‘Black Girl: Linguistic Play’ explores history and culture through double Dutch and other games


NEW YORK — Murmurs of recognition have rolled through audiences for choreographer Camille A. Brown’s “Black Girl: Linguistic Play,” opening Thursday at REDCAT in downtown L.A. as part of a 10-city tour.

In creating this work for six women, Brown has drawn on the games, chants and nursery rhymes that played an important role in her girlhood. Female audience members have recognized themselves in the young girls, adolescents and emerging women on stage, evoked by Camille A. Brown & Dancers through their layered, resonant movement.

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Brown’s earlier work “Mr. Tol E. Rance” was an ambitious examination of the stereotypes of black entertainers and comedians, including performers in minstrel shows and popular sitcoms. During post-show talk-backs, she often fielded requests from black women to create a piece focused on black female stereotypes, the 35-year-old choreographer recalled during an interview at a Midtown Manhattan coffeehouse.

But she was hesitant to venture into what seemed like familiar territory.

“I’m exhausted by the stereotype,” she said. “I live between the angry black female and the strong black female stereotype. I thought, ‘There’s got to be something else I want to talk about to contribute to this political climate — because we all know the struggles.’ Those are the things that get pushed to the forefront. But what are the things that celebrate us and uplift us, and are culturally specific?”

She found the key to what became “Black Girl” while choreographing the off-Broadway musical “Fortress of Solitude” last year at the Public Theater.

“Its jumping-off point was childhood and memory,” said Brown, who grew up in Queens, attended New York’s LaGuardia performing arts high school and then went to what is now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She found further inspiration in Kyra D. Gaunt’s 2006 book “The Games Black Girls Play.”

“As soon as I read it, I thought this is the way this piece needs to go. Basically she wrote about the musical contributions of black girls,” Brown said, adding that her play translates those contributions into movement.

“A lot of times these don’t get lifted up and are seen as trivial. But I wanted to say, what happens when you honor the things that I know were highly intelligent and skillful and you put them onstage and claim them as art?”

What happens when you take double Dutch and make it an art? she asked.

“Because that’s what it is,” Brown said. “So when I decided that I wanted it to come from a personal place, from childhood, I really had to go back and figure out was that first time that someone made me feel different.”

“Black Girls” premiered in September at New York’s Joyce Theater. Brown opens the work herself with a remarkable, rhythmically complex solo on a multilayered set of platforms, suspended mirrors and a wall that appears decorated with graffiti. She fluidly travels through various levels of the space without missing a beat or losing her fierce concentration. Her intricate footwork — and that of Cat Foster, who eventually joins and matches her — reveals the intricacies of double Dutch and almost becomes a tap dance in sneakers.

“When was the first time I was told that I couldn’t take up space? That I had to hold back and be silent?” she mused during the interview. “And what happens when you give yourself permission to own the space?”

Two pairs of women take over as the hourlong dance continues. If Brown and Foster are childhood playmates, Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser could be siblings whose strong connection is at times tested by competition and adolescent sexuality. Brown describes the third pair, Yusha-Marie Sorzano and Mora-Amina Parker, as “the mother preparing the daughter to fly and be a woman.”

Brown enlisted three dramaturges to help shape “Black Girl” and also decided that an audience talk-back would be an integral part of the piece, not a tacked-on option. So a moderated “dialogue” is listed in the program as part of the piece.

The experiences and situations evoked in “Black Girl” resonate for many in the audience and leave them with a lot to say and share when the dance portion ends.

“As I started doing the work and observing the perceptions of black girls, I felt there was a real need for a dialogue about it,” Brown said. “Also, the more culturally specific I got — when you put in juba, hambone, all these things that are historical, and the elements that are culturally specific — it is important to have a discussion about those things.”


‘Black Girl: Linguistic Play’

Who: Camille A. Brown & Dancers

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $10 to $25

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes