The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater welcomed Camille A. Brown back to the Pittsburgh stage for the world premiere of her latest work, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.” Brown says her relationship with the theater happened “very organically,” when she first performed a solo in 2009 for the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This past Friday and Saturday night, Brown brought her entire company to perform.
When Brown originally set out to create a piece about the first blacks on Broadway, one of her board members directed her to a book by Mel Watkins called On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. She immediately tore through the material she needed, but came back to the book later, curious about what she’d missed. That, in turn, led her to more research, and ultimately broadened her theme to the history of African American humor.
The show was, in fact, humorous. Brown is known for her love of theater. She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt.
Act One opened with live piano by company collaborator, Scott Patterson. The dancers entered gradually, wearing gray pants and tops, suspenders and matching caps, costumes that resembled old minstrel show clothing. Their movement was slow, suspended, and darkly lit, to not compete with the musical performance.
As the sound suddenly crescendoed, so did the dance. In fast, furious movement, inspired by the tap genre, all seven dancers performed frenetic phrases of intricate, rhythmic steps. Most impressive was that the piano eventually quieted; the dancers didn’t follow any beat, but remained in unison by listening to the sound of their breath and the stomp of their feet. The section was a nod to famous black duos, like the Nicholas Brothers.
The piece slowed down as video projection took us through the years of black television sitcoms: Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Cosby Show, Bernie Mac, and the classic Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The dancers hilariously shouted the lyrics to the theme song of the latter, and parodied the moves of that time with a quite perfected “running man.”
Act Two began with a different feeling. What started as an amusing disagreement between two dancers turned into an all out fight between the entire group. The scene set up a section about stereotypes in the black culture. The company mimicked an “awards ceremony,” wearing white gloves that were common in blackface shows, when white men mocked African Americans in offensive acts of racism.
One of Brown’s goals was to not only give an historical context, but to also show how current media and entertainment biases still exist. After some satirical booty shaking, crotch grabbing and ass smacking, the dancers came to an abrupt and powerful stop, leaving one male performer on the stage as the lights dimmed. The deliberate, yet simple gestures of the dancer were projected on the back curtain as the solo unfolded. The image had a reflective quality, as if he were looking into the future at himself, from a different time. Would his former self be pleased with society’s forward progress? Or saddened by old conventions still fixed?
The curtain eventually lowered, revealing the rest of the company in shadow, emerging slowly from the back as Erykah Badu’s “On & On” played in spurts. The movement of the group depicted struggle as they advanced. Six dancers fell to the ground, leaving Brown and Patterson to close the show.
Patterson played the simple melody of “What a Wonderful World,” providing just the right amount of hope, with a sense of realism, to end. Brown moved clearly and unhurriedly as the audience held their breath. She removed her white gloves, and the lights faded.