Urban Bush Women go back to the past in the name of a more communal and compassionate future.
By Debra Cash
The names of Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Shirley Chishom and Ossie Davis roll down like a mighty stream. On stage, Amara Tabor-Smith of the Urban Bush Women reaches across space, at turns transforming herself into a fervent warrior and then into a woman hauling herself against a crushing, invisible weight stretched across her shoulders. As the dancer exhales and points, her arabesques like arrows, the darting voices of Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock braid into a cry, coaxing, demanding “Give Your Hands to Struggle.”
This 1998 solo exemplifies the struggle at the heart of Urban Bush Women’s repertory. Braced by the example of the Civil Right heroes, African-American women struggle to come to terms with their histories, collective power, and their own individual strengths. Strength should not be confused with bravura or garnering public accolades. But each step forward, each link in the chain, brings the world closer to the lively, communal, and compassionate space that the group’s choreographer, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, imagines in her dances.
For two decades, Urban Bush Women’s repertory has been rich, even clotted, with historical references. Bitter truths about slavery, homelessness, and abuse come pushing out of the dance sequences like grass growing through the cracks in a concrete sidewalk. Some audiences have preferred to turn their heads away; for others, the truth energizes. Zollar is political but she is never merely polemical. She has a sense of humor along with her sense of purpose, and celebration rides her critique. In short, Zollar is a grownup.
Her latest project, “Walking with Pearl,” the first installment of a trilogy, was the highlight of the company’s recent New England tour. It is a meditation on the life of another clear-eyed woman warrior, Pearl Primus. Dependent on an oral and apprentice-driven culture, dance often pays overt tribute to its past. Still, Zollar’s project is unusual: for most dance audiences, black as well as white, the name Pearl Primus draws a complete blank.
Primus, born in 1919 in Trinidad, was a stocky, dark-skinned woman with a heart-stopping leap: the great American critic Edwin Denby called her “thrilling.” She burst on the New York scene in 1943 performing dances of ethnic identity and social protest, although Denby also gently scolded her for preaching to the choir, writing “an artist can protest passionately to a hostile audience and win them over, but there is little drama where the audience is quite amenable.”
Then Primus left to search for her roots. She picked cotton, ineptly, with sharecroppers in the American south. She traveled alone to Africa , where she was given the Nigerian name “Omowale” (child returned home). She became an honorary male among the Watusi so that she could observe a dance forbidden to female witnesses. She explored Caribbean dances with an anthropologist’s practiced eye.
View more images
“I’m interested in those who have passed on. It’s something that’s called me for a long time,” Zollar said over breakfast while her company was performing “Walking with Pearl” in Providence, RI last month. She heard Primus speak once before her death in 1994.
In that lecture, recalls Zollar, “Primus said African-American art ‘was born out of the anger of the slave ships. The blues were born on the slave ship, from that tradition of moaning and wailing.’ She talked about the importance of studying African dance, but also said she was concerned that African dance was being studied at the expense of learning about African-American traditions. That got me thinking. I know many African-American drummers. If I ask them to play a West African dance, the rhythm for a doumba, for instance, they can do it. But if I say: can you give me the New Orleans shuffle beat? …” Zollar shrugs eloquently, and smiles.
Primus did not forget: she danced, choreographed, and wrote with a surprisingly poetic ear. Her field notes have been lost but Zollar was lucky enough to be given photocopies of unpublished diary fragments and letters that somehow made it to the American Dance Festival archives. During “Walking with Pearl” the choreographer sits at the side of the stage space, reading Primus’ words, ventriloquist for a ghost. “A plant I threw away for dead put forth new leaves,” she recites. “Dance is my medicine.”
“Walking with Pearl : The Africa Diaries” is built out of walking and the breathing that sustains it. Feet stride on a rhythmical journey; the dancers walk towards a dazzling African sunset, or flex their feet at the end of a rebellious kick. Panting pulses down the dancers’ torsos and generates freeing arms, reaching and scooping up the space as if to consume it like food.
Zollar knows all about traditional African movement, but is too much the New York post-modernist to adopt it wholesale. “Walking with Pearl” is not your standard ethnographic travelogue. When the sequences break into West African polyrhythms and the dancers’ pulsing legs move against the contrasting rhythms of swinging arms, the effect is smoother, more tutored, more contemporary. The strongest aspects of “Africa Diaries” are its most abstract bits, when a single dancer moves in sharp, contrapuntal contrast to the massed ensemble, conveying the essential solitude of her emotional journey.
In art, however, ancestor worship has its limits. In the presence of so much of Primus’ inner life, Zollar is crowded out — she doesn’t step in with her own invention. Too often, the dancers stand still while Primus’ words resound, as if Zollar was afraid to compete. One hopes that, in the next two segments of “Walking with Pearl ,” Zollar will not hold back. Searching for her roots, Pearl Primus honed her own distinct voice. Walking with Pearl , Jawole Willa Jo Zollar owes Pearl Primus nothing less.
“The African Diaries” is the first part of the “Walking with Pearl” trilogy. The second installment, the “Southern Diaries,” which may include reconstructions of some of Primus’ own, nearly forgotten choreographies, will premiere this summer at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina.