Mr. TOL E. RAncE
Created in 2012
NY Premiere: April 2, 2013 - The Kitchen
Winner of a 2014 Bessie Award for Outstanding Production!
Inspired by Mel Watkins’ book, “On The Real Side: From Slavery to Chris Rock”, Spike Lee’s controversial movie, “Bamboozled”, and Dave Chappelle’s “dancing vs. shuffling” analogy, this evening-length dance theater work celebrates African-American humor, examines “the mask” of survival and the “double consciousness” (W.E.B. DuBois) of the black performer throughout history and the stereotypical roles dominating current popular Black culture.
Through comedy, animation, theater, soul-stirring live music by Scott Patterson (with original compositions from Jonathan Melville Pratt, Brandon McCune, Kurt “KC” Clayton and Scott Patterson) and poignantly retrospective dance vocabulary, Mr. TOL E. RAncE speaks to the issue of tolerance- how much Black performers had to tolerate, and addresses-forms of modern day minstrelsy we tolerate today. It is not a history lesson. Blending and contrasting the contemporary with the historic, the goal of this personal work is to engage, provoke, and move the conversation of race forward in a timely dialogue about where we have been, where we are and where we might want to be.
The following have been moderators for “The Dialogue”: Michael Eric Dyson, Kamilah Forbes, S. Renee Mitchell, Leslie Mones & Kevin Jones, Stacey Muhammad, Mark Anthony Neal, James Braxton Peterson, Richard J. Powell, Barake Sele, Kemba Shannon and Andrea E. Woods Valdés
LIVE ACCOMPANIMENT: Scott Patterson
COMPOSERS: Brandon McCune, Kurt “KC” Clayton, Jonathan Melville Pratt, and Scott Patterson
ANIMATION: Isabela Dos Santos
DRAMATURGS: Talvin Wilks and Kamilah Forbes
THEATER COACH: J. Michael Kinsey
TEXT: Camille A. Brown
LIGHTING DESIGN: Burke Wilmore
SET DESIGN: Philip Treviño
COSTUME DESIGN: Carolyn Meckha Cherry
The creation and presentation of Mr. Tol E. RAncE is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with the New England Foundation for the Arts through the National Dance Project (NDP). Major support for NDP is provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with additional support from the Community Connections Fund of the MetLife Foundation. Support from the NEA provides funding for choreographers in the early stages of their careers. This work was created, in part, during a Creative Development Residency at the Bates Dance Festival and Kingsborough Community College. This work was also funded by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Production residency for this work was supported by the National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts, with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This residency took place at The Grier School and Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts at Juniata College, Huntingdon, PA.
What it is…
The piece started from a personal feeling of restriction. As an artist I was starting to see the fabric of this social game that I didn’t want to play – attending parties, “being in the right place at the right time” – all suggestions given to me about how to move up the choreographic ladder. I didn’t understand why I just couldn’t be supported as an artist without doing superficial things.
Personal confession: I watch Bamboozled at least once a year. It’s kinda like Roots for me; when it’s on, I watch it. It grounds me, connects me to the past, but also informs how I look at the current situation of artists in the world. I have always been fascinated with Spike Lee’s concept of current day “minstrelsy” and his depiction of this phenomenon spreading like a disease. People who were once appalled by the idea of bringing such a racist and demeaning pastime to the 21st century stage were suddenly wearing a type of “black face,” responding to every word the interlocutor (producer) spewed with great enthusiasm.
I think about Dave Chappelle caught up in this 21st century “minstrel” quandary. Here’s a man who was at the height of his career and he turned down a 50 million dollar contract to continue his #1 show. A man who once felt like people were laughing with him started seeing things differently and he did one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen an artist do. He walked away from it all, the money, the fame…everything. People said he was crazy, but I saw an artist who had reached his limit. Once dancing, he found himself “shuffling” and instead of compromising his integrity, he chose to leave.
I have been appalled for some time by the rise of reality shows and how producers are willing to exploit people’s lives, mostly to their own detriment. It’s the craze of our times! However, what could have been a fierce opportunity to have a social commentary about issues regarding race, religion, and sexism, has now become a platform for instant success based on who can have the most catfights or the foulest mouths. Why are these the depictions of Black women that I see permeating my television screen? As a Black woman, the majority of images that I see of myself are stereotypical images. There is nothing new about these images except for the fact that, perhaps, WE are now perpetuating our own stereotypes.
What do we do? What can we do?
At first, in the creation of Mr. Tol E. RAncE, I wanted to tie my personal frustrations with those of the first Black performers on Broadway. It was my way of connecting the past with the present. A friend gave me Mel Watkins’ book, On the Real Side, and suggested that I read the chapter about Vaudeville and Broadway. I did, but I also read the chapters before. The idea of the “inside” and “outside” perception of Blacks was something I was already investigating and reading Watkins perspective sealed the deal for me to keep moving forward with this journey. The book for me wasn’t just about minstrelsy, but it was about what happens to the human spirit behind the mask. He chose to speak through the lens of humor and traced the origins of black American entertainment back to the slave plantation. The Dozens, jive talk, etc…, all had origins that started back in slavery. I always knew how to play The Dozens, but had no idea that it was a term that described the slaves who were considered “bad,” sold in groups of 12. Reading this book, I was so moved by our perseverance, our struggles, our joy, our pain…
In reading Watkins’ book, I was also greatly moved by what I learned about Bert Williams. I couldn’t stop thinking about the W.C. Fields quote, “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” How could that be? The funniest man died severely depressed, never fulfilled and a lot of Black entertainers share the same fate. Humor comes from pain. As an artist some of my strongest works have come from a place of great struggle. In some ways I see myself as living a “comedian’s” life. But, when do I feel like I’m “shuffling” instead of dancing?
I started creating sections specifically about minstrelsy and Bert Williams that dealt with the pain underneath the mask, but as time went on I understood the importance of showing the relevance of this story today. For the past couple years I’ve seen a lot of Black artists in my generation talking about minstrelsy in some form be it song, theater, or art. I performed The Real Cool at a showcase last year, and a Black female tapper, who was also a painter, showed me a painting she created of Bert Williams. I wasn’t the only one! There is a movement happening. Now, how do I make others talk and address the issue so we start moving together?
I started tying all of my emotions together and asking myself questions. What is minstrelsy? What did Black artists have to tolerate in the past? What do they tolerate today? How much of this are we perpetuating? I find myself still asking questions and want to ask the questions of the audience: Why do you laugh? Why are things funny?
With minstrelsy, this piece is also about perception and race. When you start talking about race, people get very tense. We all have our thoughts on race based on our own perceptions and experiences. This work is not about proving a point. Telling you as the viewer what’s right or wrong. Our story is too complex and I feel it wouldn’t be fair to our legacy if I make this a one sided story. This was an extremely intense and new process for the dancers and me. There were so many discoveries! It’s also about a celebration!
I see pain in our struggle, but I also see joy. It’s a personal story. It’s a Black story. It’s a human story… I want people to see that you aren’t just outside looking in on a Black story. We’re all in the same house – dealing with the same issues one way or another. We ALL wear a mask. We are ALL perceived differently than how we really are. We are ALL put in a box.
This is a dialogue, bringing all these issues and emotions to the forefront. I believe this is how we all move closer to understanding each other and the world.
Let’s talk about it.
“Camille Brown’s knowledge of dance history connectivity was on strong display as she effectively juxtaposed tap dancing and Lindy hop quickness into cabrioles and modern day hip-hop step.” Read Full Article
— Jermaine Rowe, BroadwayWorld.com
“..magnificent…It dares to examine the external and internal challenges that Black artists continue to face.” Read Full Article
— Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfinteBody
“Inside TOL, Camille fluidly reflects haunting past images of blackness; reminding us of how far we have gone, and where we may need to go, in order to craft authentic intercultural discussions on race, equity and social stereotyping.”
— Baraka de Soleil, D Underbelly Blog
“Mr. TOL E. RAncE” had it all – heart, mind, soul, passion, full-out dancing and introspective solos…Add high production values and a gifted cast, who gave it their all, and you have one heck of a show.” Read Full Article
— Susan Broili, The Herald Sun
“The work goes deep into its material and finds humor and beauty and frustration and ugliness and…and… and.”
Read Full Article
— Nim Wunnan, Oregon Arts Watch
“..incredible—dynamic, demanding, and emotive… live, virtuosic piano playing (Scott Patterson)… it sticks with you.”
Read Full Article
— Jenna Lechner, The Portland Mercury
“She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt…the audience held their breath.”
— Pittsburgh Gazette
“…the character of the show is much more complex than simply a protest piece. The work goes deep into its material and finds humor and beauty and frustration and ugliness and…and… and.”
— Oregon Arts Watch
“It is very rare in a lifetime to experience something new… The choreography was bursting with every form of dance I have ever seen but brought together in a way that has never been done before, a new language, a new choreography. It was an explosion of emotion and spirit and history and yearning and repression and suffering, and life – life in the face of death and despair.”
— Weil Pay It Forward