‘SHOT’ Fires Loud and Clear, at Police Who Take Black Lives and a Nation that Lets Them
By: R. Barron
On Wednesday, Spectrum Dance Theater kicked off a month-long festival of socially conscious performances, beginning with the provocatively named SHOT, which takes on police brutality against Black communities.
It was only when I settled in — and took in the set, and opened the program — that I realized I had seen SHOT before. But this show, in a stripped down version on a much smaller stage, is miles ahead of its predecessor in impact.
SHOT premiered just over two years ago — in January 2017 — at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The full-length dance and multimedia show, performed in a single act without intermission, is performed by Spectrum company members and choreographed by its acclaimed artistic director, Donald Byrd. That version, though held on the smaller of two main stages at the Rep, was a large-scale production: three levels of seats, a sweeping stage, audience packed with viewers, and the special effects befitting a performance at the Rep. It was intense, it was gripping and engaging, but it was still just far enough away. It hit hard. But it was at a distance.
There’s something Philadelphia-based (and Seattle-favorite) director Malika Oyetimein has talked about that always colors my view of how we experience a performance: that is the usual ability of audiences, and particularly White audiences, to witness Black pain from a distance. In contrast, Oyetimein’s work plays close, she explains, because she wants to break down that distance, that comfortable fourth wall, that barrier and breathing room that allow us as viewers to witness things happening to Black folks on stage, or screen, or life, without being deeply moved. She wants Black pain to rattle us, in real life.
Oyetimein has raised these principles in various settings, but perhaps most direct is her discussion around Hoodoo Love (Sound Theatre Co./Hansberry Project) in a 2017 interview with Seattle Weekly:
“I didn’t want an audience of white people to experience it from a distance. I wanted to set the story in your laps, I wanted to make you feel it and to make the audience be inside of the [setting]—not removed. I’m sick of people experiencing black pain and suffering from a distance.”
This version of SHOT plays in the audience’s lap. And it’s immensely powerful and potent because of it.
In creating the concept and choreography for the tragedies captured in SHOT, Byrd was inspired by the killing of Keith Lamont Scott by police in Charlotte, North Carolina. More precisely, Byrd was inspired by the response of Scott’s wife, Rakeyia Scott, just before and after her husband Keith was gunned down right in front of her. As police surrounded her husband, Mrs. Scott tried to defuse the situation; then reacted in disbelief, then anguish, then anger, as he collapsed as police fired on him. The entire time, Mrs. Scott is videotaping the exchange on her phone and telling the officers not to shoot.
As Byrd describes his response to the exchange, he notes that video, that pleading and anguished voice, emphasizes the real people behind these killings; that they are not simply news bulletins. The voice of a real human, at the scene, is one that cuts through the static and demands attention. Much like this up-close, immediate version of SHOT.
In SHOT, we see this exchange play out, again and again, live (by two dancers — Nia-Amina Minor and Mikhail Calliste — channeling Mrs. and Mr. Scott, respectively), as well as in the video backdrop. We hear the anguish, both in person from Minor, who is gripping and convincing and heartbreaking as Mrs. Scott, and in Mrs. Scott’s real voice on the tape.
Don’t shoot him
Don’t do it
Don’t you do it
He doesn’t have a gun
He better live
He better live
He better live
He better live
He better live
Repetition is a key element to the performance, and mimics Mrs. Scott’s heart-wrenching pleas in real life: repeated over and over; followed by disbelief and failing hope. It helps pierce through the immunity we as audiences have developed, or are in danger of developing, to the violence and pain that police inflict on Black communities. And it’s key to understanding and connecting that we’re in such a level of noise, in which this happens over and over and over again, that it not only fails to make the news, but too often it fails to register, personally, when it does.
The performance is stunning. From a narrative perspective, SHOT shows off a masterful ability in using dance and music to tell two parallel stories — first, that of the Scotts (deeply affecting, personal, individual), and second, that of the national landscape in which these shootings are so commonplace they’re easily drowned out in the noise (epidemic, institutional, societal). The piece never says any of that, in so many words; it never gets preachy. But it’s powerful because it shows rather than tells, and the way it shows is tragic and clear in purpose and impact.
The performance is aided by sound design and projections to great effect. SHOT is punctuated by a haunting soundscape designed by Robinson Witmer, featuring music by Jaimeo Brown and Julius Eastman, overlaid with audio from recordings by Rakeyia Scott, plus police radio and video recordings.
The staging and even costume design both accentuate the theme of the everyday. The set is a sidewalk scene, displayed merely through a white backdrop and stairs (perhaps a courthouse, occasionally a jail), which display the video projections well throughout. The costumes in the previous version were more obviously stage wear; here, the performers all wore regular clothes (or the dance pants versions thereof), which further helps break down the feeling of the staged, of theatre.
The show was performed in that blended modern-ballet-powerhouse style that is Spectrum’s hallmark. It uses a flow that keeps coming at you, fast pacing that remains thoughtful, and makes full use of the stage. It’s precise, overall, and the dancers clearly have a good rapport. There were some slight technical missteps toward the beginning — one performer a half-step behind in a trio; another appearing to be on different choreography altogether for a second — and the downside of being so close is those glitches are magnified, easy to spot. But those all faded away almost immediately, both because they got it together quickly and because the piece is so powerful that it quickly pushes them from mind.
The closeness and intensity of the piece challenges the fourth wall throughout, but Byrd breaks it entirely midway through, when he steps out from the audience onto the stage and begins to recite the 10 steps Black children must follow to keep themselves alive when approached by police. It’s his version of “the talk.” It goes on and on, in detail. (Byrd will note after the show, “When I was a kid, the talk meant something different.” Here, “the talk” is the lesson from Black parents to their children on how to act around police so as to stay alive. When polled, all Black audience members had received that talk; all non-Black members had not.)
Later in the performance, he will repeat an abbreviated version (“To recap …”). It’s greatly detailed and obviously rehearsed, like an infomercial. That and its matter-of-fact delivery again suit the larger message perfectly: this is something that society forces to be so commonplace among Black families, we have it down to a science; and the art of staying alive while Black is practically a science, too.
As a Millennial who was so over the word “woke” 10,000 uses ago, I was cold to the “Wokeness Festival” notion. But surprisingly, here it works — and that’s because Byrd here has performed an act of genius. By juxtaposing the (very, brutally) human story of Keith Lamont Scott’s death by police with the static and din of another and another and another and another and another Black body slain, Byrd is indeed forcing a wake-up. The fact that yet another Black person is slain by a “peace officer” and fails to make anyone’s news is just not right. It’s worse. It’s morally wrong, and it’s a national failing.
But then — maybe that’s how the system was designed to work. And a brief but noteworthy glimpse of performers on stage in a chain-gang formation, reminiscent of field workers as well, with blue lights flashing in the background, reminds us of the connections. From slavery to prison to police gunfire, America’s institutions have always sought to control Black bodies, Black narratives, and Black power realizations.
At the end, the performers each dance a solo — or sometimes a quartet, or once a duet — in remembrance of a Black person killed by police. The dancer says the person’s name, boldly, as it’s projected in the set’s backdrop behind them. But then something happens, gradually at first and then more obviously: the voice gets quieter, and the sound gets louder, and eventually, after some 20 names and dances, comes a barrage of names all blended together, indecipherable. Drowned out by the static and noise.
And then, in a return to an early scene, the dancers all line up in a row, a mere foot or so from the front row of the audience, hands up. And all but Minor fade back, and exit.
Read original article here