begins her solo. As she spins, kicks and strides across the stage, her gaze does meet the audience, but like many other moments of the show, the heart of her intention is directed back toward the support of her fellow performers. They are there for one another, dancing for each other, and gracious enough to let us witness. This dynamic between the performers creates a space where they each can have the opportunity to speak, to scream, to cast off stereotypes and be seen by one another in their truth.

Tirrell’s commitment to fearless and radical truth telling is vital. One of the most powerfully uncomfortable moments of the show features J Mase III as a character named Susan. Susan’s high pitched nasal voice and sing songy intonation reminds me of every white daytime television talk show host. With a sinister and misplaced sense of innocence, Susan directs Wiley through a series of charades meant to “help” him fit into the stereotypical definition of Black masculinity. Wiley reluctantly does as directed, donning a ball cap, a plastic water-filled “glock” and correcting his posture, gate and behavior until Susan is satisfied. Through their sarcasm and wit, the performers hurl the shame that’s been cast onto them back at the collective Susans as if to say ‘This doesn’t belong to us’. 

Photo from 2018 premiere at On the Boards. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka.

Black Bois is an ecstatic exclamation of the beauty, joy and resilience of Black people. It is a emphatic and embodied Fuck You to white supremacy and colonization. It is a living example of the centering and celebration of Black people, stories, history and imagination.