Dance and Theater Combine for A Rap on Race, Revamped

It was a simple conversation that changed the nation. Two people, black author James Baldwin and white anthropologist Margaret Mead, sat down and talked about race back in 1970.

Nearly five decades later, that moment in time is being brought back to life in the form of an arts hybrid of sorts by Spectrum Dance Theater out of Seattle. The troupe is now on tour with its take on A Rap on Race, and that tour stopped at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul on January 13, 2018. I, for one, am glad it did, because it was a unique way to bring an important conversation to light—one that is eerily still relevant today.

The closed stage curtains and waiting audience

The waiting audience at the Ordway. Photo by Caissa Casarez

Spectrum artistic director Donald Byrd teamed up with Anna Deavere-Smith to create this performance in 2016; Byrd portrays James Baldwin, while actress Kathryn Van Meter plays the role of Margaret Mead. But, to my surprise, the performance starts with dancing—and powerful dancing at that. It didn’t match the tone of the music (the lovely “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” by Charles Mingus), but that made it that much better. Nia’Amina Minor, one of the prominent dancers in the troupe, shined in her starring role.

The performance almost feels like a two-for-one event: there’s great dancing mixed with a simple but powerful portrayal of Baldwin’s and Mead’s conversation. The actors are high atop the stage at an elevated table while the dancers go to and fro below. The performances from both groups of artists make the complex topic more open and easier to understand.

Many of the topics brought up in the conversation from 1970 are still all too relevant today. For example, Mead explains that she learned about race as a child because she grew up on a farm that served as a station for the Underground Railroad. Then, she calls herself an ally, which Baldwin does not quite approve of. This stuck out as important to me because a lot of people of color might feel the same way about well-intended white people in this day and age. There are many points in the performance when Mead takes offense to Baldwin’s accusations about “his countrymen” and the United States as a whole. Those scenes might be tough for some to read—or see in person, in this case—but they’re important nonetheless. The actors help teach a central theme of privilege throughout the performance.

Another part of the conversation that hit home for me involved cops—specifically, Baldwin’s lack of trust in them. That has certainly been the case for many people of color in the past few years, especially with the increase of officer-involved shootings of black men like Minnesota’s own Philando Castile in 2016. Mead disagrees with Baldwin’s beliefs here, too, saying that he doesn’t know every single cop out there and so shouldn’t paint such a broad assumption about them. Baldwin retorts by saying he doesn’t have to. The lights, music, and dancing are different enough throughout the performance to signify big changes in their conversation, which made it easy for me to follow along, in a sense.

Despite the tough topics brought up in A Rap on Race, there were quite a few laughable moments in the performance, which surprised me a bit. One in particular toward the end comes after Baldwin tells Mead that he trusts her but that “this country doesn’t trust us.” When Mead tries to say otherwise, Baldwin interrupts her by repeating “Well!” loudly and bluntly a few times in a row. This made the audience laugh—myself included—but more than anything, it felt like a welcome way to diffuse the conversation. It also brought a different meaning to it that you wouldn’t just get from the corresponding book.

I admit I did not know what to expect out of Spectrum Dance Theater’s performance, but it was a wonderful show. The brilliant interpretative dance combined with the loud music, the simple light choices, and the blunt but powerful acting made A Rap on Race shine. I especially appreciated the diversity of the troupe and cast; as a mixed person of color myself, it made the story that much better.

My only regret regarding this performance is that it was only here for one night. But it was a timely performance with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month coming so soon after, and I hope the conversations from the show, the preshow panel, and otherwise continue.

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