SHOT: Scenes from the Bully Pulpit

Photo credit: Nate Watters. All rights reserved.

I believe that W.H. Auden is right, and there are six things a critic can do for a reader:

  1. Introduce authors or works of which they were hitherto unaware;
  2. Argue that an author or work has been undervalued because one has not read them carefully enough;
  3. Show relations between works of different ages and cultures which no one person could have seen alone;
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases one’s understanding of it;
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “making”;
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

I am not sure I can fulfill any of these functions with Donald Byrd’s most recent work SHOT. Almost certainly my readers are aware of his work. Just as certainly his work is not undervalued. I am not profound enough to show a relationship between it any works of other ages and cultures, or between its art and the life sciences because the piece is extremely specific, I am certain I do not know enough about the making of the work to offer anything.

This leaves me with Option #4. And I’m not sure I’m the person to do this either because I do not think I am the intended audience for the piece.

SHOT is essentially a triptych. The first tableau begins with the company moving slowly and steadily about as a unit into two lines, clothed in a kind of stylized urban streetwear from Doris Black: jeans, A-shirt tank tops, knotted flannel, even a du-rag or two. As the video projection plays some of the all-too-common footage of police shootings and the evocative lighting of Jack Mehler flashes away, the company gather into a queue and put their hands up.

Then begins a series of solos and duos, then a quartet, largely based on pantomimic variations of the bodily gestures made by unarmed black men when being accosted by police. This builds toward a pitch as it begins to include audible grunts, then words, then repeated phrases. Toward the end of the section, a young black woman walks through the bodies of the men on stage and then stands center stage speaking the words of Reykia Scott watching her husband Keith Lamont Scott being gunned down by white police in Charlotte, NC. As she speaks everything else on stage stops and the audience can only concentrate on her and her speech.

At first all goes along just fine. Then it becomes uncomfortable. Then it becomes insufferable.

It’s unpleasant but I am used to the effect. Ann Marie Fleming’s Blue Skies and several films by Jon Jost and others use the device similarly: a static camera forces you to experience the emotions of a single character, not just to note it and say, “Oh, she must be very upset,” but rather to force the audience to live through it just as the character herself is living through it.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with this. The opening section is, basically, a series of screams at the injustice and madness of it all, and this is simply the logical apex. Nor is this necessarily insufficient in itself: No one complains that Picasso’s Guernica does not present a logical argument against war. The problem here is that once the play works itself into this apex, it suddenly stops and decides that it will turn from scream into lecture.

The second tableau has virtually no movement at all. It begins with Mr. Byrd himself coming up onto stage with the full stage light on, and reading from a script wherein he delivers a speech about “The Talk” that Black men now, unlike when he was a child, have to give to all their sons.

Even without a visible lectern, this is a lecture if ever was. And it is exactly at this point that I ceased to care a jot about anything happening on stage.

What Mr. Byrd apparently thinks need to be said is to give a direct list of all the things Black parents cover with their Black children to help them survive an encounter with the trigger-happy White folks whose only concern is that mythical creature called “Compliance.”

At this point I realized that this speech was not for me at all. It was intended for Mr. Byrd’s largely White, middle class, college-educated, quasi-liberal audience — those people who generally live life with a smug sense of bourgeois inviolability. Being a Black parent of a Black male teenager myself, Mr. Byrd couldn’t teach me if he wanted to. I’ve given “The Talk.” And my version wasn’t nearly as antiseptic as his.

Furthermore, my version of “The Talk” included an important point that Mr. Byrd never says at any point in his sophomore lecture: namely, that you can do all these things and be fully compliant and still wind up dead. Which, all things considered, is pretty damned important to tell not just my young Black son and his friends, but also that inviolable White bourgeoisie who still probably harbor some thoughts that criminals get whatever they deserve, and even if they weren’t criminals they must have done something.

From there it only gets worse. Immediately following the lecture bit, two groups of the company stand each behind a separate construction saw horse, four on one side, three on the other, and utter platitude-filled arguments about the relationships of black men and the police. Those of course end in mere name-calling and nothing resolves.

Sure. This might be “lifelike” and full of “verisimilitude” and such, but why on earth would I care? I came to a dance.

I do not object to including language in movement pieces any more than I object to movement in language pieces. The issue is the purpose of the language. My own view is that the reason one switches language is because something cannot be said in the first, either because music or movement or light or design cannot carry logical argument (logos being words by definition), or because even in one’s own native tongue there is no equivalent for something in another. But this is a piece about emotion, not logic. Why switch to words at all?

Verbal language is not Mr. Byrd’s strength. He is, for me, at his absolute worst when trying to dramatize emotions and thoughts in words, which is exactly why I found A Rap on Race utterly obnoxious — and there he had help from one of the finest dramatists in the country. The language in SHOT is nowhere near that level of subtlety. It is the equivalent of being hit with the wrong end of a ball peen hammer and told the beatings will continue until understanding improves. During his lecture I half-expected someone in the audience to call out “Amen!” as if we were all at a Baptist prayer meeting.

By the time in the third tableau when he repeats Reykia Scott’s speech twice, I had long since stopped paying attention. I was just getting back into the actual dance movement that takes place before the precinct steps and the wall of video projection featuring the names of Black men shot by police in the past three years. But no: the dead weight of ineffective language returns. Ending the piece with the actual footage of Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting simply calls attention to how artificial — and yet not artificial enough — Mr. Byrd’s own use of language is.

Mr. Byrd’s more pure movement pieces going all the way back to A CRUEL NEW WORLD/the new normal have been plenty didactic on their own; they need no help from a Spark Notes version of “The Talk” or anything else. As a Black male and Black parent of a Black male, I sure as hell don’t need the Spark Notes, and I refuse to be bullied into thinking otherwise. But again, I highly doubt I am the audience for such a piece. In a better world the interests of what I take to be Mr. Byrd’s intended audience and my own overlap, because the dance itself is sufficiently complex. SHOT is far from complex. It starts as a scream, ends as a whimper, and somewhere in the middle you might have a revelation about the difficulty of being a Black male in contemporary America — if, of course, you aren’t already Black.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net