The iconic painting of six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrating a school in New Orleans deeply resonated with local dancer and choreographer Afua Hall. Her upcoming performance titled Red will explain why.
The theatrical dance presentation will be showcased on three weekends, from June 28 through July 13, as part of the Sandbox Series at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores. Featuring a duet with local dancer Elana Lanczi and a host of music and spoken word collaborators, Hall uses movement and mixed media elements to create a dialogue about the often elusive topic of race.
Distinguishing Red as a dance-theater performance, Hall explains that the 50-minute show has "more physical theater moments that tell a story and cause the audience to think in different ways than a traditional dance performance."
A Jamaican-born dancer and New World School of the Arts graduate, Hall considers Red a gift to Ruby Bridges, whom she's never met, but whose image was seared in Hall's mind. She discovered the print of the painting "The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell ten years ago while browsing through a card shop in Harlem. In 1960, Bridges was the first African-American to enroll at her all-white elementary school. The rendering of a young Bridges being led to school by federal marshals reflects parts of Hall's own story.
A black immigrant, raised by her mother and hippie, Anglo-American stepfather, Hall's life has been somewhat of an anomaly. Emigrating from Jamaica to Chicago or "to foreign" as they say on the island, was an early departure from the norm. Hall attended boarding schools in Jamaica and France. And her family eventually relocated to South Miami, where she says few black families reside.
Hall, who studied dance since the age of two, moved to New York after graduating from New World in 2000. After stints with Philadanco and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD), Hall returned to Miami with her small son, and for the past seven years has been rooted in community arts and cultural programs. The 34-year-old has taught dance in local outreach programs and presented choreographies at various shows. But her affinity for Bridges' story grew stronger and eventually compelled her to create Red.
She discussed some highlights and inspirations:
New Times: Explain some of the elements of the show.
Afua Hall: It's set in the center's small black box theater. It's very intimate. Lanczi plays [opposite] my character in it. At times we take on different characters in the Ruby Bridges story. There is one part where Lanczi plays Bridges' teacher Mrs. [Barbara] Henry, who is Ruby Bridges' only friend, and I am portraying Bridges in a brief moment. In other moments we're just being ourselves and grappling with the story in today's times.
We really transform the venue into this alternate reality. There are different parts in there that represent different themes ... from my research and talking with people. There are spoken word elements in it that are stream of consciousness-based but also provide context. Then there is original music by AJ Hill, who's a horn player with the Spam Allstars and he's writing an original score for it.
Can you elaborate on your initial encounter with Ruby Bridges' story?
I was looking for a birthday present for my dad and this was when I was living in Harlem. So I'm on 125th Street. I see the Norman Rockwell print and there was this little black girl who was being led to school and there was something that I connected with. It felt like it was me and my dad in some way.
From there, what finally compelled you to develop Red?
Fast forward to two years ago and I'm at the Flamingo Plaza thrift store. I'm looking for books for my son and I come across this little pink-colored book called The Story of Ruby Bridges and I thought, "This is the same person? She really does exist?" I was confronted by my own ignorance.
I have been really interested in character -riven pieces. There is a part of me that loves abstract, formal dance pieces. But at this age, my next step as a performer is to go into dance theater. And I've been looking for ways to do that. ... So that was in the back of my mind. But I had this previous connection to the painting. Then I see the book. And [Bridges'] married last name is Hall, which is my last name.
What other similarities do you share with Ruby Bridges?
There are definitely some parallels. Like, in the neighborhood where I'm from, South Miami, I think we were one of the only mixed families ... where the train tracks still divide the black side from the white side. Not to put South Miami on blast, but I definitely felt that way when we first moved there. Also being a Jamaican immigrant, there are these expectations that you get to come "to foreign." And I think with [Bridges] there were expectations of her that, "Oh, you get to go to an all-white school, which was a huge privilege." I think I really connected to that as a child.
What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
I realized that I didn't know anything about the history and how recent it was. I hope people get that from it. Especially here in South Florida where it's so diverse, especially for immigrants, I feel that it's important for us to know the history of this country that we live in. ... Then I do want people to come enjoy it as a great piece of art.
Red runs June 28, 29 and July 5, 6 and 12, 13 at 8 p.m. at the Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; tickets $20; 305-751-9550; [email protected].
--Kai T. Hill, artburstmiami.com