“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.”