ACT 6: A Myriad of Musings on Minstrelsy

Who is impersonating who here?
Choreography by: Emily Oleson & Greg C. Adams and performers

Performance by: Raha Behnam, Michelle Chia, Marianne Goris, Shanna Lim,
Emily Oleson, Matthew Olwell, Amy Scheer, Connor Voss, David Yates

Music performance: Greg C. Adams

A gargantuan thanks to Greg C. Adams, who has been collaborating with me now for over a year!  Not only is he a great scholar, and I aspire to keep my studies as organized and thorough as he does some day, but he is a wonderful human being committed to examining the social implications of his craft.  Special thanks also to his beautiful wife and daughter, Maggie and Lydia, for their patience as the process became increasingly time intensive toward the performance.

When I first started studying Vaudeville, it all seemed so innocent and charming, but it didn’t take much serious reading to encounter the fact that blackface performance was still a major component of this genre.  Taking Rhiannon Giddons Laffan’s “Vaudeville Songs” class at the Augusta Heritage Center (where I was working on Dance Week), she challenged the class that blackface performance was a part of American history that is important and should not be ignored.

In terms of tackling the subject and educating on American blackface minstrelsy, the work of Jason & Aaron White was particularly formative and inspiring to me. The video below is a documentary about their process, but their piece “The Dance” and also a short trailer, are available on You Tube.

While it is grotesque and horrifying, Rhiannon (who is in the African American string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops) argued that there are still dialogues that need to happen surrounding the material – she also introduced me to the idea that the art itself, such as a single song, is not the source of the problems surrounding the issues – it’s more how it is used, by whom, and in what way.  I sort of saw this as the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument to art – not that Rhiannon or I are making a statement about gun control here – and this did enable me to approach and examine certain cultural artifacts in a way that was more in depth, so that I could look more deeply into what was at work in minstrelsy.  There is a huge body of great written scholarship on this topic, which I have not covered thoroughly, nor tried to replicate.  Instead, I used the choreography to try to interpret what I was looking at in books and film.

Our choreographic approach to this piece was a hands-on study of impersonation.  What happens when you try to mimic someone?  How does the spectrum of appropriation, from exact replication to subtle variation to grotesque exaggeration, play out in movement?  How do the social forces of being ignored, supported, or actively censored shape certain movement?  What happens when things get to a place where they no longer make sense?

I played with these ideas in improvisation exercises I devised particularly for this piece in collaboration with the cast, and I am deeply grateful to each of the players in this work for their willingness to experiment and be challenged.

I also wanted to inform, and chose a few historical figures to contextualize the work more specifically: William Henry Lane/”Master Juba,” T.D. Rice/Jim Crow, and Bert Williams are featured in the projection going into this piece.  It was difficult to choose only a little to say about these fascinating characters, and I feel that I could do a lot more with this transition in the future.

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