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Mr. TOL E. RAncE Performance 1
By Khephra Burns

“I’ll tell you this, many black people still live out the facade of the minstrel. We wear a mask. Much of what we say and what we do is done in metaphor and done with subtext and other meaning, because we have not had the best of experiences when you go straight to the heart of the problems in this country, because this nation becomes so punitive when it hears the truth about us.”
–Harry Belafonte

My immediate impression upon first seeing Mr. Tol E. RAncE , the brilliant and biting work of modern dance choreographed by Camille A. Brown, was that here was an artist who understood the poignancy, potency and complexity of black images and the uses to which they have been put historically; who understood the black minstrel tradition not only as a source of profound discomfort in the spectacularization of black pain, but also as a sometimes subversive form for sub rosa commentary on white pretensions and black oppression and resistance.

The program notes for Mr. Tol E. RAncE describe it as at once a celebration of “the humor and perseverance of the black performer” and an examination of “the stereotypical roles dominating current popular black culture.” An ambitious proposition, which, given the minefield of racial politics across which black images have been strewn, Ms. Brown nevertheless negotiates with grace and art where others have often stumbled and self-detonated. Even the most successful critiques of chronic contemporary minstrelsy have often been a lightning rod for controversy. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled anticipated that controversy with a preemptive definition of satire – which too often flies over the heads of some audiences – at the top of his film.

But few are those like Ms. Brown and Mr. Lee, who are courageous enough to look at contemporary black musical culture and honestly critique its impact on the community. Can we really decry the deleterious effects of denigrating images, from Stepin Fetchit to Willie Horton, while at the same time being apologists for personas like Too Short? In rewarding the neo zip coons and gangsta rappers of modern-day minstrelsy with wealth and notoriety, we may be forced to consider that we have mistakenly conflated art and commerce, that we have sacrificed the healing, harmonizing and revolutionary potential of art on the altar of commercial success and conspicuous consumption.

The mask as a metaphor is one that resonates throughout African American culture. We recognize the truth and usefulness of it in our lives when given voice in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask:

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

Or Langston Hughes’ Minstrel Man:
“Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?”

“Trauma smiles” is what the African America painter David Huffman calls the wide, toothy grins of nineteenth century black minstrels – “smiles that reflect the trauma of generations of physical, emotional, and psychological pain.” Huffman, like Camille Brown, Spike Lee and others, has sought through art to create an environment in which the smiling performer could rebel and become the agent of his own destiny.

Khephra Burns is a writer, editor, producer and dance aficionado. He wrote the text for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary book, Ailey Ascending: A Portrait in Motion, and wrote and produced a short documentary, Black Men in Dance, for the old Essence television show.

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