DANCE : Donald Byrd’s Dance of Reality : The choreographer’s ‘Minstrel Show’ will bring audiences face to face with themselves on issues of race

<i> Chris Pasles is a staff writer in The Times' Orange County edition</i>

When choreographer Donald Byrd wanted audiences to face up to this country’s history of racism and prejudice, he didn’t pull any punches.

He created a work he calls “The Minstrel Show: Acts for Coons, Jigaboos and Jungle Bunnies.” An African-American himself, he even made the African-American dancers in his company put on blackface, and he invited members of the audience to come on stage to tell the latest racist jokes they’d heard.

Little wonder that “The Minstrel Show” galvanized and upset audiences at UC San Diego when the work was presented there last year.


Now it’s L.A.’s turn.

“The Minstrel Show” will be seen as part of the festival of Black Choreographers Moving Into the 21st Century, May 6-8 at the Japan America Theatre. Another Byrd work, a different section of “Drastic Cuts” from what was seen here last year, also will be part of the three-day festivities.

“I picked that title because that’s what minstrel shows were,” the 43-year-old choreographer said in a recent interview. “And also to provide a clue for the audience that the stereotypes are so extreme that they can’t possibly be real.

“At the start, I had said that to the dancers. There’s no such thing as a ‘coon,’ a ‘jigaboo’ or a ‘jungle bunny.’ That’s an invention. There are no people that are those things.’ ”

Byrd’s aggressive stance isn’t turning people away. In fact, “Drastic Cuts” has encouraged former New York City Ballet Master in Chief Jerome Robbins to talk to Byrd recently about choreographing for “a large ballet company,” Byrd said. The young choreographer has just set a new work, “Cracked Narrative,” on Oregon Ballet Theatre (the premiere is May 14) and is “in the middle of a development deal with Columbia Pictures for a film.”

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater danced Byrd’s “Dance at the Gym,” created for the company in 1991, during the recent UCLA engagement. Byrd also has created choreography for two theater works directed by Peter Sellars: Brecht-Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie” for the Opera de Lyon in January, and Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” seen at the Ojai Festival last summer.

Although born and raised in the South, Byrd said he didn’t experience overt racism until he went to Yale University as a philosophy major.

“My first weekend there, someone yelled (a racial epithet) at me and threw a chair from a passing car. Yeah, it hit me. That was my introduction to New Haven, (Conn.). Nothing like that had happened to me before. . . .

“Racism in the South was institutionalized, it was built into the whole system. You knew how things were, so they didn’t impact you immediately.”

Within a semester at Yale, Byrd switched to the drama department, and that soon led to taking ballet classes at a nearby school. “A couple of days later, I enrolled in a modern dance class, then a few days after that, in an African-Haitian dance class. Within one week, I was hooked.”

Byrd moved to New York and began working with various directors and choreographers, including Twyla Tharp.

“Her way of thinking absolutely startled me. I had never seen anyone choreographically so rigorous. Most of the time I would stop dancing (in rehearsal) because I would realize what she was doing and I would be startled into motionlessness. I’m sure I just appeared as not being with it or just stupid.”

He began choreographing in earnest after he came out to California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in the late ‘70s. While in Los Angeles, he formed his company, Donald Byrd/The Group, in 1978 and moved it to New York City in 1983.

Los Angeles had another major impact: Byrd says he was transformed by the first Black Choreographers Moving festival, held here and in San Francisco in 1989.

Speaking as part of a public panel in Los Angeles, he said then: “In regard to our responsibility to the (black) community, I would say I have been negligent. My concerns have been about myself and not about giving something back and putting something in, even though that’s been in the back of my head.”

He amplified that remark recently. “One of the things that happened (at the festival) was that I had an opportunity to really feel I was a part of the community that I come from. My work sometimes can be abstract and appear not to have a direct relationship to Afro-American concerns, but, in fact, it is based on that.

“It’s an incredible dilemma to be an artist of color and to always be in denial about that, saying, ‘I’m a choreographer first and then I’m black,’ when in fact, that’s not the case. I’m black first and then I’m also a choreographer. The blackness, the Afro-Americanness, came first. And I don’t think that minimizes what I do. In fact it gives a point of reference to what it is.”

Even so, “The Minstrel Show,” which won a 1992 Bessie Award (one of the pretigious New York dance and performance awards) for the choreographer, did not come out of the festival experience. Byrd had begun working on the idea in 1981, and he revised it several times later, offering one version (“Hot Times”) at La Mama in New York in 1984.

But he was not satisfied.

“What I discovered was, yes, the ideas are good, but I didn’t really have the skills then to pull something like this off . . . because the subject matter--minstrel shows, racism and bias and prejudice--is a huge issue. I mean it’s a big issue.”

The racist murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by white Brooklyn, N.Y., teen-agers in 1989 prompted him to try again.

“I said, ‘What can I contribute to raising awareness--my own awareness as well as the public’s?’ ”

He fashioned a two-hour revue in the minstrel-show tradition, with songs and dances that reflected stereotypes held about blacks. Midway through, Byrd takes the stage as an emcee and invites audience members to tell racist jokes.

It was this section that sparked audience objections when it was presented at UCSD. “We get the point!” someone yelled out.

Things got fairly tense, Byrd remembered. “People were activated by the performance. They were confronted and they woke up, and people generally don’t like to be confronted. It’s OK up to a point. But then when they feel you’ve crossed a barrier, they get belligerent in some ways. . . .

“But those jokes came from that community. They came from those people sitting in that audience in that theater at that particular moment and it tells something about the community.

“All I did was set up a structure that allowed (the prejudice) to be spoken. And I think that that’s the thing that’s important, that it be spoken.”

Audiences who saw the piece later at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Texas, however, weren’t quite so overtly upset. But they also experienced the “complicitness” in racism that the piece is about.

“People get an opportunity to see that they perpetuate racism, and sometimes that’s hard to look at.”

If “The Minstrel Show” has been tough on audiences, it also has been tough on the company. When Byrd made his dancers first put on blackface, “some of them weren’t too happy, and actually one of them just started to cry.”

“I had warned them at the beginning that it would be painful,” he said. “I took them through a process in which we talked about racial attitudes and their community and their homes. So basically they did an extended version of what the audience goes through watching the piece.”

Despite all that, Byrd insisted the piece is not “confrontational.”

“What it tends to do is to say, ‘Look at (racism)’-- not that you should feel guilty or you’re wrong. What it implies is that we have all contributed to it, regardless of what our background is, because of the culture we have been born into. We are all contributors.”

So for him, the question is not whether people consider the work any good. “The question is really whether it’s effective. If people are responding to it, it’s effective.”

In fact, Byrd believes that theater can actually change people, as long as “the experience is not completed in the theater. If the experience is completed there, then you’ve had it.

“I saw (Michael Cristofer’s 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning play) ‘The Shadow Box’ when it was first done, and I cried and cried and cried. ‘Oh my God, this is so painful.’ Then I forgot about it. I had my experience already. There was nothing else to do.

“I think for social theater or political theater or theater that has that intention, the experience is not complete until you go out into the world and do something. Something.

Byrd’s “Minstrel Show” shows only one aspect of his work. “Drastic Cuts,” also on the festival schedule, represents another, what he called “movement invention in the abstract.”

“In order for me to feel fulfillment as an artist,” he said, “I need to go back and forth between those. Which has been a problem from a careerist point of view because it hasn’t been easy for people to say, ‘Oh, he does this or he does that,’ (unlike) a lot of my contemporaries.”

Byrd defined this movement approach when he created “Shards” for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1988. “ ‘Shards’ was about a deconstruction of the vocabulary that people considered, quote-unquote, black movement. What I used as a model was primarily Alvin, Donald McKayle and Talley Beatty. . . .

“What I did was look at what that was and just break it down and say, these are the elements--now what happens if I put them together differently and for different intent? I’ve been doing some version of that all along.”

Deconstruction for him, in other words, is “just a device.”

“One of the opportunities of being a choreographer in this generation is that finally there’s enough dance history and enough ideas that our opportunity, and maybe our job or our contribution to dance, is to synthesize all this information that’s popped up over the last 100 years, since ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ ”

In the first part of “Drastic Cuts,” Byrd set out to deconstruct the intricate partnering Balanchine created for such works as “The Four Temperaments” and “Agon.”

Even here, however, unexpected racial issues surfaced.

“In exploring this Balanchine territory, I suddenly noticed something: (I was working with) these four men of color and this one white woman, and I realized that for many people that would have a significance. It would be read either as a comment on or as a perpetuation of a myth about black men and white women.”

But he decided not to change it.

“I knew that would be a possible interpretation and that would be OK. (But) that was not what I set out to do.”

Letting people have their own reactions to his work is, in fact, an important part of Byrd’s philosophy.

When people in the audience cheered as three of the guys stripped off their shirts during a recent performance of “Drastic Cuts” in San Diego, for instance, he decided: “That’s OK. People will respond however they need to respond. Maybe at some level that’s an entree for them into this whole notion of black dance or dancing in general, and if that’s an indication of their engagement with what they saw, then that’s OK.

“Of course, sometimes that’s not the only response that I want. . . . But I have a responsibility to contribute to the expansion of what people think black choreographers do. And that is one way of doing it.”

Expanding what they think includes issues of sexual preference too. He recalled hearing several women in the audience groan, “Oh, no, don’t do it, don’t do it” when the men in “Drastic Cuts” began exploring same-sex experiences.

“To be very honest, my whole concern--and I don’t know where this came from--has always been how to get people to look at things that might be difficult for them to look at.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that the more black bourgeois audiences have a harder time with (same-sex relationships). I understand why they have a hard time. But, again, it’s about denial about human nature and about this whole thing about (demanding) positive images (for blacks) . . . because the job is, like, you have to uphold the race.

“I think the way to uphold the race is by being articulate about and being your own person about something and having opinions about something.

“Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t get to where he was by listening to what people told him he should do or think or how he should behave. He did what he thought was the right thing to do and nothing dissuaded him from doing that. And I think that’s the responsibility we all have.

“So my job is not to appease the black bourgeois middle class and perpetuate what they think is important, but to say, ‘This is how I see the world and what the world is.’ And you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to agree with it, but that’s my viewpoint. And like, let’s not be so bourgeois about it, basically.”