Sunday, March 25, 2018

Urban Bush Women's "Hair Parties" at 92Y Harkness

Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919)
Hair care entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist
America's first woman millionaire

Urban Bush Women's Hair Parties is a boldly hybrid event integrating excerpts of a developing dance (premiere of Hair & Other Stories coming this spring) with a community-sharing workshop in kitchen table-like settings. I'd imagine each "audience"--surely, that's not the right word here--brings a different energy to it and ultimately determines how well it will work.

After all, the folks who participate are what it's about. Through a variety of activities, they're encouraged to remember and tell stories about things they learned, from childhood on, about beauty and grooming and to contemplate how those seminal influences affect their attitudes towards themselves and others today. It's very much about--as one of the dancer/facilitators noted--"practices that allow us to stay inside our greatness" and those that drag us far from it.

Oh, you surely know UBW, the lifework of the great, beloved Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, is a Black troupe, right? But while Hair Parties must be a blast in an all-Black gathering, its meditations on race can be useful for anyone from any culture--as was evident yesterday afternoon at 92Y's Harkness Dance Center where the presenters embraced a multicultural gathering.

Somebody here thinks they came for a show!

We're going on a journey!

A journey it was, indeed--starting with the sight of dancer Samantha Speis arranging, thoughtfully gazing upon and slightly rearranging a collection of hair care products, almost as if they were chess pieces. For me, this brief, subtle moment was amusing, a subtlety anyone caring for Black people's hair in the "natural" way will recognize. We know how much time and money we put into experimenting to get just the right products used in the right combination or sequence for the particular texture and willfulness of our hair. Tell me that's not choreography!

Dancers invited us to come together around certain agreements on how to work as a community--such as "speaking from the I"--and gave us gestural movements to anchor each agreement, in a fun way, in our bodies. We watched a dance segment depicting a Black woman suffering "hair hell" in an elevator populated first by a group of mocking Black people and then by white people whose very different attention to her hair freaked her out just as much or even more. We learned a tiny bit about the Black hair care entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919), who went from being the child of enslaved parents to being the first American woman to make a million. From table to table, we performed a shared reading of lines from a letter Zollar addressed to this fascinating pioneer. And we moved with the dancers.

The party kicked up memories for many of us. I was stunned when I suddenly recalled the Breck Girl shampoo ads of the 1960s and later bonded with a white woman over these memories. These ubiquitous magazine ads were in my face--all of our faces--at a time when it would have been more useful for me to be learning about Madame Walker. Do you remember them, too?

As I left 92Y, I actually had a pleasant elevator moment when the same woman who remembered those darn Breck girls told me she'd come to the Hair Parties event terribly drained and tired and came away feeling exhilarated. This, I think, is pretty much the hallmark of an Urban Bush Woman event, and I'm glad she got that healing.

Conceived and choreographed by Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis in collaboration with the company--Du'Bois A'Keen, Chanon Judson, Courtney J. Cook, Jaimé Dzandu, Rochelle Jamila, Samantha Speis and Tendayi Kuumba

Music composed by The Illustrious Blacks (Manchildblack and Monstah Black)

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