Although the Urban Bush Women tour of “Hair & Other Stories” was in town for most of the week, the public only had one chance to see this production, on Saturday evening at the Brown Theatre. The other days were dedicated to a series of community-based workshops further exploring the themes and issues of the show.
“Hair…” is a high-energy, politically-adept, physically-demanding metaphor for race, gender and other intersectional issues in our country. The company is forthright at the beginning: we’re going to be uncomfortable this evening. Further clarifying that a “safe” space doesn’t necessarily mean comfortable. The audience was put on notice that we weren’t just coming to see a show.
The company employed as many social justice organizing tools as they did performance techniques, shepherding the audience through an evening of “calling in” preconceived attitudes that exist from outside black and brown communities as well as those from the inside.
The opening sequence combined the feel of a community meeting and a revival as the performers — one of whom emerged from the audience — brought the audience into the performance with call and response, unison clapping, and an expectation of audience members engaging directly with the performers.
The “Hair Hell Moments” were deliberately comedic in style, but also spoke to the truth of how everyone knows way more about an individual’s hair than the actual person. The most cringe-worthy moment being the white character who just had to touch the hair of an African-American woman. The responses in the audience averred that African-Americans knew that moment, that the white audience recognized that this happens, and that there was a healthy level of embarrassment at that moment of recognition.
One sequence paid an uneasy homage to Madame C.J. Walker, usually lifted up as the first African-American woman millionaire — a fortune derived from her hair product business. Here we heard in voice over a letter to her pointing out that her products were designed within the construct of white beauty – that hair should be straight, flat, etc. Other spoken word sequences explored contemporary challenges, that black hair doesn’t look professional enough, the restrictions on what is acceptable in certain employment fields.
The Urban Bush Women have long choreographed to spoken word as well as to music. Here the choreography, set to individual stories, embodies both the emotional and psychological stress of the Hair wars as well as intricate mime sequences of fixing intricate hair designs.
Channon Judson and Samantha Spies are listed as the primary choreographers of the evening in collaboration with the company. Judson and Spies are performers, too. They are joined by Du Bois A’Keen, Courtney J. Cook, Tendayi Kuumba and Stephanie Mas.
Practicing truly feminist principles of making space for motherhood, the other member of the company clocks in at around two years old. She is already an assured performer, echoing and mirroring the choreography of the other dancers, interacting and engaging directly with them; and sometimes just toddling around the rest of the troupe completely connected to the movements she sees and the music she hears.
The second half of the evening begins with a faux catwalk as each ensemble member appears through an auditorium door, introduced extravagantly, as they take to the stage again. This part of the evening is about overcoming the challenges identified earlier and working collectively, from strength and conviction, to overcome them.
The ensemble has saved the most physically demanding work until the final sequence. With a backdrop projecting self-actualizing sentiments, that acknowledge the hard work ahead, the dancers engage in a lengthy sequence of bounces with hands upstretched, reaching for the best, calling out encouragement…the choreography physically demonstrating the exhausting and exhilarating work ahead for all of us.