“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”
Originally a poem describing lynching in the American South, “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol in 1939 and famously performed by singers Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Strange Fruit, part of the Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Wokeness Festival,” drew its inspiration from this haunting song. This festival was to celebrate, as Donald Byrd, the Strange Fruit choreographer and Spectrum’s Artistic Director, calls it, “the notion of complete awareness.” In his Q&A after the show a few weeks ago, he described lynching, calling it “a method to keep black folks in their place and to assert white supremacy in the south.” Over 4,000 lynchings occurred over a 100 year period in America, so Strange Fruit was an important piece to create and distribute because so many Americans are still unaware of the history that forms our present day systemic inequities. The non-black U.S. population may be somewhat aware of this violence, but they cannot fully absorb the effect that it has had on black bodies, both past and present.
I would like to acknowledge my ethnic heritage: I am an East Asian and white woman. I had little prior information about the history of racial terror in the United States and watched this performance with the hope that I would be able to further my own understanding. This piece impacted me deeply, but my wish is that my review does not generalize the experience of black people or the story of lynching and racial terror in America. That being said, I would like to speak plainly about my perspective in this time and space.
The beginning of the performance consisted of screens at the front of the stage, flashing pictures of lynchings, forcefully and quickly, reminding the audience why they had come. Then, two black women and one black man stepped onto the stage, against a threatening white mob. The mob were intentionally anonymous, sporting tight, peach-colored ski masks. At the top of the balcony of Washington Hall, Josephine Howell provided background music and sound effects, including black spirituals. Overlayed with the violence on the stage, these seemingly uplifting songs became much more somber.
The male dancer (Mikhail Calliste) and the female dancer (Michele Dooley) seemed to live during the time of the United States racial violence and terror. The dancer who appeared to play Calliste’s ancestor (Nia-Amina Minor) watched the violence occur but did not experience it during the performance.
Throughout the dance, the mob tormented and committed acts of violence against Calliste and Dooley. All of this was expressed through various movements, creating a very potent language of dance. One scene that stuck with me was when the white mob walked through the group of black people, who writhed and shrunk to the floor. The mob disregarded their very existence yet inflicted them such a deep pain. The most terrifying quality about the mob was the amount of people within it and its single minded nature—it was entirely frightening. Their movements were violent and heavy footed on the floor in contrast to Calliste’s and Dooley’s light steps. The brutality never stopped occurring--the lights never stopped flashing and the white mob’s repeated shouts never left my ears. Watching this from an audience standpoint was difficult to stomach. I did realize that it was a performance, yet I felt like I was being a bystander by witnessing.
This dance was not seemingly one cohesive piece; I could not see a storyline. The dance was very abstract but also equally straightforward in the conveyed message. This was an extremely beautiful piece that was upfront about its subject matter. For me, it was unsettling to combine art and history to create something gorgeous yet painful. The aspects of the dance that had more concrete themes were also quite amazing. For example, Donald Byrd incorporated the role of black women as protectors of black men all through the language of dance.
It was hard to sit through this performance; it was heartbreaking. But for me, the most painful part of this experience was not the dance itself, but the audience Q&A afterwards. There was a noticeable lack of diversity and representation—the audience was largely composed of white, middle-aged people. The dancers and choreographer were bombarded with white audience members’ analysis of every scene in the dance, and there were little to no questions for Byrd. To me, there seemed to be a self-satisfied air in the room; it felt like most of the audience members were very pleased to share their knowledge with the experts on the stage. It was uncomfortable for me to be in a space where white people watched three black performers’ every move. The notion of black people as entertainment for white people came to my mind. I’m sure the white audience was well-intentioned, but in the moment it felt ironic.
Strange Fruit was a hard event to attend, and this review was even harder to write. There was much to learn from the directing, performing and thought process behind the show. So much of the dance was also about the black experience in America, about cultural differences, and about passing history from generation to generation.
The history of racism in this country, of which lynching is a part, is a topic that is not taught adequately or completely in schools. There has to be an emotional connection when teaching about history. We’re talking about real people, but in a lot of schools, the subject feels like it’s not connected to one’s own experience. Art is a form of emotional communication, and art connects feelings with historical events and brings words in a history book to life. Racism continues to evolve, allowing white people to abstain from self-reflection and growth, and becoming so entrenched in the institution that we can’t see it. With Strange Fruit, Mr. Byrd and his company successfully provoked our emotions and made us face our history.
“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Lead photo caption: Spectrum Dance Theater, photo by Brian Smale.
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