Reflections on Camille A. Brown and ‘BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play’ at Jacob’s Pillow

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By Saturday, Aug 12 Arts & Entertainment
Camille A. Brown's 'BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play' at Jacob's Pillow opens in front of a chalk board. Illustration by Carolyn Newberger

Becket — As the house lights dim, a spotlight rests on a seated figure, fedora on her head, picking out slow, thoughtful bluesy lines on bass guitar. The stage is dominated by a chalkboard, on which the doodles of childhood are displayed. One can imagine a child, fat colored chalks in hand, drawing the stars, flowers, shapes, clouds and a peace symbol on a city sidewalk, waiting for her friend to emerge from a nearby doorway, ready to play. 

In front of the chalkboard on a large box-like platform, one notices a figure, dancer/choreographer Camille A. Brown, in sneakers, cut-off jeans, a loose orange top and an extravagant topknot, contemplating the images. She is reflected in one of many mirrors overhead, tilted in various angles from the ceiling, illuminating pieces of the stage. She begins to dance, slowly at first, with tentative steps, gradually loosening and expanding into her body, taking us through those mirrors back into the childhood of the chalkboard. Then suddenly, her playmate, dancer Catherine Foster, explodes onto the stage to join her.

We are in the world of Black girl friendship, full of the complex languages of their play, rhythms, hair, voice and gestures of gangly limbs.  The dance unfolds in solo and duo vignettes, reminiscent of separate tracks on a blues LP, or of Modest Mussorgsky’s great tone poem, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” where the listener is taken through a gallery, each painting evoking a new musical portrait.

Catherine Foster in 'BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play.' Illustration by Carolyn Newberger

Catherine Foster in ‘BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play.’ Illustration by Carolyn Newberger

These were dance portraits, each telling smaller and larger stories, simultaneously personal, cultural and universal. Evoking memories of our diverse girlhoods, steeped in the rituals and rhythms of the games, we saw

  • two girls playing Double Dutch;
  • girls smacking each others’ palms in complicated rhythms;
  • girls challenging each other through words and movements;
  • two girls gossiping about a third.

In one especially memorable vignette we witness a young girl’s sexual awakening. Chloe Davis, carefully coiffed, in fitted jeans and halter top, tried on sinewy, seductive poses. Then an irrepressible Beatrice Capote bounced into the scene in a short pleated skirt, braids flying, still a clueless child.  Both the charged subject matter and the dance itself expressed the narrative of girls at play: competition, connection, aggression, reconnection and development.

For a delightful taste of the highlights of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, please watch the video below.

 

 

 

As this video shows, there’s even a larger story being told here: the dance and the narratives it depicts are not only about girlhood in general, but Black girlhood in particular. Both the spoken and the danced languages brilliantly deploy the vernacular, African elements, African-American hop-hop, syncopation, break dance, tap, and call-and-response with supple, full-bodied movement in sneakered feet. In one moving moment, Ms. Brown’s stunning, graceful arms undulated in the astounding gesture of “Revelations,” Alvin Ailey’s brilliant, breakthrough work on the humanity, pain and joy of African American history and experience.

In this performance, the suffusion of African rhythms and jazz riffs offered in real time improvisation on the musical frameworks composed by pianist Scott Patterson with Electric Bassist Robin Bramlett deepened the awareness and context of Blackness.

Ms. Brown, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in 2016, speaks movingly of her inspiration for “BLACK GIRLS: Linguistic Play” in the video below.

 

 

In her “Pillow Notes” in the printed program, Ms. Brown salutes Kyra Gaunt’s book, The Games Black Girls Play. Gaunt, who was present for the performance, led her to think about both the culture and the innocence of her childhood, before she began to be influenced by how others defined her.

Camille A. Brown. Illustration by Carolyn Newberger

Camille A. Brown. Illustration by Carolyn Newberger

This work is a celebration of the joys, the community, and the integrity of Ms. Brown’s girlhood, gazing back from her adult perspective. Through the mirrors, the emotional kaleidoscope of the music, and the choreography and inspired dancing on the stage, we were brought into Camille Brown’s personal and cultural experience as we reconnected with our own. Ms. Brown describes this work as a gift to herself and Black girls everywhere.   Surely, it is a gift to all of us!


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