Black & White

Two Arts Groups Cross the Color Line Creatively

On an unseasonably warm night in March, people are gathering at an old pink house in the shadow of I-35 in East Austin. A gentle breeze blows through the open doors and windows. The dining table is spread with casseroles and macaroni dishes. The gathering is composed mostly of white artists, although some black neighbors drift in from 13th Street. The talk is mostly of food: which dishes are vegetarian, who made the chicken casserole. Two black girls, twins from the neighborhood, sing songs they have made up themselves, then pass around a collection jar. Later, in the darkening front parlor, the heads of two performing arts groups sit down to discuss a new work. Two are white, two are black. Three are men and one is a woman. Two are reserved, two are boisterous. The dynamics of these four people in this one room will reflect strongly on the new work they are creating. Darla Johnson/Andrew Long & Company, a white multimedia dance group based in Austin, and the Los Angeles-based black men's theatre company, The Hittite Empire, are working on a lengthy collaboration. "Planning, for some people," says Andrew Long, "is sitting down in a room to have a discussion. For us, it's sharing a meal together." This process of living and working together to learn each others' cultural references will culminate in a theatrical work tentatively titled A Fuse Burning At Two Ends, a look at racial issues and how we deal with them.

"You take a light bulb for granted," says Joel Talbert, Hittite movement director and so-called company warlord, "but someone had to sit down and think it into being. We're approaching this in a new form. How do we talk about the issues of race without using any of the old language? We're talking about building a new language here and new images to explore racism."

The Hittites and Johnson/Long at first seem unlikely co-creators. Johnson/Long is known for its thoughtful, evening-length works combining post-modern dance, text, and visual sets, pieces that provoke commentary on global issues such as the acclaimed 9 Chains to the Moon, based on writings by Buckminster Fuller; The Untouched Key, inspired by Alice Miller; and, most recently, Walking On Water, an examination of issues of faith and spirituality. The Hittite Empire, on the other hand, uses `performance ritual' as a means of breaking down black male silence, which Mason calls "the number one killer of black men in this country." Taking its name from a conquering society in what is today Turkey, this collective of African-American male artists creates works that are at times ritualistic, at times caustically comic, at times loud and abrasive. The Hittites have been criticized for being too explicit and graphically violent while simultaneously being lauded by the white arts world. Hittite founder Keith Antar Mason was once described in the press as "out-Spiking Spike Lee."

The incongruity of these collaborators makes itself apparent even in their informal chat after dinner. Both Mason and Talbert are physically impressive in size, at least compared to the white dancers. They are also fairly loud. Mason, at times sarcastic, has deep penetrating eyes that can be both intimidating and beautiful. Long and Johnson are rather reserved, with Johnson, a talented choreographer most comfortable expressing herself through dance, being the most subdued. Her opposite is Talbert, who prefers the title "movement director" to "choreographer." He is by far the most vocal, most irreverent of the four -- the jester -- but his sometimes sexist remarks to Johnson sound more like the teasing of a big brother than an angry black man.

Personal differences aside, these artists share a similar outlook regarding their work. All have grounded their groups in community activism and youth education. They are interested in art not for art's sake alone but for its ability to challenge and change the world in which they live. And although their finished works differ -- one is loud, radical, and text-driven, the other fluid, thoughtful, and music/dance-driven -- their creative processes are amazingly similar, a fact they discovered when the artistic heads met two years ago at an Atlanta festival by Alternate ROOTS (Regional Organizations of Theatre South).

"We hit it off great at ROOTS," says Mason of the first meeting with Johnson and Long. "So we wondered what would happen if we got our whole companies together." The two groups joined forces for a brief residency in Houston this past November, during which members of the respective companies tried working together and laid some groundwork for Fuse. Mason reports the artists' reactions as, "`Wow, that worked better than we thought,' so now we're getting serious about planning this project." Mason and Talbert were invited to Austin in March for a series of workshops and classes.

Johnson/Long company member Kate Warren found the workshops fascinating if not a little intimidating. "They were in your face all the time," says Warren. "In the improv classes, you have to walk backward and count out loud but be in sync with your partner. They do this with gang members because it quiets the brain, it's a way to get them to concentrate and focus instead of using relaxation techniques."

While the two companies have begun their collaboration in earnest, they believe it will be at least three years before the piece they're creating together makes it to a stage. "Oh, if someone gave us $100,000 tomorrow, we'd all just get on [a] plane and put it together," laughs Mason. The physical distance separating the two companies and the lack of funding sources for the creative process itself are serious obstacles in their path. "The hardest part of this project," says Long, "is making the funders understand the importance of the creative process." The City of Austin, the Texas Commission on the Arts, and National Performance Network are all investing some money in Fuse. The companies are applying to the Mid-American Arts Alliance and the Getty Foundation for funding, and presenting organizations around the country are keeping an eye on the work. There is a definite buzz about the collaboration, this look at racism by a black group and a white group, both of which have national reputations but limited operating budgets. But for the time being, there is more work than money involved in the project.

This supper meeting of Johnson/Long and the Hittites is part of that work, though it doesn't sound much like it. Racial and sexual jokes fly around the room as easily as puns at an O'Henry competition. Everyone is finding it hard to stay serious. "We are here," says Mason pompously, "to redeem ourselves." Talbert chortles, "Oh, right. That's why they're letting a white woman interview us!" The improvised commentary is sharp, but the points are taken and the audience entertained, which is exactly what the Hittites' stage work is about. Johnson/Long, by contrast, stages more subtle works. What format Fuse will take when it finally hits the theatre is unclear.

Talbert, laughing again, says that "it's going to be a musical about Pat Buchanan, 'cause that's what he needs right now and we're the team to do it. We're the Andrew Lloyd Webber for Pat." After some asides about the possibility of getting funding for the project from the National Republican Party, Talbert becomes seriously reflective for one of the few times in the evening. "We're just joking around," he admits. "Down deep we know this is some really scary work. Having fun now is important so we get to know each other."

Despite the levity, the process of creating Fuse is raising some serious questions for the artists. During the Houston residency, the members spent time in Hermann Park, improvising movement. What they found out, says Warren, is that "no matter what choreography Keith and I did, it just looked like this black guy beating up on a white woman." The Hittites' dance style, to which they refer as `choreopoems,' is often Butoh-based, very slow but very powerful, "sort of like molasses," says Mason, referring to Talbert's moves. "It meshes with the driving force of the spoken words." Johnson's choreography, on the other hand, is based in new dance, creating a vocabulary of movement to reference each specific work, but she is most comfortable using dance that looks like dance. She choreographs big sweeping moves that cover the stage, turns and jumps, partnering that resembles tumbling. But meshing the dance styles and body types to create movement that speaks to the audience and doesn't put them off is only one of her concerns. As part of the management of Johnson/Long, she is the only woman in the core group that is planning the collaboration.

"It's interesting in the fact that there are these three men who are not timid, not timid at all," she says thoughtfully, "and not having a black woman in the group is kind of interesting for me because I don't have that sensibility to play off. I am just not as verbal as they are. But I am not shy about getting my input into the project." Johnson, perceived as the quiet, artistic half of Johnson/Long, appears to hold her own in the banter sessions, and Long tells her, "You're much more vocal about this group than you are when you and I work together." Johnson laughs, and all agree that the process in which the four of them are involved is like the early stages of a relationship, when lovers are learning each other's strengths and weaknesses, when to push and when to support. More than just an artistic collaboration, Fuse is really about creating a new, single performing group. They are learning to fuse their art and their management styles.

The next three years will see the artists create a performance piece, which more than likely will not resemble a Pat Buchanan musical but will hold elements of humor and will reflect back on the communities in which the work was created: Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Austin.

"This I-35, it is having an impact on the piece already. Just having been here a few days we feel the division," says Talbert. If the Hittites tackle
I-35 the way they have the portrayal of blacks in the media and the effects of crime, drugs, and prisons on the new black aesthetic, then Austin may find itself immortalized in an art form that is trying to bridge the cultural gap that the interstate symbolizes. The original Hittite Empire was known for its conquests through threat and negotiation as well as its piety, frankness, and morality. The new Hittite Empire looks to conquer Austin the same way. n Marene Gustin is an arts writer and producer of a television arts news program in Houston.

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