In 2019, artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh painted a mural of a Black man with emotive eyes, a flower, and the words "Let Black men be soft" at the corner of Bedford and Hancock in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. The work had the whole community talking as soon as it was unveiled. For performance artist and choreographer Shamel Pitts, the art begat a necessary conversation around the constriction placed on Black men's experience and expression.
"I was very struck by that mural. Whenever I'd come home to Bed-Stuy, the mural would be different because people who lived there would deface it. They put white paint over the text and the face. It was touching, alarming, inspiring, and saddening," Pitts recalls. "The artist received emails that there's no space for Black men to be soft because softness means weakness, or to let Black men be."
Pitts kept this mural — and the flood of responses it received — close to his heart as he created Touch of RED
, a live performance event coming to the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores November 3-5. Presented by Miami Light Project in partnership with YoungArts, Pitts' work with the Brooklyn-based arts collective Tribe utilizes dance and movement paired with animations, soundscape, and scenography to create an immersive world perhaps few audience members have experienced before.
"With Touch of RED
, I tried to create a space where we as Black men — and me as a Black queer man — get to be soft and have that be met with qualities of empowerment," he says. "I've always felt like a bit of an outlier with my sensitivity, softness, and vulnerability. No longer did I want to deny myself space to express the many thoughts that lie within me."
Touch of RED
audiences will peer from all four sides of the stage into a "voyeuristic, futuristic entertainment space" featuring two men in a ring, but the end goal is anything but a knockout.
"When I'd come home to Brooklyn, I would always see boxing on TV. I never understood the appeal of watching two men, often of color, beat the crap out of each other," he says. "I became intrigued by the boxers' partnership and those blurred moments where it's unclear if they're wrestling with each other or embracing one another. I wanted to create other components of a boxing match but a match not about winning or losing. For the two in the ring, there would be a softening into themselves through the intrigue and space they created together. What would be the value to others of a match of that sort?"
Shamel Pitts was inspired to create Touch of RED after witnessing the conversation sparked by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's 2019 mural "Let Black Men Be Soft" in Brooklyn.
Photo by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
In Touch of RED
, Pitts — whose practice embraces the Gaga-movement language founded by his colleague, Batsheva Dance Company house choreographer Ohad Naharin — dances a duet with South African and New York City-based movement artist Tushrik Fredericks. Fredericks says this performance raises important issues that require as much presence and patience as they do playfulness.
"Touch of RED
challenges stigmas that have been placed onto us, specifically BIPOC men, and allows us to make space for ourselves and others with multiple ways of existing within a relationship or partnership, as well as within the world," Fredericks says. "With this, there is a responsibility to be sensitive. My performance requires me to be fully present with Shamel, the space, and myself inside the ring. This presence is made up of vulnerability, honesty, and playfulness. There is also a closeness in proximity with our bodies throughout this work that feels intentional inside of this duet and requires trust, patience, and communication."
Pitts, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow who began his dance studies simultaneously at the Ailey School and the LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, serves as creator, director, and performer in Touch of RED
. He finds strength and inspiration in his responsibility to integrate each aspect of this production into a seamless work of art, and he feels grateful to work with his collaborators in Tribe, the Afrofuturistic arts collective he founded in 2019.
"I'm wearing many hats, or maybe just one hat that's very decorative and very heavy," Pitts says. "I love allowing each artist's vision to be fully pronounced while sensing the context in which these choices are made. After performances, I watch recordings to learn what happened and to better communicate the next day with all collaborators. What I love about live performance and the labor ahead of birthing a new work is that we never know what it will be. Once it is born, it tells you what it needs to thrive."
Touch of RED
features projections, animation, original soundscape, and scenography by MacArthur Fellow Mimi Lien. The second work in Pitts' "RED Series" following the short-form art film Lake of RED
, the performance continues Tribe's mission of cultivating spaces and multidisciplinary experiences in which Black and Brown bodies are humanized, and their unique multiplicities are recognized and honored.
"Touch of RED challenges stigmas that have been placed onto us, specifically BIPOC men, and allows us to make space for ourselves and others," Fredricks says.
Photo by the Adeboye Brothers
"The Afrofuturism movement and philosophy has a premise of telling new stories and creating a future that is different and shines more luminously from its past. There are so many stories untold. As futurists, all of our collaborators have tried to be present at this moment and take responsibility in moving us forward," Pitts explains. "How can we protect each other? Create space with one another? And create forward movement? What would it look like if we dreamed big, freely, wildly, and courageously without being burdened by our past individual experiences or the history at large?"
Fredericks hopes Touch of RED
audiences leave the performance understanding that "a punch can also be as light as a feather." Pitts says the performance-art piece invites audiences to experience a night at the Miami Theater Center in the way that feels truest to them, regardless of social mores around attending art events.
"Creating and sharing art is a lesson, a challenge, and a gift. Hopefully, there are lessons to uncover through art. I'm just excavating — I'm not trying to preach or teach. Hopefully, through Touch of RED
, we can share spaces where people can be their whole selves," Pitts says.
"Audiences of all genders and identities, and especially African-American and queer communities, who, because of otherness, have been marginalized and dehumanized, have not been able to participate in this world fully. If we consider people's uniqueness and individuality, there's space for everyone in this human experience. Hopefully, we'll gain more understanding of our complexity and more intrigue into our differences so that next time we encounter a difference, instead of creating a wall, we create a bridge."
Touch of RED. 8 p.m. Thursday, November 3, through Saturday, November 5, at Miami Theater Center, 9806 NE Second Ave., Miami Shores; youngarts.org. Tickets cost $25 to $30 via eventbrite.com.