It started with a not uncommon conversation: What’s your favorite curse word? Family members and friends went around in a circle and proclaimed the usual shits, damns, and bitches to laughter and nodding. But when motherfucker was proudly exclaimed, the energy shifted. An uncle (who, conveniently, is also a professor) took a moment to drop a little bit of knowledge about the history behind this beloved curse.
“It’s not enough that we have this tainted history of slavery, but then to find out that there were breeding plantations,” said T. Lang, artistic director of T. Lang Dance Company, during my interview with her for last week’s ARTSpeak. “He told us that at these plantations the owners would seek out men and women from the Mandingo tribe, because of their size and stature. It did not matter if these slaves were blood relations.”
This left-out-of-the-textbooks history lesson ended with the inspiration for Mother/Mutha, a powerful display of movement that will continue the conversation her uncle began. The dance performance debuted at The Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard on Thursday, June 7, 2012, to a sold-out crowd.
The mixture of old and new, historical and modern, was intertwined from location to content. As the sun set through the old factory windows and shed light on the projection screen, the sound of auctioneers, whips, and voice-overs set the tone. Stone faced, bright red, glitter-lipped dancers (Jacquelle Blythe, Stefanie Boettle, Dawn Axam, Crystal Bogan, Trina Bordere, Morgan Hawkins, Deborah Hughes, and Nicole Kedaroe) walked single file onto the stage as if readying for sale. Wearing all nude tones, the dancers began and crossed the floor with movements depicting the historical aspects of this performance.
Kara Walker’s influence through her silhouettes was clear. The physicality was controlled but fluid from their fingers to their toes. The splaying of their digits and the exaggerated arched backs portrayed an antebellum portrait with a new-age edge. The facial expressions made the audience aware of struggle, kindness, and camaraderie and sometimes ended with over-pursed kissy faces—thus furthering the understanding of this battle to be more than an image, more than a body, more than just a doll.
Hard labor and endurance, both physical and mental, was evident throughout. But the images that lasted each section of the hour-length work were of forced sexuality. Whether it was the rape of slave owners or the perverse images from rap videos, the message was clear: the standards that have been set for a woman’s worth, historically and in our current times, are no longer accepted. Women are turning the tables.
Part of the power of this thought-provoking work comes from the sisterhood resulting from this ongoing struggle. As a woman, even though I am a white woman, I am conscious of the inequality and constant sexualization of women through means of capitalism. It crosses racial lines, age demographics, and fields of study.
Although they didn’t represent the room as a whole, I was surprised by the reactions of some audience members sitting near me, mostly male. While art often deals with nudity, sexuality, and other topics that sometimes render taboo censoring or uncomfortable feelings, audience members are usually trusted to respond maturely and look at the work as a whole. Artists hope that the focus and lingering impact will not be the one aspect that might have caused reactions some weren’t ready to deal with.
During the performance, images were projected onto a screen. While introducing the next round of movement, video of vaginal birth was front and center proclaiming the birth of a girl, followed by flashes of toddlers in tiaras and rap videos using women as props. Operatic renditions of songs such as Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” sung by KEXA and Ann Marie McPhail, played into this idea of women as things and fueled the next sequence of dance.
Just as complicated as past beliefs of what it means to be a woman, the current day trends and ideologies shown on the screen and on stage proved that men are not the only ones to blame for the state of diminished worth. The people surrounding the tiny girls in full make-up and spandex outfits were women. The recording artists taking advantage of this over-sexed state are women. Not only was Mother/Mutha a mockery of stereotypes and the female as an object, it was a full commentary of what needs to be changed.
The language of the dance was suggestive, hard hitting, and, in the end, the only thing that mattered. The extras, projections, sound, and imagery were the putty that held the mixture of elegant lines, extensions, and carnal grinds together. With issues like gender roles, racial tensions, and historical grievances, there is bound to be a little uneasiness. These are topics that we skirt; we pull the veil down and pretend we are all okay. T. Lang successfully merged the old and new to form an evening-length work that held its audience’s attention.
Click here for more photographs by Dylan York documenting Mother/Mutha at BURNAWAY’s Flickr page.