Many would prefer to forget Richmond's involvement in the slave trade. An inglorious past, some believe, is best left alone. Few historical markers point to this somber period of history, except for modest signs such as the metal plaque embedded in the stone wall near Main Street Station. Forgetting the past is not an option for choreographer Ron K. Brown, who will perform with his eight-member company, Evidence, to close the Virginia Museum's Fast/Forward series on Saturday, June 2.
To the contrary, Brown, a Brooklyn resident with family from Virginia and North Carolina, firmly believes that it is pivotal to find out who we are, to learn the stories of our past, and to create memorials to heal past wounds. Brown emphasizes the strengths achieved in the face of adversity. He calls it "self-determination."
"What did it take to survive slavery?" he asks. "What is this belief about a better life, to pick up and move North or into heaven?" Brown reminds youth preoccupied with the allure of owning a cell phone and wearing designer clothes about the dream his people held in the face of incredible odds. "By sharing culture and stories, that's how we learn about our ancestors," he says. "We learn how to treat people and how to operate in the world. There's an entire generation missing out on that."
Brown works frequently with troubled black youth. He says they "lack faith in a dream. They have an inability to see what their choices are. It becomes apparent to me that they don't understand where they come from." He challenges them with questions such as, "Do you think there's any connection between your not wanting to read and your ancestors not being allowed to read?"
Such social concerns appear in his newest work, "High Life," eight vignettes that cover the northward migration from the South in the early 1900s, with a parallel to West Africans leaving their villages for the city. The dance starts with the slave auction block and moves into juke joints where patrons wear fashionable suits. Like Brown's previous work, this piece follows a nonlinear narrative and fuses African dance with modern forms such as hip-hop and ballet to create a folkloric mix that has come to define Brown's style. Voice-overs include words by Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes, and music by James Brown and Fela Kuti Anakulapo, among others.
"Walking out the Dark" and "Upside Down" will also be included in the show, works that similarly address Brown's concerns with black identity.
With a critically acclaimed company, periodic trips to Africa, a constant habit of reading literature and listening to music, and a dream of creating an arts center in Brooklyn, Brown has succeeded in "self-determination" for himself. "Highlife"and the other vibrant works in his repertoire come as an artful offering to bear witness to one's history as a way to embrace the present more
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