By Walter Rutledge
When incidents of oppression are remembered through the eyes of the oppressor and their descendants the atrocities usual receive a historic “whitewashing”; or become uncomfortable footnotes in whispered history. There is a majesty and power in truth. Greenwood by choreographer Donald Byrd retells the Oklahoma massacre dubbed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot; a sinister event of racism that has been swept under the Jim Crow rug of American history.
The difference between an established dance maker and an artist is not just prowess, but their need to take risks. Byrd, an accomplished storyteller, introduces us to the ethereal Jacqueline Green, who functions as an omniscient and omnipresent Griot. Entering upstage center through a floor to ceiling monolith that opens into a black box, Green with an Amazonian presence transports us into the segregated Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A blond and bouffant Danica Paulos stands center stage framed in a rectangular box of light we hear the approaching footsteps of Chalvar Monterio; who joins her in the light. As she brings her arms together the eerie sound of metal elevator gates closing cuts through the silence. This first innocent encounter probably reflects what really happened; a black man entered an elevator and stepped on the foot of a white teenage girl- the tragedy begins.
Through the course of the work this elevator scenario is repeated three times. Each time the encounter becomes intentionally less innocent, and Monterio’s portrayal becomes more “savage” and physically aggressive. This theatrical device helped symbolize how the incident became more sensationalize by the bigoted Tulsa community to insight the carnage. In each subsequent renditions the walking sound was augmented with the sound of more running as if fleeing an angry lynch mob.
Clifton Brown, Ghrai DeVore-Stokes, Solomon Dumas and Jacquelin Harris portrayed the “colored” citizens of Greenwood. Byrd interspersed moments of stylized posed stillness. These tableaus recall the sepia colored family portraits photographs of the proud Greenwood citizenry. This effectively created a subtle and nuanced pathos for these soon to be victims of mob violence.
To Byrd’s credit he did not create a literal Klu Klux Klan militia; instead the oppressor are silver automatons- faceless, mindless, devoid of a heart or soul. Even the movement vocabulary Bryd assigned to this ensemble of seven dancers had a robotic non-human quality.
The Tulsa African- American community was a living example of W.E.B. Dubois’ doctrine of self- determination. Since the Caucasian population demanded social and economic delineations and extreme apartheid- like separation by race; this left Tulsa’s African- American population to develop their own reality. The people’s ability to adapt, to adjust, survive and flourish; and the concept of Greenwood, a thriving self-sufficient “Colored” community, only created envy, scorn and resentment. The White community only needed a social issue scandal to justify displacing and erasing Greenwood; and destroy the community’s growing and solidified political and civic base.
In a striking moment Green sits downstage legs crossed arms relaxed at her side with her back to the audience; a passive, almost otherworldly, observer of the butchery. Green eventually rises, walks upstage to aid the fallen motionless citizens strewn about the stage floor. She drags Harris from the group and then lifts her onto her shoulder and carries her limp and broken body through the monolithic doorway and out of view.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot is one of the many little-known tragedies that illustrates the struggle for racial equality and the oppressive Jim Crow era. Byrd’s ability to translate history into a powerful abstract narrative is another example of how a seasoned choreographer/storyteller brings new life to a forgotten American abomination. Less than two years later the 1923 Rosewood Massacre decimated another thriving African- American community in Florida. These atrocities are absent from most classroom history books, so it is up to brave artists like Byrd to remind us of the majesty and power in truth- less we forget.
Greenwood by Donald Byrd
Solomon Dumas, Akua Noni Parker and Jacqueline Green 2) Danica Paulos and Chalvar Monteiro 3) Clifton Brown, Ghrai DeVore-Stokes, Solomon Dumas and Jacquelin Harris and Jacqueline Green
Photography by: 1&3) Paul-Kolnik 2) Andrea Mohin/The New York Times