Cal Performances Donald Byrds Spectrum Dance 6 Tino Tran

Spectrum Dance Theater: A Rap on Race – Jazz, Dance, Theater + Conversation!

Above: Pictured: Spectrum Dance Theater Company Dancers Jaclyn Wheatley and Davione Gordon. Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Rap on Race Friday–Saturday, February 9–10, 2018. (credit: Tino Tran)

Pictured: Julie Briskman as Margaret Mead and Donald Byrd as James Baldwin, with Spectrum Dance Theater Company Dancers. Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Rap on Race (credit: Tino Tran)

Spectrum Dance Theater presented A Rap on Race February 9 – 10, 2018 at Metro Operahouse, Oakland, produced by Cal Performances as part of their Berkeley RADICAL – Joining Generations programming strand. Co-created by two renowned award winning artists – Donald Byrd, executive artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, and Anna Deavere Smith, actor and writer- the production as choreographed and directed by Byrd is a weave of dance and acting. The theme is based on an epic recorded seven and a half  hour conversation in 1970 about race in America between white anthropologist Margaret Mead and African-American novelist James Baldwin.

Pictured: Spectrum Dance Theater Company Dancers Alex Crozier and Madison Oliver​.
Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Rap on Race Friday–Saturday, February 9–10, 2018. (credit: Tino Tran)

First off the set is fascinating! A raised platform with an academic’s study of a table, desk, chairs and piles of books on it is supported by four stained glass look pillars with abstract shape books outlined and beautifully lit in blue then changing to other hues (Lighting & scenic design by Jack Mehler). The ensemble of thirteen dancers fills the stage with dynamic movement based on Byrd’s interpretation of 60s – 70s jazz dance. They dance as a large group and break off into partnering. Often the choreography is different for every couple placed around the stage and even under the platform. Charles Mingus’ very engaging music The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady sets the tone and is a highlight of the production.  Wearing variations of black leotards the dancers perform dramatic turns and lifts,  with ,intertwined and outstretched legs,  fast evolving jazz dance motifs with outstanding deep back bends, snappy changes of position, arabesques, and balances. A sultry solo is memorable for the focus and projection of her emotive character with feline grace, several duets show different relationship struggles and joy, while dancers appear as fast as they disappear – expressing the mood of the text.

Pictured: Spectrum Dance Theater Company Dancer Alexis “Tilly” Evans-Krueger​.
Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Rap on Race  (credit: Tino Tran)

Mead played by Kathryn Van Mete and Baldwin played by Byrd seated high on the small platform speak the text from the conversation in short scenes alternated with dances. At first the conversation is stilted – with very loud volume for much of the show – but the two actors do find a rhythm and slight arc that allows Van Mete’s energetic and all-knowing Mead to find another side to her character, patiently drawn out by Byrd’s intellectual and warm Baldwin who is a great listener and matches Mead later. Topics in the text include among others, how touching a person means different things in cultures, New Guinea and taxes, Martin Luther King, and the relationship of black men and their mothers.

Pictured: Spectrum Dance Theater Company Dancer Fausto Rivera​.
Spectrum Dance Theater performs A Rap on Race (credit: Tino Tran)

The Spectrum dancers are fluid and exciting, punctuating Mingus’s astounding music with turns, counter balances and jumps and some visceral sinewy push-pull moves. The dance quality is very good throughout and the ensemble dances near the end are wonderful. There are sightline limitations in this venue, especially when dancers are at a low level near the floor, so the remedy is to sit near the front. A Rap on Race is an interesting contemporary dance theatre piece based on Mead and Baldwin’s riveting conversation. This is an excellent opportunity for new audiences to discover the work of both Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. The production is entertaining, but much more than that – it disseminates  important information and challenges with different points of view and opinions – providing plenty of grist for discussions and reflection by everyone seeing the show!

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Jo Tomalin, Ph.D. reviews Dance, Theatre & Physical Theatre Performances
Member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
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Jo TomalinOriginally from England Jo Tomalin is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a reviewer for Dance & Theatre at www.ForAllEvents.com and works in the performing arts as a freelance movement & voice specialist, director + actor. She is also a Professor in the School of Theatre & Dance at San Francisco State University, teaching Movement for actors, Voice, Storytelling, Business of Acting and Acting and directs. Jo Tomalin studied Classical Ballet for 12 years. She graduated from London University's Laban Centre teaching credential program in Modern Dance, Art of Movement & Choreography, then she trained in Physical Theatre, Masks, and Devised theatre at the renowned professional acting school "Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq" Paris, France. She also studied Classical Acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London; and Voice and Acting at Trinity College of Dramatic Art, London. Jo Tomalin is a member of: American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).View all posts by Jo Tomalin →