Donald Byrd is a singular figure in Seattle’s art world. The Tony Award–nominated choreographer established his reputation in New York City and Los Angeles with his own eponymous company long before he arrived in Seattle to take the job of artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in 2002.
He is at once an artist of great distinction, the leader of a critically acclaimed arts organization and a black man.Byrd has chosen to devote Spectrum’s 2016 season to an investigation of race in America. While race has defined this country’s social history since its inception, only recently has it returned as the primary focus of our discourse. The season, titled #RACEish: An Exploration of America’s 240 Years of (Failed) Race Relations, commences with two productions in February. Spectrum presents Rambunctious 2.0: A Festival of Music and Dance...Continued, February 18–21 at The Cornish Playhouse. Five world-premiere dances will focus on the music of African-American composers, including the esteemed T.J. Anderson and the world-renowned musician and bandleader Wynton Marsalis.
On February 25–28, Dance, Dance, Dance, a trio of pure dance works by Byrd that underscores what he calls “the Africanist aesthetic,” will be on stage at The Moore Theatre. According to Byrd, “The production explores the underlying truth that all American dance traditions have an African-American influence, a truth that is often overlooked due to ignorance and institutionalized racism.” Over the past year, it seems as if each week has brought with it a new cell phone or dash cam video showing an unarmed black man shot by police.
As the 2016 presidential primary season ramps up, candidates hoping to succeed our country’s first black chief executive are frequently heard uttering disturbingly racist language, both coded and overt. In response to these events, social media and the mainstream press have been aflame with passionate debate—eloquent, incendiary, ridiculous and mundane—about black lives and white privilege. Byrd’s decision is both a bold move and a necessary concession of art to the pressures of reality. His opinion of the quality of our discourse may not be high, but his objections are nuanced and directed toward the educated and enlightened folk more likely to attend his performances than those who watch Fox News.
Byrd describes #RACEish as “a series of productions that boldly disrupt the current conversation around race—a conversation that has become tinny, familiar, insular, limited and narrowed by political correctness, self-censored, afraid to offend and peopled by people that think alike.”The idea at the heart of Byrd’s four programs is that race relations are best explored through an examination of our nation’s popular and high art, where black and white cultures have been integrating, however slowly and inequitably, since black and white people began arriving on this continent.
“My hope is that these performances will give voice to a conversation about how racism may manifest itself, not in the obvious way of the murder of Michael Brown, but through other, more insidious behavior that we participate in and may not be aware of,” says Byrd. “We want the conversation to take place honestly, not in a politically correct way, but in a way that encourages people to speak frankly and express their fears and concerns about acknowledging they don’t really know how to talk about it.”
In May, Spectrum will present the widely anticipated world premiere of A Rap on Race at the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Leo K. Theatre. The piece, a collaboration between Byrd and acclaimed playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, was inspired by the famous seven-and-a-half-hour conversation that took place in 1970 between white cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and black novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Forty-five years later, their historic meeting remains a seminal dialogue about race. Of the work, Byrd says, “It will not only disrupt the current conversation around race in America, but also disrupt the borders between dance and theater.”
The season will conclude in June with Byrd’s The Minstrel Show Revisited at The Cornish Playhouse. The piece, a reworking of his 1991 Bessie Award–winning original, is both an examination of the blackface genre widely popular in America during the 19th century and a critique of its legacy in our current popular entertainment. While the traditional minstrel show disappeared from theaters long ago, it remains a metaphor for the longstanding practice of cultural appropriation, commercialization and exploitation of black culture. Byrd’s version juxtaposes the classic minstrel show with concurrent acts of violence that invoke the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Contemporary art that deals with race today is frequently didactic, idea-based and explicitly political. Byrd’s work possesses these elements, as the Spectrum season’s theme indicates, but it finds its truth in the subversion of narrative structures, historical precedents and more traditional forms of artistic expression. Its appeal is ultimately found in what it brings to the audience, a catharsis, or what we might today call the blues. If there is any place where an understanding of the conflicting experiences of race in America might be possible, it is to be found in our nation’s dance, music and spoken word.