AUDIENCE REVIEW: Camille A. Brown & Dancers presents Mr. TOL E. RAncE
Camille A. Brown & Dancers
November 9, 2019
On November 9, 2019, I had the privilege of seeing Camille A. Brown & Dancers at their opening night of Mr. TOL E. RAncE at the Joyce Theater. This was my first time seeing Camille A. Brown’s work and it completely exceeded all of my expectations. I have heard nothing short of great things about Ms. Brown over the years from the work she has done with the Tony Award winning Broadway musical Once on this Island and Porgy and Bess which is currently showing at the Metropolitan Opera. City of Rain will also be premiering on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s upcoming City Center season. Knowing that she was the mastermind of movement behind these pieces, I knew that I would be in for a treat.
For starters, Mr. TOL E. RAncE was not your typical concert dance performance. It was much more than that. It was a production that included live piano accompaniment, comedic dialogue, and graphics to assist with the storytelling. It was interesting to see in the program that the dancers were not listed as such, but instead as entertainers. This minor detail in the program makes a larger statement because this work is about the “double consciousness” ( a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois) of a black performer and the way in which our society has applauded and continues to reinforce racial stereotypes. The show gave the audience a brief history lesson in “black face” minstrelsy and showed the many ways that it still exists, yet it is overlooked in modern day entertainment.
Many black performers would agree that there is a strong underlying pressure to carry yourself in a way that defies all stereotypes and prove to the people in the front of the room that you are deserving of a seat at the table. Yet, time and time again, black entertainers are given the stereotypical roles of someone who is loud, angry, “ratchet”, overly sexualized or just “the help” to assist the white hero on their journey. Brown takes the time to unpack what happens behind the scenes and the overlooked complexities of the black experience. The way she is able to do this for me was quite impressive. She makes it a point to show the multiple layers of an entertainer. One layer includes the entertainer being in front of an audience giving a high energy performance and whipping out the crowd pleasers. Another being the interactions within their own community which brings about a different level of performance with a feeling of ease and simple joy. And lastly, there is an encounter with self, once the “mask” has been removed and the entertainer is forced to deal with the release of hidden emotions. Ms. Brown smoothly integrates culture dances and gestures into her choreography, such as the “Carlton” or dribbling a basketball, which makes it very clear what point she is trying to make without coming off as too literal. It was quite powerful. The simple dynamic changes or the repetition of these cultural gestures gave an entirely new meaning. I could really feel the labor behind each movement as if the entertainers were saying “This is not what I want to do, but this is what they want to see”. Even when some of these movements were done for comedic relief, the thought of laughing with the rest of the audience didn’t always sit right with me.
When creating a work like Mr. TOL E. RAncE, I think the choreographer has done an exceptional job when the audience can walk away wanting more, but also walk away asking questions and doing some internal investigation. It made me think of the ways I have applauded things that promote negative stereotypes or have settled for roles where I have become one. It also made me realize that perception is so important. I know for sure that I understood the show on a totally different level than my white friend I attended the show with. However, we were both affected in some way by it and we were able to create a conversation that lead to some common understanding. I admire Camille A. Brown for being a great example of how movement can be a vessel for exposing the stereotypes in our society in a way that is digestible, yet thought provoking.