Camille A. Brown’s choreography celebrates Black identity, Black community, Black culture. The community goes beyond just the performers on stage; the program Camille A. Brown & Dancers brought to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre this weekend opens with animated credits projected on the rear curtain acknowledging the behind-the-scenes folk. It goes beyond race as well, since what’s offered showcases dance as a common language that’s spoken everywhere.
Brown danced in Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence before starting CABD in 2006. She does theater, too, with choreographic credits that include Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” at the Public Theater and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” for the Metropolitan Opera. CABD has performed at Jacob’s Pillow and MASS MoCA, but this presentation marks the company’s Celebrity Series of Boston debut. The program comprised excerpts from Brown’s dance-theater trilogy — “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012), “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” (2015), and “ink” (2017) — plus “New Second Line” (2006), which pays tribute to post-Katrina New Orleans.
“Mr. TOL E. RAncE” is an hour-long work that addresses, in two acts, the stereotyping Black performers have faced in America. At the Shubert, the company offered the first act, “WHAT IT IS,” which begins with black-and-white projections of the early history of African-Americans on stage and in Hollywood, in stereotypes ranging from minstrels to mammies to stepinfetchits. A man comes out in suspenders and newsboy cap and starts to move, as if reclaiming the Black body.
Over the next half-hour, Kwinton Gray at the onstage grand piano plays Scott Patterson’s exuberant score while tag lines and posters from Black TV sit-coms are projected: “Diff’rent Strokes,” “The Amos ’n’ Andy Show,” “Good Times,” “Fat Albert,” “Living Single,” “A Different World,” “black-ish,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Amen,” “The Jeffersons.” As they meditate on this heritage, the eight performers remind us how much dance in America owes to non-white America. They form a cypher zone, alternating shouts of encouragement with trash talk. They gather at the piano; they sing along to the “Fresh Prince” and “Jeffersons” themes. George Jefferson’s head pokes out from behind the curtain and it’s “Intermission.”
A short one, it turns out — as if the dancers couldn’t wait to get back at it. “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” (which CABD presented in its entirety at the Pillow) is about the language that American Black girls create for themselves as they grow into women. The excerpt here was the first duet, where Brown and Catherine Foster are little girls playing with and off each other as they essay tap, steppin’, double-dutch, Juba, ring shout, hand clapping, and stuff they seem to have made up on the spot.
Their counterpart, after a piano interlude from the gifted Gray, was the male duet from “ink,” which delves into the roots of Black culture. In the section of “ink” called “Turf (Super Power: The Dab),” Maleek Washington, in a Kawhi Leonard San Antonio Spurs jersey, and Timothy Edwards, in a baseball cap turned backward, explore their identity as Black men. They’re athletic (with some sports moves); they’re vulnerable; they’re supportive when they’re not elbowing each other out of the limelight. Like the women, they both compete and congratulate.
At 10 minutes, “New Second Line” was a kind of envoi. The “Second Line” in New Orleans is made up of those who follow the traditional brass band parade for a wedding or funeral and join in, sporting parasols and waving handkerchiefs. Brown’s “New Second Line” has nine dancers strutting their stuff, now as individuals, now in unison, dropping out, dropping back in. At one point a man falls to his knees in grief; he’s comforted by a nearby woman and gets back on his feet, rejoicing in the community, in the dance, in life itself.
Camille A. Brown & Dancers
Excerpts from “Mr. TOL E. RAncE,” “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play,” and “ink,” plus “New Second Line,” by Camille A. Brown. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At the Boch Center Shubert Theatre, Saturday, March 7.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story has been updated to clarify that the company was making its Celebrity Series of Boston debut.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.