By: JAY LUSTIG | February 11, 2022
Donald Byrd’s dance/theater piece “Strange Fruit,” which debuted in 2019, depicts racially motivated mob violence as a relentless force. There are moments of peace and comfort in it, but the brutal mob always reassembles and continues to wreak havoc. For the long-suffering dancers at the center of “Strange Fruit,” there is no escape.
Since 2019, the world has, sadly, made “Strange Fruit” seem even more timely. Even during the pandemic — and, in some ways, maybe because of it — the forces of oppression and blind adherence to hateful leaders have become even more omnipresent. And so now seems like a perfect time to mount “Strange Fruit” again, as the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University is doing at the Kasser Theater, through Feb. 13.
The production features Byrd’s Seattle-based Spectrum Dance Theater. Singer Josephine Howell was supposed to accompany them, performing gospel songs, but is unavailable due to COVID. So a recording of her was used instead, and still added essential emotional texture.
The gospel music was heard during segments featuring dancers Davione Gordon and Nile Alicia Ruff (as The Man and The Woman, according to the program) that usually also featured Nia-Amina Minor as a mysterious, spiritually nurturing character identified in the program as She Who Sees. These scenes came across as respites from the violence of the other scenes, where nine (literally) faceless dancers — their heads were completely covered by white fabric — hounded them, often moving around the stage with mechanical precision. Their clean, efficient, sometimes awkwardly jerking steps contrasted sharply with the more graceful movements of the other three dancers. (The music for these segments was not gospel, but intentionally chilly instrumental music.)
The heartbreaking ending did not come as a surprise. “Strange Fruit” is, of course, a song about lynching that became a jazz standard (though it is not used in this production). In Jack Mehler’s simple but evocative scenic design, a large tree loomed at the back of the stage, and screens showed limbs of trees with rope hanging from them, or vintage black and white photos that rooted the show in American history.
Though “Strange Fruit” is, on one level, about lynching, it’s more than that: It’s really about living with the threat of violence. There is no escape, ever, for the characters played by Gordon and Ruff. The rhythm that Byrd creates, layering peaceful scenes between violent ones, suggests that any sense of safety they may feel is an illusion: The threat is always there, right around the corner.
Byrd is quoted in the program as saying “Rather than a typical ‘post-show’ experience, the talkback, in this case, is an integral part of ‘Strange Fruit.’ ” This was underscored by the fact that after the piece ended, the house lights at the Kasser Theater stayed off, and no one moved. After a few minutes of silence, Thomas F. DeFrantz, a professor at Northwestern University, came onstage and gave a lecture, for about 15-minutes, about the history of lynching, the dance world’s other depictions of it, and more. Byrd and Minor then joined him for a discussion and question-and-answer session.
All together, this took about 40 minutes, which was more or less as long as “Strange Fruit” itself lasted. But I agree with Byrd that it was integral to the whole experience. With any piece of art that deals with disturbing subject matter, a period of time is necessary to digest what has been seen. And “Strange Fruit” depicts one of the most horrible things imaginable. It felt like Byrd was offering a ray of hope by inviting the audience to process it together, in this somewhat comforting way.