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BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play: Dance review by Eva Yaa Asantewaa
[Note: This is a review of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play's 2015 run at the Joyce. On July 21, 2016, it returns for a free performance in Prospect Park as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival.]
The Joyce Theater launched its new season last night with Camille A. Brown's BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, arguably the best thing that has ever happened on, and to, the Joyce stage. An audacious statement, I know, but then this work is audacity personified. In BLACK GIRL, six dancers express the joys and challenges of growing up Black and female in inner-city America, embodying the power of a common language formed from play, musicality and empathy.
Brown's Bessie-winning Mr. TOL E. RAncE dealt with historic and modern-day minstrelsy in Black entertainment. But in BLACK GIRL, she moves in a new direction, lifting her dancers away from the toxic environment of racist opinion and exploitative pop culture. With set designer Elizabeth C. Nelson, she envisions a safe space where Black girlhood and womanhood can be celebrated in their full humanity. Platforms stretch across the entire stage for the dancers, providing elevation and visibility—surfaces where feet can sound out intricate, ingenious rhythms. Gentle lighting and floating mist suggest memory drifting through everyday time, memory romanticized by the dreamy score played live by composers Scott Patterson (piano) and Tracy Wormworth (electric bass).
In a post-show dialogue moderated by Mark Anthony Neal, Brown said that she had asked herself, "Who was I before the world identified me?" Her opening solo explores this theme, revealing much about Brown's own story as a young Black dancer from Jamaica, Queens—but revealing it solely through movement. Impetuous energy and desire and lots of self-work turn a gawky kid into a technical powerhouse. Testing herself again and again, Brown finds her way. You see nothing of the negative feedback—she's too short; she's not elegant—that could have turned her away from a career in dance. Instead, Brown shows you how she fought back and continues to fight for herself and for others.
This theme of testing and growth carries through the subsequent three, highly narrative duets in BLACK GIRL—short stories in movement, each given its own leisurely and satisfying development. First, Brown meets her match in Catherine Foster. As two city kids, these fleet-footed speed demons ignite each other’s creativity in joyful social dancing and street games. In them, we see Double Dutch as a serious work of will, skill and cooperation. Next, portraying a teen, Fana Fraser glories in her body's new allure, taunting her less confident, moodier pal, Beatrice Capote. The friends fall out, though not for long. BLACK GIRL, Brown has said, is about "never letting your sister go," a message she returns to in the final duet, in which Yusha-Marie Sorzano struggles and grows exhausted under Mora-Amina Parker’s caring eye. The piece is insistent: Give the sister space—even space to fail—but do not let her go.
A chalkboard back wall displays the colorful symbols drawn by each performer in response to Brown's question, "What do the words 'Black girl' mean to you?" Chalk marks their presence in this world. At times, Brown—perhaps thinking of Michael Jordan or LeBron James—tosses a handful of chalk dust in the air. She smiles with self-permission and quiet happiness: chalk, like dance, is vulnerable, ephemeral. It can be erased, but while you've got it, use it. Make a mark; show who you are.
In the talkback, Brown revealed that as soon as she named her work "BLACK GIRL," she knew she'd lose half of her touring opportunities. Yet Brown stuck to it. Her premonition must not prove true. On opening night, BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play touched hearts and drew tears: It deserves to be widely seen.—Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Joyce Theater. Choreographed by Camille A. Brown. 1hr 20mins. Includes talkback that follows each performance.