Jade Solomon Curtis performed her “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nig...."
I don’t like the “N” word. Hearing it offends me, upsets me, hurts me and I’m white. It leaves me to wonder, how awful must that word sound to a person of color?
African-American dancer and choreographer Jade Solomon Curtis gave a University at Albany audience a sense of what it feels like for her in a “Black Like Me: An Exploration of the Word Nig...” In the evening-length work shown on Sunday night, Curtis took the audience on a journey from slave ships and lynching to today’s endless loop of police brutality videos in which people of color are the either abused or exploited.
The work was sometimes painful to watch. Images of men swinging from trees or the recording of Sandra Bland’s encounter with a Texas lawman – make the audience recoil. The piece was also thought-provoking with James Baldwin thoughts on the word that white people invented; and Richard Pryor speaking of his awakening and vow to never use that word again.
The dance opened with Curtis, in a raged white shirt, on what looked like an auction block. Her movement on the block was gradual shrinking into submission. Early on, she let out a silent scream. Her solo then constructs a narrative of sexual abuse, hangings, beatings – until she flat on the block, reduced to subjugation.
In another section, Curtis, who is lovely, long and limber, bounced around in a hoodie. Her posturing was bold and wide, but the audience couldn’t see her face, which dehumanized her. She was indicating she knows what (white) people are thinking – a black person in a hoodie is a faceless thug. The tragic killing of young Trayvon Martin was vividly brought back to mind.
Curtis also addressed hip-hop culture and the use of the word in music. In “A Star Called Nigga,” she strutted around in short-shorts and heels, revealing a swagger and confidence that was undeniable. At the same time, it was troubling to hear that the word used over and over in the by Boris Gardiner as remixed by DJ Topspin & Brianna. She was telling the audience that black people have, sadly, bought into this word too.
The piece was divided in half by a conversation with two people of color in the audience. (Full disclosure here: one was my husband Clifford Oliver Mealy.) It was conducted like an interview where collaborator Gail Boyd asked Mealy and Tammy Ellis- Robinson questions about their feelings about the word.
It likely helped Curtis catch her breath. The same could be said for the audience who was surely disturbed by the onslaught of images depicting injustice imposed on black and brown souls.
However, the conversation broke the flow. It did serve a point when the interview with the two ended abruptly with the ding of a bell and the stage going dark. It gave the impression that black people don’t have enough social capital to be able to fully air their thoughts or feelings.
The piece was less than an hour. But in those minutes Curtis jammed so much history and its residuals effects on today’s Americans that “Black Like Me” keeps one’s mind active and talking about the experience in the hours that followed.
I look forward to seeing more of Curtis. She’s an important voice in our deeply troubled times.