By Reza Corinne Clifton
(This article appeared in the Providence American Newspaper)
PROVIDENCE, RI- It’s Friday evening, February 25, 7:00 PM and I’m late. It started at 6:30, but between the challenges of parking downcity on a Friday, and grabbing a quick dinner—I had been working all day—time quickly moved against me.
What I missed was the majority of 1 of 2 events featuring Brooklyn-Based dance ensemble, Urban Bush Women. Entitled “Hair Party,” and held at the Providence Black Repertory Company on Westminster Street in downcity Providence, the group offered an opportunity to view the civic engagement side of the ensemble’s work.
Founded in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women (UBW) is a dance ensemble that engages a diverse audience by producing bold and life affirming work based on women’s experiences, African American history, and cultural influences of the African Diaspora. Besides stage work, company activities include artist training in dance and community engagement and public projects which encourage cultural activity as an inherent part of community life.
Hair Shows and Hair Parties are examples of these public projects. UBW’s original Hair Show was an evening-length performance about black women and their hair that featured dance, music, spoken word, and video testimony. Hair Parties grew out of the Hair Shows, becoming separate gatherings for women, men, and teens to share their personal hair stories—to straighten, curl, color, press or tease—as an avenue to a dialogue about the broader social and political issues surrounding hair, particularly African American hair.
Having had and enjoyed my own similar conversations and discussions with friends in smaller settings, upon walking into the Black Rep, I immediately admonished myself for stopping for food. Huddled closely and intimately into a corner of space to the left of the first-floor bar, a group far bigger than my own discussion groups sat and stood watching, nodding, and smiling as the shift moved from one woman sharing a familial anecdote back to the dance company. They in turn concluded the dialogue with stunning individual introductions enveloped in rap and blues music, and hip hop dance.
I made sure not to be late to the Saturday UBW performance, “Celebrating It’s 20th Anniversary Season—Past, Present and Future.” Founding Artistic Director was Jo Zollar and Associate Artistic Director and company member was Amara Tabor Smith. She joined other company members on the stage Maria Bauman, Christal Brown, Nia Eubanks, Chanon Judson, Chrisine King, Rhea Patterson.
The first half maneuvered through multiple pieces, featuring solo and group pieces. The first piece, Give Your Hands in Struggle, included an ode to civil rights leaders spoken over an accompanying dance. Names uttered included less-heard, but powerful varieties like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, while the performance mirrored their strength and conviction, for the dancer’s body was muscular and her moves solid, almost like martial arts at times.
Other pieces were playful, and light such as the piece Girlfriends, which among other things, used miming to convey the sometimes trivial and group meanness present in female relationships.
The second half took a completely different approach, though. Walking With Pearl—Africa Diaries was one performance that took up the entire second half. A mixture of storytelling, and reminiscing over dance, the piece told a story or a series of stories relaying a time, a history, and a landscape set centuries ago surrounding the time of African enslavement.
There were mixed reviews. One friend—an artist, comedienne, and performer—exalted the first half for the multiplicity of theme, music, and mood, but criticized the second half, feeling it was “too artsy”, extending too long on one abstract theme. Another friend—a Brown University medical student—offered the very opposite insight: she preferred the second half because it had a story line along which to focus. For her, the dance moves lost their innovation and began to look repetitive during the first half.
Nonetheless, Providence was treated to something different and otherwise uncommon here—an all-Black, all-female dance company—and they proved their worth. From talking to the public and drawing them in, to providing a performance with sections that appealed to both an artist and a future doctor, Urban Bush Woman should be welcomed back to Providence sooner than later.
For more information on Urban Bush Women go to www.urbanbushwomen.org