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How Trayvon Martin brought a dance work back to new life in Seattle

Donald Byrd's "The Minstrel Show Revisited" had its roots in another shooting, one where a white mob mistakenly thought a 16-year-old African American wanted to date a white girl.
Spectrum Dance Theater in Donald Byrd's "The Minstrel Show Revisited"

Spectrum Dance Theater in Donald Byrd's "The Minstrel Show Revisited" Photo: Nate Watters

Donald Byrd taking audience questions after a 2012 opening night at Spectrum Dance Theater.

Donald Byrd taking audience questions after a 2012 opening night at Spectrum Dance Theater. Michael Boer/Flicker

“I want complicated thinking around the issue,” Donald Byrd is saying, during rehearsal at his Spectrum Dance Theater studios in Seattle.

Ten dancers, a multi-hued bunch of 20somethings, sit on the floor, stretching and listening.

Byrd, who is black and in his 60s, has brought in a visitor to watch rehearsal. The visitor, a potential donor, is white and roughly the same age.

The “issue” is race and Byrd has just given his guest a sneak peek of his newest work, “The Minstrel Show Revisited.” The opening number: tambourines, outstretched arms, and a line of dancers telling all sorts of racist jokes.

The peek has made the guest uncomfortable.

Byrd and his dancers share:

Byrd: I think people who come are the ones who want to be challenged. They want to be shaped a bit.

Dancer: There’s a reason why we work here. We try to make a statement.

Dancer: It can be offensive when people expect us to just to be pretty. To do pirouettes and dance to Tchaikovsky. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tchaikovsky. But we want to be people who provoke a response.

Bryd: In the ecology of arts, 99 percent is pretty digestible and commercial. I want to leave you with something; almost like having a really good meal that gives you indigestion.

Four plus decades ago, Byrd used to think the civil rights movement “had done its thing.”

“I didn’t think it was fine. But when I was young, I thought all the icky people would die and then it would leave a certain generation of people and they would be much better. But clearly, things didn’t take.”

Rehearsal has finished. Byrd has moved to a conference room and he explains how he came up with “The Minstrel Show” shortly after the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins. Yusuf was African American and 16 years old when he was shot and killed by a white mob in Brooklyn. The mob thought Hawkins had come to the neighborhood to date a white girl. He had actually gone to purchase a car.

Byrd created a piece that pushes all sorts of buttons when it comes to race. Stereotypical imagery. Lynching. Slurs.

His “Minstrel Show” features dancers in blackface and that tune, “Hot Time In the Old Town.” Except the lyrics, sung by a dancer in the opening scene, include words like dandy coons.

“It was the traditional opening for minstrel shows,” Byrd explains. “So we go around humming that tune to our kids and we don’t know. The legacy of minstrelsy is still with us.”

It’s been 20 years since Byrd presented the work, back when he had an East Coast company called Donald Byrd/The Group. The shows always caused a visceral reaction.

“I think the cities where it has the most problems tend to be in progressive places. I don’t think progressive cities are necessarily tolerant. They point the finger at you: ‘How dare you do this to me?’ They don’t ask the question: Why am I responding to this the way that I am?' "

This will be the first time the work has been performed in front of a Seattle audience. Byrd, now firmly rooted in the local arts community here, decided to restage the piece after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman.

“It keeps coming back,” Byrd says.

“Some people think I’m angry. The Angry Black Man. I’m not angry at all. What I am is a concerned citizen. I really want us as a society to get better. I really do.”

Florangela Davila is Contributing Arts Editor at Crosscut. A freelance journalist, she is also a regular contributor to NPR-affiliate KPLU-FM. She's a former faculty member at the University of Washington and a former reporter at The Seattle Times. You can follow her arts-centric Twitter feed @florangela or email her at florangela.davila@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Feb 20, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Florangila Davis has a long history of writing conditioned-reflex columns. For a long time she supplied the Times with illegal immigrant victimization material.
In this piece she takes all the initial media reports as Mt. Sinai sources. When the Zimmerman situation first appeared on national news it was presented as a racist white man who gunned down an innocent little black boy for no reason, just because he was “Walking While Black” through a swanky, gated condo community. And the cracker cops of his small Florida town waved this trigger-happy, paranoid, and self-appointed security guard on his merry way.
Let's review the media coverage of this event because it is probably the basis of this ever-continuing narrative. Many furrowed brows among the media bent over the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call, seeking to divine racial epithets from his barely-audible muttering. And, NBC News deliberately edited out the 911 dispatcher asking Zimmerman to describe the ethnicity of the person he was observing, and spread broadly the impression that he was race-obsessed. Later when the media discovered what Zimmerman looks like, his designation was changed, with nearly one hundred percent consistency, to “white Hispanic” by media outlets which had previously employed that designation three or four times in a century, at most.
We then saw a thousand reprints of the most infamously disingenuous photographic comparison in recent memory: a shot of 12-year-old Trayvon beaming happily, next to an equally outdated mug shot of a morose George Zimmerman. It took a long time for the media to cough up more recent photos of either one. You would have had to dig hard for factual information that came out much later that were indicators of the mind set of the two men. That Trayvon had marijuana in his system, and that he said on the phone that a “!@#$*() cracker is following me.” One can only speculate on just why he was so sensitive to being observed, and the word “cracker” is considered synonymous in the black community with the word “nigger.”
Much of the following information was readily available to any media organization that cared to request it but the national media didn’t and clearly Davila has not and/or has selective vision. At the time of this incident in 2011, Twin Lakes was experiencing a rash of burglaries and break-ins. Previously a family-friendly, first-time homeowner community, it was devastated by the recession that hit the Florida housing market, and transient renters began to occupy some of the 263 town houses in the complex. Vandalism and occasional drug activity were reported, and home values plunged. Twin Lakes is about 50 percent white, with an African-American and Hispanic population of about 20 percent each, roughly similar to the surrounding city of Sanford, according to U.S.Census data.
From January 1, 2011 through February 26, 2012, police were called to The Retreat at Twin Lakes 402 times. Crimes committed at The Retreat in the year prior to Martin's death had included eight burglaries, nine thefts, and one shooting. Twin Lakes residents said there were dozens of reports of attempted break-ins, which had created an atmosphere of fear in their neighborhood. In September 2011, the Twin Lakes residents held an organizational meeting to create a neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman was selected by neighbors as the program’s coordinator, according to Wendy Dorival, the Neighborhood Watch organizer for the Sanford Police Department. During the six months leading up to the February 26, 2012 shooting, Zimmerman called the non-emergency police telephone line seven times. On five of those calls Zimmerman reported suspicious looking men in the area, but never offered the men's race without first being asked by the dispatcher
Three weeks prior to the shooting, on February 2, Zimmerman called police to report a young man peering into the windows of an empty Twin Lakes home. Zimmerman was told a police car was on the way and he waited for their arrival. By the time police arrived, the suspect had fled. On February 6, workers witnessed two young black men lingering in the yard of a Twin Lakes resident around the same time her home was burgled. A new laptop and some gold jewelry were stolen. The next day police discovered the stolen laptop in the backpack of a young black man, which led to his arrest. Zimmerman identified this young man as the same person he had spotted peering into windows on February 2.
Zimmerman had been licensed to carry a firearm since November 2009. In response to Zimmerman’s multiple reports regarding a loose pit bull in the Twin Lakes neighborhood, a Seminole County Animal Services officer advised Zimmerman to “get a gun”, according to a friend, rather than rely on pepper spray to fend off the pit bull, which on one occasion had cornered his wife. Although neighborhood watch volunteers are not encouraged to carry weapons, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee acknowledged that Zimmerman had a legal right to carry his firearm on the night of the shooting.
One incident prior to the shooting involved a black teenager stealing Zimmerman’s bicycle off his front porch. In another, two black men broke into an occupied house, trapping a woman and her infant son upstairs, whispering frantically to 911 dispatchers. Zimmerman contacted her after the incident, put a stronger lock on her sliding glass door, and told her to contact him or his wife, if she ever felt unsafe again.

Now for some of Martin’s activity prior to the shooting. Martin was suspended from school in October 2011 for graffiti after he was observed by a security camera in a restricted area of the school marking up a door with the word “fuck.” When he was later searched by a Police officer, looking for the graffiti marker, the officer found a dozen pieces of women’s jewelry and a watch in his backpack, which Martin said a friend had given to him. A screwdriver was also found, which was described by the school police investigator as a burglary tool. The jewelry was impounded and given to the police. Martin was also suspended when a marijuana pipe and an empty bag containing marijuana residue was found on him.
The Justice Department says it is looking into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin to determine whether federal prosecutors should file criminal civil rights charges now that George Zimmerman has been acquitted in the state case. The department opened an investigation into Martin’s death last year but stepped aside to allow the state prosecution to proceed.
In a statement, the Justice Department said the criminal section of the civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal probe, in addition to the evidence and testimony from the state trial. The statement said that, in the government’s words, “experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation.”

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