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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Urban Bush Women presents Hair & Other Stories Dec 1-3, 2023, Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley

Urban Bush Women (UBW) is celebrating its 40th Anniversary with a visit to CAL Performances Zellerbach Playhouse, on the UC Berkeley campus Dec 1-3, 2023.  The program, Hair & Other Stories, is quintessentially UBW fare, participatory dance theater crafted to create awareness of and liberation from the racist societal constraints of American life.

As music thumps from the speakers, the theater bubbles with energy. The audience is vastly female and racially diverse, at least by Berkeley standards, where repertory theater audiences can be almost entirely white and notably older. Twenty teens from a Santa Cruz dance school take their seats around me.  They are the ideal audience to be inspired by the stories on stage.  This is a place of empowerment and enlightenment and seeing these young people participating fully in any invitation to rise, clap, or sing is heartening.  To my eye, the young women who identify as Black and Brown become VIPs within their cohorts and answer with the most enthusiasm during the call and response sequences.   

In a long sleeveless coat over modern-day pants and top, a figure enters, crouched with hands on knees. Drawing on the shapes of traditional African dance, her humming grows to long notes summoning another to the stage.  Rubbing magical hands over a small table with its objects of haircare, a blessing occurs.

UBW’s talented troupe of seven have stories to tell.  But first they must connect the audience with the imperative of creating change. Disabusing us of notions of passive receptivity, they enlist us in the journey we shall take together for these two hours and hopefully well beyond.  Turning to our neighbors, five hundred strong, we espouse to one another, “You don’t have to leave the same way ya come.”

Nappy black hair and the kitchen, defined both as the most difficult to groom patch of hair at the nape of the neck, as well as the place where generations of Black girls and women have gathered to do hair, is the topic du jour. Calling their black and brown sisters to rise, prayerful acknowledgement is made of all the negative images that have come their way. UBW’s leaders then reframe those wiry natural hair coils as gravity defying, resilient, resistant, and beautiful.  I join the white women asked to stand. Arms lifted, reaching across seats toward each other, we are told that in order to create a movement we are going to need to stretch.

The stage comes alive with dancers striding collectively to the corners of the space. Thrusting arms with fingers pointed to the beyond, they promise we shall go with our hair as the ticket.  The screeching audience is as receptive as any traveling preacher might desire.

Cal Performances presents Urban Bush Women: Hair & Other Stories, December 1–3, 2023, at Zellerbach Playhouse; Photo: Roesing Ape

Narratives, videos, tableaus, and dances tell the tales of excruciating hair taming sessions, fried hair, burnt ears. Stories of destructive discrimination and self-judgement, driven by insidious colorism and texturism from within and without the Black community, are told. While the kinship of hours spent bonding and styling is recalled lovingly.  Recalling activators and relaxers of old, leads to a reenactment of the fanciful long flowing hair girls attained by adding a skirt or a towel to one’s head. The performers speak the truth, shining light on damaging stereotypes around race and what constitutes beauty.

The cast includes a white man with long ginger hair. In a simplistic physicalizing of the difficulties of fighting racism, he pushes against the proscenium wall. Despite switching positions to use arms, feet, and back, progress is unattainable.  UBW uses humor well to release tension and the gals note he resembles a cross between English pop star Ed Sheeran and White-Jesus with his long tresses.

“Hair Hell Moment” vignettes feature a black woman in an elevator full of white people who regard her natural hair with exoticizing, objectifying, fascination. Next, she bears the internalized racism and judgmental reactions of an elevator full of other Black people. The final words on the subject “Don’t Touch My Hair,” are delivered emphatically by seven-year-old Aminata Mariama Speis-Top (daughter of UBW Co-Artistic Director and performer Mama Diarra Speis), whose toddler sister makes several cameos as well.

Systemic racism is the broth in which all Americans are stewed, regardless of our skin tone, gender, class, or hometown.  Dismantling racism and liberating ourselves is an ongoing process, and requires the attention and intention of all.  Our UBW facilitators promise us a safe space, but cautions that safe should not be confused with comfortable.

Stepping with large arcing gathering arms, the dancers “make space for when the shit gets real.” They run, kick, and roll accompanied by the music’s heaving drumbeat. A cacophony of manmade noises contrasts the physical stillness assumed as the performers face each other in diagonal lines, united. Frozen and isolated in squares of light, they slowly thaw. Flickering fingers progress to trembling thighs and quaking shoulders as they exit separately in song.

Cal Performances presents Urban Bush Women: Hair & Other Stories, December 1–3, 2023, at Zellerbach Playhouse; Photo: Alec Himwich

In the second act, the optimystical performers of Hair & Other Stories use prompts from the audience to create a liberation train to move us toward freedom.  Like a locomotive, the dancers defined arm-pumps match their “chugga-chugga choo-choo” vocals.

A series of charismatic solos unfold. Initially, an otherworldly fog-scape accompanies the bootie shaking, hip swirling sorcery of Queen Super Duper Fly. As she struts off, a ritual cleansing begins. Speis, isolated in a pool of light, rhythmically brushes her hands down her abdomen and away from her thighs, while chanting purging phrases like: “to wash,” “to sanitize,” “to purify.”  Radiating out from her others join, scrubbing the floor and vigorously rubbing Speis’s limbs.

A stately figure in a top hat commands our attention. In the center of a rollicking group dance, she is wrapped in the words of liberation, scribed by a castmate onto brown paper. With the fervency of revivalists, the dancers work to “decolonize their joy” through their jumping, grasping efforts. Arms raised in solidarity; the whole intergeneration cast participates. Demonstrating their commitment to the journey, they maintain their lifted-arm-postures for an uncomfortably long time. Fist-pumping, jazz-handing and pogoing toward a new day on the horizon they go.

I had the privilege to see UBW in Houston last month, in their role as the ancestral movement chorus of Jake Heggie’s opera, Intelligence. Dancing throughout, they were the integral spiritual center of the opera, so today’s directorial choice to spend so much time speaking here was disappointing.

Though dance did have a stronger role in the second act, the reductive and redundant delivery of the first act’s Hair Stories sections, made the show feel overly long to me. However, every audience’s and every person’s journey is unique.  Around me the young people seem energized.  Berkeley appears to be the final stop for Hair & Other Stories, as UBW’s website shows their new Legacy + Lineage + Liberation production touring the East Coast extensively next Spring.

Review by Jen Norris, published December 5, 2023.

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