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Brownbody Flashes Back to Flash Forward

How the past, present and future converge in a performing-arts company like no other

By Jess Bellville
April 23, 2018

We’re in our second-grade classroom, blackboard at the front, windows at the rear. The first day of class, our desks are side-by-side, and we’re carefully placing our school supplies inside. We don’t know each other. But then, one of us – I can’t remember which – notices that our scissors are different. One set of green plastic Crayolas with rounded tips, one pair with purple handles and pointed tips.

We debate the differences.

Our very first conversation – our very introduction to one another – revolves around the concept of difference. One is right. The other must be wrong. But which is which?

On that day, we become friends. Forever friends. Despite our different pairs of scissors.

Flash forward.

Deneane Richburg is a woman in motion. She pilots a silver hatchback all over town, from rehearsals to board meetings, back to her apartment to dive into the fast-moving current of grant applications. She probably moves in her sleep.

She is in literal motion. As the founder and creative visionary of Brownbody, a performing arts organization that blends modern dance, theater, figure skating, storytelling and social justice, she bends, spins, extends her arms in offering.

She offers us a story. It’s called “Quiet As It’s Kept,” and it propels audiences into figurative motion, where the past cuts right through to the present like a sharp pair of scissors. The performance builds a tunnel that directly connects post-Civil War Reconstruction to the rise of Jim Crow laws before swerving into the present moment, where the residue of that ugly history still coats our experience in 2018 America.

There is a hemp rope. A rope that performer, songstress and poet Thomasina Petrus likens to our collective DNA. It suggests bondage, ownership, a violation, a history of lynching. And then she entreaties everyone in the front row to grip the rope.

Everyone in this space owns this history. By conjuring it into the present moment, we collectively make room for the stories, truths and experiences shoved to the outskirts and frequently omitted from of history’s textbook palace.

In this space, your difference is your opportunity to grapple with who you are, who you want to be, how history has given you privilege, how it’s robbed you of your voice and your sense of self.

Flash back.

Deneane and I meet for dinner. When we get together, we need a certain amount of physical space for our arms to wave around like wind turbines. And because we’re loud. We accidentally call attention to ourselves every single time.

Brownbody Performing Arts Company

Over dumplings that July night, we discuss the Black Lives Matter protest that shut down I-94 in the wake of news that the St. Anthony police officer who shot Philando Castile in July 2016 was acquitted. Almost two thousand people gathered on the freeway near the Dale Avenue exit, right on the dividing line where the historic Rondo neighborhood was sliced in half by the rerouting of I-94 in 1969.

Sitting at the table next to ours, Mr. Mustache overhears our conversation about the potent symbolism of that night’s protest and exclaims, “What a farce. I was one of those people held up in traffic. I was trying to get to a play in Minneapolis. Idiots. Take your protest somewhere else.”

Mr. Mustache thrusts his right hand forward, like he’s flicking a fly off the table.

To this day, I wonder: If Mr. Mustache held that rope in “Quiet As It’s Kept,” would he feel his own connection to the past and the present?

Or would he want to cut the rope with a sharp pair of scissors?

Flash forward.

“I wanted to flip the script and create a space where the norm was not whiteness. The norm is blackness in a space that has been traditionally dominated by whiteness.”

Growing up as a figure skater, Deneane faced a daily reminder of her difference – and when a knee injury sidelined her competitive career, she began to explore creative expression through dance and theater.

Those formative experiences inspired her to bring Brownbody to life, melding different styles of movement into something new, on a stage of ice that is both familiar and transformed. Along with the cast of performers, Deneane skates on thin, metal blades that carve fluid lines in the ice as readily as they pierce right through the surface. Her choreography harmonizes the contrast, making fluidity and a piercing insistence part of the same narrative.

Making history means something in the present.

Jess Bellville Read More
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