Dallas — As provocative titles go you can hardly do better than the one plastered on the wall of the South Dallas Cultural Center last weekend: Lynched.
As it turned out Friday night, the title was a metaphor for injustice and not a literal enactment. Artistic director Terrance M. Johnson’s aim was to call attention to what blacks have endured—and still do.
And that he did with a powerful debut performance from his eight-member company, Terrance M. Johnson Dance Project.
For a company so new—formed only six months ago—and an artistic director/ choreographer as green as they come, Lynched was something of a revelation. The topic indeed was injustice, but it wasn’t slammed in your face. Every segment made a point, but did so in very different tones. There were scenes that were poetic and beautiful, scenes of wrenching despair, a scene of harsh irony. Despite the difference in mood, one small scene flowed into the next seamlessly, aided by swift changes in light, music and costume.
As for the dancers, they moved like finely wound bow-springs, supple and powerful. Better yet, they moved as one, with an intensity and purpose befitting a Greek tragedy. Their passion all but sent the viewer reeling backward. There was something so honest about every work, so right, that whatever lingering cynicism brought you to the theater, it dissipated like melting ice.
The first half of the show, For hours…, consisted of six movements, all dealing in some intangible way with “the shooting death of Michael Brown and the time thereafter as he lay dead in the street uncovered for hours.”
The first image we have is of subdued light capturing eight figures massed together. To the slow and sorrowful music of Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World,” the dancers tilt their heads and lift their arms, folding them in and wrapping them around their bodies. The mood shifts: the music (by Savanj Rooms) turns brooding and ominous, and the dancers shed their filmy mauve dresses and pants in favor on the briefest of outfits, spilling out in all directions. The large and imposing figure of Tyrone Buskey rockets forth, falls and collapses, face down. We don’t even hear gunfire.
The others, alarmed, disappear, but his mother (Jessica Richardson) runs to his aid. As she lies over her son’s dead body, she weeps, her face a study in anguish. In her midst Toya Sheppard skirts around, moving with airy grace, looping, and dipping and swinging. Is she the angel there to offer comfort?
Calm returns, and to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” mourners in white gently lift their dead friend and wrap him in a shroud. In one grand, ecstatic gesture, they leap backward.
There are two more movements in this act: the troubled Shaun Howard contracting and falling, and a conclusion that ends the way the act began: all the dancers massed together, arms up and heads tilted.
If Act 1 had a church-like atmosphere (if you can include death), Act 2 was definitely planted in the concrete jungle, where drugs and fights and ugly words are tossed around, and where protesters march with placards. Called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised… And It Won’t Be On Social Media Either, it grapples with the gritty reality of drug deals, in-your-face confrontations, guns and pimps.
Out on the street, youths sit on boxes, jump away, and preen and swagger, as the jazz poetry of The Last Poets spits out works like “Niggers are actors / Niggers act so cooool and slick / Niggers are scared of revolution.” A volatile Tristan Rodney-Stewart expresses pent-up fury the best, careening about in bold and sharply defined leaps and falls.
The anger subsides and all take to the street to protest, placards in hand, eventually smiling as they raise their fists to the air. And then the tone changes again. To the music of Donny Hathaway, Mr. Johnson appears wearing the only bright colors of the evening and takes over the stage with his imposing presence. In large and fluid movements, he captures the wistful refrains of “Someday We’ll All Be Free.”
We look forward to more work from Terrance M. Johnson Dance Project.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.