A Pointe Toward Blackness

By  |  September 3, 2019
Kayla Rowser and Caroline Randall Williams in Lucy Negro Redux. Photo courtesy of Nashville Ballet Kayla Rowser and Caroline Randall Williams in Lucy Negro Redux. Photo courtesy of Nashville Ballet

Could Lucy Negro Redux beckon a new era for ballet? 


 

Red boned. Red lips. Red dress. Red eyes. 

Black women have had a complicated relationship with the color red. 

It never comes in the right shade for brown skin. When worn, red is guaranteed to keep you out of heaven. It is the color that fast girls wear when they’re asking for it. Red is the complexion assigned to those of us whose great-great-grandmothers were raped by slave masters. The color of the clay in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Growing up in Georgia, my parents never allowed me to paint my nails red or wear red underwear. They knew what I didn’t; when black girls wear red, the world sees sex. This is perhaps why the final scene of Nashville Ballet’s original production of Lucy Negro Redux is so hard to unsee: Three black women of varying body types—one just out of her twenties, one in her thirties, and the other in her forties—stand at center stage in red dresses, knowing they just shocked the hell out of their audience. A poet, a musician, and a dancer in red with their heads held high. No shame coming to get them. For Lucy, the titular character, red is the color of freedom. It is the color worn by women who own themselves. Red is a power color.

Lucy Negro Redux, which premiered in February at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater in Nashville, is based on a book of poetry of the same title by Caroline Randall Williams, who is also one of the women in red. In the book, Williams posits that the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s love sonnets (127–154) was a black prostitute who owned a brothel in central London. The company’s artistic director, Paul Vasterling, helms the production, which he developed over the course of two and a half years through residencies at New York University, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Chautauqua Institution. Of course, Williams’s text was not written to be a ballet at all, but Vasterling imagined it as one after a board member handed him the book and said, “You might think this is interesting.” Nashville Ballet company member Kayla Rowser dances the part of Lucy, with music by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.

After a sold-out run in Nashville and positive reviews, the show went on to play a special engagement in March at Knoxville’s Big Ears, the alternative music festival founded by Ashley Capps. When I see ballet performances at home in Atlanta, I rarely see black people onstage. Our premier dance companies—Atlanta Ballet, Fly on a Wall, Core Dance, gloATL—are predominantly white. Drawn to the beauty of seeing people of all different races and ethnicities find connection through music and movement, I traveled to Knoxville to see the show both nights. 

Next to Aristotle writing Poetics and the Founding Fathers drafting the U.S. Constitution, Shakespeare might be the most influential white man to ever hold a pen. The Bard wrote 154 sonnets in his lifetime. The “Dark Lady” sonnets, as they’ve come to be known, include details of a woman with coarse wiry hair, dark eyes, and black skin. In one sonnet he writes, “Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place,” and in another, “Then will I swear beauty herself is black, / And all they foul that thy complexion lack.” 

Many have assumed that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady was a white woman of dark complexion, meaning she came from some part of the Mediterranean. Caroline Randall Williams subscribed to a different hypothesis: that when Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 132, “Then will I swear beauty herself is black,” he meant, actually, black. 

Shakespeare’s possible affairs are no secret to the daughter of time, but the suggestion that the man whose art has been the basis of maintaining whiteness in so many art forms slept with a black woman is ironic. For centuries, producers have presumed that Shakespeare’s actors were white, and that his roles were written exclusively for white people—this practice continues today. This is one reason why Young Jean Lee’s 2010 play Lear was so controversial. (In her adaptation of King Lear, the daughters, played by black actresses, are the focus of the play.) Companies such as African-American Shakespeare in San Francisco and National Black Theatre in Harlem were founded decades ago because even those black performers who were classically trained weren’t getting an opportunity to take on the roles. Many ballet companies produce Romeo & Juliet, but rarely are they cast with people of color.

As a writer, I love the beauty of Shakespearean language, but as a black woman I’ve never seen myself in his work—and I never needed to. I always assumed that Shakespeare wasn’t writing about women who looked like me. Williams posits that he might have been. It’s a position I’m willing to consider. 

 

“The South is what is best and worst about this country,” Williams told me by phone a couple of weeks before the performance in Knoxville. “When I lived in Mississippi, I had a thirty-five mile drive each way to the school where I taught, and I’d drive past the cotton fields, the cornfields, the soybean fields, the catfish. It was this breathtaking expanse of the Delta landscape. . . . And then you think about the black bodies that were toiling and enacting this insane will to live, to fight. You’re sort of struck by the gift of these people’s lives. . . . this is where the blues comes from, it’s where our best stories, our best art comes from—and also our hardest truths.”

It was in Mississippi where Williams, a Nashville native, started exploring the idea that not only did Shakespeare have an affair with a black woman, but also with some of the young men who performed in his plays. She started writing the poems in 2012 after reading an article in the Daily Mail titled, “Was Bard’s Dark Lady a Woman of Ill Repute?” So she studied Shakespeare more deeply—work she relished. (Williams recalls memorizing her first Shakespearean monologue at age nine.) Lucy Negro Redux became her graduate thesis at the University of Mississippi, where she earned an MFA. Writing Lucy Negro allowed her to see herself in literature differently—to see her own beauty differently. 

“So much of the work of a writer is the act of bearing witness,” she said. In this case, Williams is Lucy’s voice, Rowser is Lucy’s body, while we in the audience are witnesses. 

Debunking and extrapolating Southern narratives is in Williams’s blood. Her mother, author Alice Randall, wrote The Wind Done Gone, a counternarrative to Gone with the Wind told from the point of view of one of Scarlett’s slaves, Cynara. 

While working on Lucy Negro, Williams studied with a Shakespearean scholar named Duncan Salkeld at the University of Chichester in England, and both the book and the ballet begin with a description of her journey across the Atlantic to research the hypothesis that Shakespeare’s lover was a black woman. In the book, she writes: “Mick. Bob. Bowie. All my favorite rock stars have black babies.” In the ballet, dancers in streetwear and flat shoes rock and bump against each other as if they are on the Tube. Then, as Williams and the scholar delve into Shakespeare’s life, a table in a library makes way for Lucy’s brothel. Rowser and Owen Thorne, who dances the part of Shakespeare, move across the long wooden table as projections of Shakespeare’s sonnets appear in the background.

Williams gives voice to Lucy, turning the book into its own form of restorative history. She is the narrator of this world, and she recites sections from most of the poems in the book to tell the story of Shakespeare and his Dark Lady. She draws parallels between Elizabethan England and the plantation South, namely the absence of black women’s agency over their bodies and stories. She purposely gives “Black Luce”—the name found in historical records to describe Lucy—agency over her body, but that agency is not without conflict. During the ballet, as relations between the Bard and the brothel become more contentious, Williams (who is on stage for most of the performance) recites the text from her poem “{But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind} VI.” 

“Lucy, Lucy, ain’t you hitched?”

No, I’m just his so good bitch.

“Lucy, Lucy. Baby is you blue?”

Tch. I’m tired of feeling blackgirl used.

“Lucy, Lucy, that’s no kinda life.”

Black girl ain’t no kinda wife.

This state of “feeling blackgirl used” resonates today. Black women have long been America’s nurse and source of social consciousness. Ninety-eight percent of black women voted against Roy Moore, the alleged pedophile who ran for an Alabama Senate seat, in 2017—and what did they get in return? Moore has already thrown his hat into the ring for the 2020 race to defeat Doug Jones, the Democratic incumbent who eked out a win last time.

A study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that participants viewed black girls as young as five years old as more sexually advanced than white girls of the same age. Our bodies are fetishized. This is why cornrows are considered fashion on Kim Kardashian (the same hairstyle that’s been banned in school systems and the military), and why a white Instagram model allegedly tanned her skin, darkened her hair, and rounded her features to look more ethnic in order to take advantage of black women’s cultural currency (and then denied it). No matter how tantalizing Lucy was in her day, she still wasn’t as powerful as Shakespeare. 

Williams’s book is as much about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady as it is a modern reflection of black women dealing with white men in the romantic sense. Is it possible to love someone who wants to own you—or whose ancestors owned yours? Several of her poems are about the white man as an absent father to slave children—“the accidental crop, / the unwanted harvest yield.” She draws a parallel between Shakespeare’s infatuation with Black Luce, Southern plantation owners’ abuse of black women’s bodies, and the disconnect Lucy must have felt and that she personally feels in being subject to the modern white male gaze while knowing that “seven of my eight great-great-grandfathers were white guys who raped their help.”

Lucy is Williams’s everywoman, so when she uses first person in the book to describe sexual encounters with white men, she is invoking the spirit of Lucy. In this context, Lucy, mammy, jezebel, and other archetypes of black women throughout history know they are being fetishized, but stay in that sexual encounter in order to access the privilege. 

She comes so loud, 

                 And all bright-skinned, light brown like a house slave. 

               And all fancy talk, sweet tongued like a house slave. 

What is a witness with a perjured eye? Well I—my eyes

Have seen a lot of broke-down houses.

 

Since its inception, ballet has been a predominantly European dance form that celebrates the elegant simplicity of the European body. The ideal body in ballet is one that can best be described as flat and nimble—no humps, lumps, or curves disrupting the flow of leg over chest or arm above head. 

The coveting of this aesthetic is precisely why women of the African diaspora are such a rare sight on the world’s most revered ballet stages. It is why American Ballet Theatre’s first black female principal dancer, Misty Copeland, has her own Barbie doll. “You can start late, look different, be uncertain, and still succeed,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir Life in Motion.

Kayla Rowser has been a company member with Nashville Ballet for ten years. She grew up in Conyers, Georgia, a suburb about thirty miles outside of Atlanta, and trained with the Magdalena Maury School of Classical Ballet and Georgia Youth Ballet. After graduating from high school, she spent a season with Charleston Ballet Theatre before joining Nashville Ballet. During her tenure she has danced iconic roles in The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Carmina Burana, and Nashville’s Nutcracker, but Lucy Negro is the first occasion she’s had to work with a black female creative team. 

Putting a black face on white art has been a popular practice in the performing arts since the 1980s ushered in the era of nontraditional and color-blind casting. The idea is that the talent of the performer matters more than the race or ethnicity of the character as originally written. However, that notion has been challenged over the last twenty years and fervently in the last ten. The late playwright August Wilson was adamant that his plays should be performed by black actors. Eleanor Burgess, whose drama The Niceties played at Manhattan Theatre Club last year, often specifies that an actor must have the same ethnic background as the character. 

For Nashville Ballet, the move toward diversity has happened gradually, starting with the addition of more company members of color. Vasterling has championed these changes, and the board cites the company’s diversity as a point of pride. Nowadays, nonwhite company members are allowed to dye their “pinks” (pointe shoes and tights) brown. Lucy Negro Redux is another milestone. (Though, initially, a board member was concerned with using the word “Negro” in the title of the ballet.)

I believe artwork is more interesting—and will invite new audiences—when a wide swath of people are allowed to tell a variety of stories. There’s just one issue here: most ballet audiences don’t come to the theater to think about representation. Ballet is a form of escapist entertainment that celebrates the athletic prowess of the human body, and the fact is, the bodies on stage are usually white.

For many artists of color, the audience is the first and the last frontier. They create work with people who look like them in mind, but because of socioeconomic barriers and racism, the people who the work is about rarely see it. And indeed, I am often the only black critic in the theater, whether in Manhattan or Knoxville. A college student recently asked me how I handle this reality. Admittedly, I have mixed emotions. I believe that we all benefit from sharing each other’s stories, but I also feel uncomfortable when I think about white people being entertained by black pain or passion, especially when the viewing doesn’t seem to lead to more empathy. I told the student that I hope my byline and work encourage more black people to feel welcome anywhere. 

Too often, black performers have to deliver in such a way that their blackness doesn’t become a barrier to their humanness. At Big Ears, with a mostly white audience in the palatial Tennessee Theatre, I wondered whether the ballet would face that familiar blockade. 

106 Omni Smith2Kayla Rowser and Nashville Ballet’s company in Lucy Negro Redux. Photo courtesy of Nashville Ballet

 

When Vasterling encountered Lucy Negro Redux, he had been wanting to develop a new ballet, and Williams’s text presented the perfect opportunity, blending the familiar Shakespeare with an unconventional narrative. Vasterling, who is white, stepped into the role of artistic director twenty years ago and has made it a part of his mission to push the limits of the art form and diversify the company. Nashville Ballet is one of twenty-one dance companies participating in the Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet initiative, which aims to increase the number of black dancers in professional ballet companies across the country. 

Apart from an apprentice who is now a company dancer, Rowser, who has received accolades and been featured in Dance Magazine, Pointe magazine, and others, had been the only black ballerina in the company since joining when Vasterling approached her about the part of Lucy. She immediately agreed, excited by the chance to originate a role more than anything else. Like most black ballerinas, she was accustomed to dancing parts created for white women. 

Today, Vasterling hopes Lucy Negro Redux will become the company’s calling card. He sees it as an example of how a ballet company can use the art form to create a story that speaks to now. He also appreciated the opportunity to push the bounds of gender roles in ballet, since in dance women are often submissive characters. 

“We didn’t want to present Lucy as someone being manipulated by a male Shakespeare. We had a lot of conversation about how to present this character without making her a sex object. I think we did it,” Vasterling told me. “Lucy was a brothel owner, but she owned her life.” 

At the beginning of each performance, the company shows a video with footage of the rehearsal and development process. Caroline Randall Williams talks about going to visit Duncan Salkeld, the British scholar who shares her conjecture about Black Luce. Then Williams herself struts across the stage in a form-fitting, off-the-shoulder red cocktail dress, the lights bouncing off of her thick, dark brown curly hair. She recites her poems onstage, and though her skill as an actress does not rise to the level of the dancers and musicians, her presence works. Flat, slim bodies are the standard in ballet, so her curvaceous figure stands out amongst the rest of the company.

In addition to the language, the music and choreography are dynamic and alive. Upstage, projections help to establish setting—a subway train, a forest, the pages of a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The costumes are a mix of high-end Elizabethan garments and contemporary streetwear, reflecting the shifting timelines of the ballet’s action. At the top of the second act, the ensemble comes out in jewel-toned capes with their faces covered by picture frames holding a portrait of Shakespeare. Moments later, they turn around the frames to reveal mirrors that bounce light across the theater. This performance truly straddles the line between ballet and dance theater. 

On the surface, the choreography takes inspiration from lyrical, jazz, and hip-hop dance styles. This is also a reflection of the music, which blends minstrel banjo and Renaissance orchestral music with the oud from North Africa. The musical style certainly recalls the cultural cross-pollination and physical journeys of black people from Africa to Europe and the Americas. The story is set in London during two vastly different times in history—the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries—but the examination of who owns whose bodies is applicable in this five-hundred-year span. 

Even in 2019, it is daring to stage a ballet about an interracial affair. The conventions of ballet rely on heteronormativity, female submission, and male dominance. However, all of this is subverted in Lucy Negro Redux.

Dancing the role of Lucy, Rowser is the only company member en pointe until the end of the performance—a decision made to convey Lucy’s power and empower the dancer herself, who feels the weight of dancing a character who “would’ve looked like me in history,” as she reflected on a break from rehearsals before heading to Knoxville. Shakespeare is having an all-out moral dilemma, but Williams gives voice to Lucy’s reality as well. She is his dirty little secret and very little is known about her, except what has been recovered from old records. According to Salkeld’s research, Lucy herself was never incarcerated, but many of the men and women who frequented her brothel were.

Aside from Rowser and Williams, the show stars Rhiannon Giddens, whose voice is deep and wide as she performs onstage, filling the theater with a blend of folk music and blues. She and her collaborator, Francesco Turrisi, play almost two dozen instruments between them, switching with ease among the accordion, oud, banjo, drums, and fiddle. The two first met in Ireland, where Giddens resides, while Turrisi, who for years has studied the migration of instruments and people from North Africa to the west, was researching and lecturing on the history of jazz music. Most of the score for Lucy Negro Redux, which is Giddens’s first ballet (Turrisi has previously worked on a ballet in Austria), emerged spontaneously from their first meeting with Vasterling. Turrisi, an Italian jazz musician and early-music expert, wanted to include musical ideas similar to those that Shakespeare would have used in his productions. 

“Everything is connected, but people don’t want to believe that because it doesn’t fit into a little box,” Turrisi told me in Knoxville before playing a show with Giddens to promote another collaboration, their album There Is No Other. “The Renaissance would never have existed without the Arabic impact on Europe. . . . all the great Greek classics were not translated into Latin from Greek—they were translated from Arabic.”

“We constantly underestimate the public,” Giddens said. “But, people will come see anything if you contextualize it properly. I think a lot of people are coming to this as first-time ballet goers, and that is saying something because it is very challenging—it’s not like the Sugar Plum Fairy. The fact that people are going to be going ‘I like ballet’ after that means that we did our job. Ultimately, that’s what you want.”

Giddens’s compositions for the ballet are a combination of original songs as well as cuts from her 2017 solo album, Freedom Highway. Hers is an exceptional performance, especially her rendition of “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which Giddens wrote based on a nineteenth-century advertisement for a slave girl. Throughout the ballet, she fervently repeats the lyrics, “Take my body you can take my bones, take my body but not my soul.”

With this, Giddens speaks to the disconnect between using one’s body for labor as a form of economic enfranchisement and giving over one’s heart. And, what other choice would Black Luce have had? As a black woman living in Elizabethan England, what could her occupation have been other than whore? Maid, washerwoman, caretaker? Where is the agency in that? 

In the Western world, for many years black women were relegated to domestic work as midwives, maids, cooks, and laundresses. Black women have risen relatively quickly in socioeconomic status—we are just fifty years out from the civil rights movement, during which the most common profession for black women was maid. This is perhaps why three black, Southern women onstage is as much a display of power as Lucy making Shakespeare want to leave his wife. 

Still, I couldn’t help but notice that Giddens, Rowser, and Williams are light-skinned, which gives them proximity to the European aesthetic to which ballet fans are accustomed. It’s a tricky double consciousness. Because of the long history of colorism in this country, I recognize that if all three women were of a darker complexion, the impact of the piece would change; seeing the stark contrast between a dark brown complexion with the other dancers’ pale white faces and costumes would remove racial ambiguity from Lucy’s story. That said, as a light-skinned black woman, I appreciate the representation of light-skinned women onstage as unquestionably black and as powerful and sexy without falling into the tragic mulatto archetype. Light-skinned black women might be glorified in rap videos and have a better chance of getting into boardrooms, but that proximity to whiteness comes with its own set of issues. Giddens recognizes this proximity as a barrier to her being embraced by the African-American community. You’d think that a Grammy Award–winning, internationally lauded black woman artist and MacArthur Fellow whose music is its own form of activism would be on the cover of Essence magazine. Yet Giddens said, “Mainstream black media has never been interested in me.”

Giddens’s musical style is certainly in line with the aesthetic of Big Ears, which typically features a number of world music, folk, and rock acts. But a ballet could not be more of an outlier for the event, which had never before featured a full-scale dance production. I wondered how it would go over, and if the audience would have been more diverse had Giddens been singing r&b and playing the piano instead of the banjo. Both nights it received a standing ovation before the curtain closed. 

 

Before the Big Ears performance, I was able to reach Rowser by phone. I asked her to reflect on the challenges of her role, and she said, “The biggest feat for me has been emotionally and mentally trying to get to that place, to be vulnerable. . . . as artists, we have to be so vulnerable for it to be realistic and to engage the audience.” The stakes are high—Lucy Negro Redux has been called the first story ballet in the history of the Western world written for and starring an African-American ballerina. 

While it is true that Lucy Negro Redux is almost certainly the first narrative ballet produced by a mostly white ballet company to boast this merit, there are numerous original story ballets produced by African-American dance companies every year. The formidable Katherine Dunham trained black ballerinas at her companies and dance school for thirty years. Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, Dance Canvas, Collage Dance Collective, A.I.M., and countless other dance companies committed to diversity in ballet have been creating their own stories for decades. These companies have been forced to adapt popular ballets—see Ballethnic’s Urban Nutcracker, which features Black Russians—or create their own in order to tell stories that open up the art form for their communities.

These companies have been innovating right down to the costumes, dyeing shoes, tights, and leotards to match myriad shades of brown. Nashville Ballet’s company does not look like the typical uniform corps de ballet—the dancers are ethnically diverse and have a variety of body shapes—but it’s still only diverse relative to ballet. It may have been jarring to see three black women onstage having the last word in a ballet. But in 2019, in America, it shouldn’t be. 

Still, Lucy Negro is clearly a ballet for a new day, and it is poised to have a life beyond its two engagements in Tennessee, what with other bookings in the works. Third Man Books published Lucy Negro, Redux: The Bard, a Book, and a Ballet, a reprinting of Williams’s book with an amended title, photos from the ballet’s rehearsal and development process, excerpts from the libretto, and an interview between the collaborators. 

As for me, I hope this moment of witness and reclamation will be one of many new, more inclusive ballets. Everyone deserves to nurture their gifts without race and ethnicity being a hurdle. On the page and from the stage, Williams, resplendent in red, puts it best: “My exiat sayeth that Lucy Negro is a seat at the table, is my knowing that he knew it all after all, is the black aesthetic writ large across a whitewashed Riverside brick.”


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Kelundra Smith is a theater critic and arts journalist based in Atlanta. Her features and reviews have been published in the New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Charleston Post & Courier, American Theatre magazine, Dramatics magazine, BroadwayWorld, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @pieceofkay.