The Seattle Times

Dancing to James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in the roiling ‘A Rap on Race’

By: Michael Upchurch
May 7, 2016

Some audience members appeared confused on the night I attended, so let’s clear one thing up first. No, actor and writer Anna Deavere Smith does not appear in “A Rap on Race,” Spectrum Dance Theater’s compelling new show presented in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre.

She does, however, have a long history with the epic 1970 conversation from which its script is drawn.

That conversation, between African American writer James Baldwin and white anthropologist Margaret Mead, took place in three marathon sessions over a 48-hour period. It tackled American racial divisions and national identity head-on. In 1971, a transcript of the recording was published as a book titled “A Rap on Race.”

Smith first became familiar with that book in the early 1980s. “I have taught it for years in my acting classes,” she writes in the program notes, “having students play parts and switch sides to learn about persona and language.”

She later put together an edited version of the talk, which Spectrum is using as its script. Spectrum choreographer and artistic director Donald Byrd plays Baldwin. Actor Julie Briskman plays Mead.

Talk alternates with dance set to excerpts from Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.” The dancers’ sharp, intricate, agitated body language doesn’t overtly illustrate any of the talking points. But it obliquely reflects the restlessness of Baldwin and Mead’s queries and confrontations.

The result is a tight, 80-minute mix of quest and showdown.

Briskman gets things off to a hilarious start with a motor-mouthed Mead clumsily brandishing her liberal credentials. Byrd’s Baldwin, amusingly cajoling her along at first, eventually gets a word in — sharp words initially, anguished words by the end. Both performers, perched on a platform above the dancers, have fun with the way their characters wrangle over terminology. (“Facts” versus “truth” is a biggie.) They find a rhythm together, even when it’s a jarring one.

One odd take-away: Baldwin and Mead don’t exactly emerge as eloquent orators. Instead, they stumble verbally as frequently as they land on phrases that satisfy them. Often, they reach past each other rather than make contact — a verbal pattern that’s sometimes manifested in the choreography.

Served up in taut vignettes, the dance is an ensemble effort with occasional brief, stunning solos or duets. Alex Crozier and Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger have an indelible moment as a couple butting limbs and heads against each other. They’re rag-doll loose — but Byrd’s choreographer is tight.

Davione Gordon, Madison Oliver and Fausto Rivera all deliver striking solos as well. But it’s the ensemble work, seething beneath the arguing pundits overhead, that has the strongest impact. It evokes a whole roiling nation caught in the cobwebs of history and uncertain whether it wants to fight, give up or just get out.

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