“I’d ask audiences when you hear the phrase ‘black girl,’ what comes to mind?” choreographer and dancer Camille A. Brown told Wesleyan students, faculty, and the general public in a Q&A following her Friday evening performance. “The stuff that we heard, I wasn’t expecting….They ranged from angry, ignorant and loud.”
On Oct. 7, “Black Girl: Linguistic Play” made its Connecticut premiere at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts. Brown, along with Beatrice Capote, Catherine Foster, Fana Fraser, and Yusha-Marie Sorzano make up Camille A. Brown & Dancers. The piece is comprised of three sections of duets split into individuals and rhythmically complex solos as the dancers perform their intricate steps on leveled platforms.
“I got a lot of questions asking if I was going to talk about the stereotypes that affected black girls,” Brown explained to the audience. “I was just so exhausted by that. I lived that every day….The strong black female, the angry black female…and I just wanted to show something else.”
“Black Girl” explores black female identity through acknowledgement and celebration. As Brown elucidates in her Choreographer’s Note, the work is a gift to herself and Black girls everywhere.
The piece begins with a duet between Brown and Foster. The dancers stomp and step in bright sneakers, with each dancer conveying their own personality that showcases girlhood. As an audience member, it is impossible not to want to join in on their lively interactions exhibited in their colorful movements. The piece recalls childhood games like “Jig-a-low,” a chant performed between the two girls.
“My name is Cami and I am small. But when you see me, you think I’m tall,” Brown declares over the audience’s laughter.
With live original compositions of music by pianist Scott Patterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth, Brown uses the rhythmic play of African-American dance vernacular. She includes social dance, double dutch, stepping, tap, ring shout, and gesture as illustrations of black girlhood.
In the conversation with the audience, Brown explained the difficulty in finding narrative media representations of black feminine identity that were not racialized.
“How many times are people who are not black and who are not black girls given the opportunity to see their story through a black girl’s lens?” Brown asked. “So often I have to find my story in other people’s lens. I started to think, as a choreographer, what of my childhood can I put into this? I don’t see my childhood on TV.”
During the second duet, there is the rainbow-graffitied chalkboard in the background as mirrors are suspended from the ceiling. Fraser and Capote dance against the graphic chalkboard that sits on the stage. Brown elucidated how she came to the concept of a chalkboard as her medium for the show’s design.
“We started with the idea of childhood and at first we didn’t have the chalk, but people kept placing us in these worlds of trauma….We were in the ghetto, we were on drugs,” Brown told the audience. “And I said, ‘What can we use to show people that we are people, that we are girls?’ I said, ‘Chalk!’”
In the third and final duet, Sorzano and Brown portray a mother-daughter relationship as Brown fights to fashion Sorzano’s hair. Sorzano explained Brown’s organic process of producing choreography and what it enabled her to celebrate.
“I think it evolved into a freeing moment….I started to realize, so what if I do look crazy?” Sorzano told the audience. “This is me, this is my hair, this is who I am, it’s time to celebrate it. I can’t let it own me, I have to own it.”
In the Q&A, one Wesleyan student asked about Brown’s fears in others misinterpreting “Black Girl.”
“I know that there are certain things people aren’t going to get…At the heart of it, these are universal themes: Friendship, sisterhood, conflict, resolution,” Brown confidently explained to her audience. “You may be able to say you don’t understand when I touch my ear, but I find it very hard to believe you don’t know anything that happened here, universally, because these are human stories.”
Sisterhood, as well as universal themes such as friendship, conflict and resolution, speaks to all audience members, in spite of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. “Black Girl” resonates with audience members as they are able to relate to these universal joys and trials of childhood. The work also allows the audience to revel in the jollity and recreation behind the dancers’ movements. Sentiments of sisterhood and friendship are received in the culmination of the last two duets as the dancers reveal a shared forgiveness and encouragement.
Each time one of the dancers spoke, the audience cheered and snapped in agreement.
“It’s just good,” Brown said. “It’s good to have a piece called ‘Black Girls linguistic’ play. It feels good.”