Photo by Orfesas Skutelis
“You shouldn’t be in a sonogram thinking, I’m going to have a little brown and black boy, and they’re going to try to kill him.”
This is Adia Tamar Whitaker, artistic director of Àse Dance Theatre Collective, talking about her visit to the doctor when she was pregnant with her son. Of the many things she told me during our conversation in August, this is what I will be thinking about when I attend Have K(NO!)w Fear: A Bluessical at ODC Theater.
Have K(NO!)w Fear: A Bluessical is an immersive dance theater performance ritual rooted in what Whitaker calls “neo-folkloric” dance and music from the African Diaspora. As one of her dancers says in a 2014 crowd funding video, “We are fulfilling ancestral promises.” Whitaker has been working on this project for a decade, and as we mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in North America, live, embodied engagements with this history remind us that living bodies were and continue to be at stake. Whitaker, in a rare moment of understatement, said, “The piece I’m presenting is extremely relevant and will probably make people uncomfortable.”
This is not to say that Whitaker tends to overstate a case. On the contrary, she continually searches to say what’s been said without diminishing the fact that it bears repeating over and over again. That slavery begat capitalism. That black people remain under siege in this country. That confronting white fragility as a person of color is exhausting. As a dancer and choreographer, Whitaker brings this conversation to bear on the global contemporary concert dance community to critique its “race-blind,” often ahistorical focus on somatics: “There is a trend of embodiment happening throughout the field of dance that is strange for a lot of people of color because we never stopped cooking own food and raising babies. We never hired people to do it for us. We never left our bodies. This trend of embodiment is a neoliberal reorganization of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. It upholds the same structures.”
I asked Whitaker to say more about this trend: “Mind-body centering, mindfulness—wonderful. But it can also be another form of white silence as violence. A lot of the language used to guide meditations—focusing on making ‘everyone’ more mindful—doesn’t resonate with people of color in the same way, if at all. People of color need to be excused on this moment. We don’t not do this. We don’t set it aside to do. If you’re scrubbing toilets with bleach, physically farming, touching dirt, shoveling, taking babies to classes, being doormen, nannies, cooks—my parents have advanced degrees and I have them too, but I’m closer to people that were in their bodies than the many generations who hired help. We are always in our bodies because we can’t afford not to be. Our parents teach us this from the time we’re born and raise us this way.”
During her MFA program at Hollins, Whitaker had to confront the force of invisibilized whiteness that grounds much of Western somatics discourse: “Someone would say, There’s an owl in your face and snake in your back. I know why it’s in my back because I have a different reference to it in African tradition and folklore. They’re looking to Far East systems. But your people are from Europe. Go on to your Norse stuff, your Celtic stuff. Why are you going to the East? We all have the same archetypes.” When an instructor invites Whitaker to move from her synovial fluids, she balks: “I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old. My synovial fluids are buried because of all the things I have to get through just to get in the room.” In reference to scholar-artists who “write papers and speak so poetically,” she asks, “Why do they get paid and I become a poem? They get to be real and I get to be magical realism. They get to be the lung and I get to be the breath, which you can’t see.” Most frustrating is the way mindfulness discourse is presented as “an isolated incident, not followed up by any kind of strategy-building session to change behavior. It feels like indoctrination, much like the European Christians during enslavement except without the physical violence. This kind of violence is like carbon monoxide poisoning.”
For those of you who don’t know, Whitaker is talking to a white critic-scholar, one who has been listening to the podcast About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge. So I’m supposed to know better than to ask, “What can I do to help?” which lobs the responsibility to effect change right back to the person of color. And yet, I asked Whitaker what I ask every artist I interview: What do you want from this article? What would serve you and the work the most? Whitaker: “I don’t have the answer. Are you going to give up your comforts? Can we really break anything open?”
Whitaker is bringing herself and eleven members of the collective to ODC— Stephanie Bastos, Tilishia Bradley Goveia, Erin Bryce Holmes, Alexandra Jean-Joseph, Tossie Long, Imani Nzingha, Brian Polite, Kendra J. Ross, Zakiya Harris aka Sh8peshifter, and Guy deChalus, “twelve black people storming the white house.” That alone will make certain people uncomfortable. “My work at ODC was not created for a proscenium space. It was created for the people, for something to happen on the street, maybe as a form of protest, more to activate space, to get people to move or shift where they may otherwise not feel safe or comfortable doing so. All of these trends—of diversity, of inclusion—it’s important the work is being done, that people are willing to be uncomfortable, but when we’re brought into historically white spaces to do this work, we are met with a lot of ambivalence and confusion. We don’t want a seat at the table. We want to build new tables.”
During the interview, Whitaker struggled with feeling like she’s “biting the hand that feeds me” when she spoke critically of the people and institutions that have supported her work. Another example is the documentary short film, Have No Fear, which was directed and produced by Beata Calinska, Sarah Jacobson, and Tracie Williams, three white women: “The neighborhoods in Brooklyn have been so gentrified, and these white women, my neighbors, needed an artist for their film. So I thought, let me try. We had this very interesting experience. Many filmmakers of color have done films on Àse, but this film went all over the world, winning awards. Then, one evening in 2015, I’m at Brooklyn Bridge Park playing with my kids, when I see there’s an outdoor film festival. They screened Have No Fear before Footloose. I still hadn’t seen it and I’m the subject! And it makes it look like I’m a single mother! I have a husband and he’s a great dad.”
Whitaker expresses gratitude without ambivalence when she talks about her teachers in San Francisco and Oakland— Albirda Rose, Alicia Pearce, Malonga Casquelourd, Susie Whipp, Wendy Diamond, and Reginald Ray Savage. At one point she got “Dunham-ed out” and began studying with Blanche Brown, who took her into Group Petit La Croix. Later, Whitaker got involved in the Hip Hop scene, and joined a chapter of Universal Zulu Nation: “Studying Hip Hop was everything. In San Francisco, it was different from the East Bay. We were more scrappy than Oakland folks. The Oakland folks brought the drum into my life. It was the medicine I needed to be more calm, less angry. If you grow up in SF, even if you’re not from the hood, which I was not, there’s still a certain amount of street life trauma. Around 1993 we stopped dancing at parties because of all the shootings. I was going to funeral homes in the midst of going to SF State. I’m still alive. A lot of my friends aren’t.” Whitaker moved to New York at 24, right when she was “becoming a person”: “I am the baby of many people and I was a bit of a joker/shit-talker, so I had to leave the Bay to show people I was serious.”
Have K(NO!)w Fear: A Bluessical is an evening-length work divided into three sections. Section I is designed for the traditional proscenium arch: “You can sit there, entertained up in the palace watching people work down in the field.” Section II is a screening of Have No Fear. Intermission is designed to function as a transition between worlds. In the lobby, the performers will greet audience members and pass out hymnals. As we move from theater to the liminal space of the lobby, and the hymnals pass from hand to hand, we re-enter the theater as religious space, spiritual space, ritual space.
Whitaker: “It’s challenging for me to work in this space and take the risk to create immersive theater tools, and prompt people to move around. And it’s been interesting to be in a space that tells you what to do. It’s like our position in the US. The fabric of nation is what it is—do we have to do what it says? What kind of changes are we really making? Are we just reorganizing what’s already there? I’m excited because it’s a beautiful theater and I want people to watch me, I want to be a superstar. But I have to also be able to be uncomfortable in this process. If I don’t take a risk, who will?”
Whitaker’s talk is full of questions like these, questions that lead to more questions. I don’t think she would position her dance theater work as answers per se, but rather as actualizations of questions in real time, positioned as a mode of listening to ancestors. She views the work as an “emergent strategy” (Adrienne Maree Brown), hoping it will “put people in the shift to move in a new direction. It falls on me to explain a million times but I don’t know where somebody doesn’t benefit off the suffering of another? I want to go there, will you take me?”
 PDFs of The New York Times Magazine August 18, 2019 special edition, “The 1619 Project,” and accompanying reading guides are available through the Pulitzer Center.
 For more on the violence of the neutral in somatics and contemporary dance, see Rebecca Chaleff’s “Activating Whiteness: Racializing the Ordinary in US American Postmodern Dance” (2018) and Isabelle Ginot’s “From Shusterman’s Somaesthetics to a Radical Epistemology of Somatics” (2010). For an excellent (and growing) list of resources around anti-racism, whiteness, and dance, go to http://danceandwhiteness.coventry.ac.uk/resources/.
 On walking the razor’s edge of visibility as privilege and curse, see Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s The Black Dancing Body: A Geography from Coon to Cool (2003). On “[s]lowing down to be quiet” as a “bourgeois response born of white privilege,” and so much more, see Thomas F. DeFrantz, “I Am Black (you have to be willing to not know).
 When “The High Low” podcasters Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton asked her what they could do as white people to help end racism, Eddo-Lodge said, “I don’t know where you hold influence in your life. I don’t know your friends. I don’t know the extent of your jobs. I don’t know where you can assess where the institutional racism is really taking hold in your sector and what you as individuals can attempt to do to change that. And so I’m in no position to tell you how you in both of your lives can attempt to try and change the problem. […] Only you can diagnose that.” She then quotes Lilla Watson, Aboriginal activist from Queensland, Australia: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
 To be schooled on the phenomenon of shedding “white women’s tears,” see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018). And to be schooled on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, see Lauren Michele Jackson’s “What’s Missing from ‘White Fragility’” in Slate, 9/4/19.