Urban Bush Women
Join Urban Bush Women (UBW) during their 2018-19 residency at BRIC for a look into their process that extends far beyond the dance stage. UBW uses dance, movement and our hair as a vehicle to examine race and identity and in this episode, you’ll see UBW’s community engagement workshop, known as a “Hair Party,” and the holistic way it informs their staged production of “Hair and Other Stories.”
We're going to talk about racism.
Where are we having these conversations,
why are we having them in those spaces,
and how does it affect us?
If we are having conversations about race at school
or work predominantly, we'll come here.
If we are largely not having conversations about race,
we'll come here.
If we are having conversations about race on social media
predominantly, we'll come here.
And if we're having conversations about race
in our homes, we'll come here.
We're specifically looking at why
are we having those conversations
in those spaces and how does it affect us?
So those are the two things that we're discussing
when we get to those corners.
And please go.
The way that we look at Urban Bush Women is like a body
and that body is standing on and rooted in
the legacy of artists and activists
that have come long before Urban Bush Women --
folks who always thought that arts and activism
meet at the seam and there's a meaningful reason
why they live together.
Your hair is resilient! It stands up to injustice!
It won't back down!
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who's our director,
was birthed out of the fire and the passion
and the responsibility of the black arts movement,
so that's where those feet are planted.
Zollar: Urban Bush Women was founded in 1984.
I wanted to create a company
that would make socially relevant work
that would also lift up the stories
that often weren't in the mainstream.
I wanted to show women with power,
with grace, with sensuality, with humor.
I really wanted to create full ranges of expression of women
so that we weren't just reduced to an archetype
or a stereotype.
From the beginning,
we had singing, we had text, we had storytelling
and all really filtered through the physical, the body.
The expression for me is about story and storytelling
and whether that storyness in the body is more abstract
or whether it is more direct.
For me, it is about how we convey our experiences.
A'Keen: By putting it in the body,
it leaves a deeper imprint.
So we're not just being philosophical,
we're not just theorizing about this,
but it's about the lived experience.
[ Women vocalizing ]
We're not just looked at as just performers or just movers.
We are artists. We are creators.
We choreograph within the company.
We learn from the communities that we're working within.
...value, all connected to our core.
A'Keen: Think about where we came from,
how we got here, where we go -- to the beyond.
We're encouraged to take that upon ourselves,
to bridge out into our own solo practices as well
and bring that back to the company.
My specific role in the company is choreographer,
dancer, creator, singer, vocalist,
songwriter, song producer, educator.
And the list just keeps going on and on and on and on.
-[ Gasps ] -Ooh, girl.
[ Gasps ]
Zollar: And, you know, I began to look and see
and I was like, "Wait a minute,
where are all the voices of women of color choreographers
who are being known on a national level?"
And I was only coming up with a few names, and I thought,
"Well, there's definitely something wrong with that.
When I see all of these women of color choreographers,
why aren't they gaining prominence?"
We decided that what we needed to do
was really kind of call out the field
and say, "You need to pay attention
because there's voices that are missing."
Girl, what kind of hair is that?
Oh, girl, you know it's that Peruvian Malaysian Brazilian
100% human hair, girl! Whoo!
How much you pay for that?
Whether it's directly or indirectly,
you know, other people --
and when I say other people and I'm thinking also about,
you know, people who can see themselves reflected
in the company. Girl, you so smart and beautiful.
Other artists of color.
[ Shouting indistinctly ]
Woman: I'm a strong black woman. I'm a strong black woman.
Cook: Other women of color -- mothers.
It just gives you like a vision of yourself.
It's an affirmation, I feel like,
for a lot of people within the community.
So we're always, again,
looking at ways to source material,
to research, to deepen and to delve into these ideas,
whether it's a workshop or a regular company rehearsal.
Thank you so much for coming out.
And this hair party, which has been a series of events
that we've had at BRIC over the past year
as we've been in residence here.
We definitely hope that from here
we'll start some conversations
that you'll then come to the work
and be able to take a deeper dive in
because you had a little taste
of where we're going to
and what we're toiling with inside of the work.
This is going to be a participatory dialog,
kitchen talk, two hours together.
So do prepare your minds and your bodies
and then we're going to start right away.
I'm curious, we're curious, to know what brought you here.
Well, the Hair Party started in 2001
as a way to research a work, "Hair Stories."
We started to realize
it was more than a research opportunity.
It was a thing in itself.
It was a way to strengthen our work in community engagement
and strengthen our partnership with an organization,
People's Institute for Survival and Beyond.
They have been leading the field for a very long time
called Understanding and Undoing Racism.
And that has really strengthened our ability
to be really conscious about how we enter in communities
and what is the work that we put forward.
Judson: With my godsister, we would go out and I knew
that I was invisible around other people
because she has the light skin and the long hair.
I absolutely did put towels and sweaters on my head
playing dress up, trying to have that long flowing hair.
Obviously, that idea of needing light skin
and long hair to be beautiful
did seep into my own self-image.
Chanon and Sam created this work "Hair & Other Stories."
We realized that this is also another opportunity for them
to take the Hair Parties forward.
Judson: From the toys I was allowed to have
to the teachers they chose for me...
But still colorism -- it affected me
because it's in the world, it's in the Kool-Aid.
We took the seeds, the things from "Hair Stories"
that were essential, that were --
these were the conversations that we need to have.
And we put those in new forms, new bodies,
new brilliant collaborators.
I think she need a comb! I know she need comb!
You think she need a comb?
All: I know she need a comb!
Judson: And then we sat and we thought about,
"Okay, well, what needs to happen now?"
♪ I know she need a comb
The hair landscape for African-American women
is very different from 2001
in terms of what conversations folks are having,
which conversations are available in the world at large.
♪ You think she need a comb? I know she need a comb ♪
♪ You think she need a comb?
In addition to that, we also have a male
and a white woman inside of the company.
So that also says, "Okay, what are the conversations
that are relative to this body of collaborators?"
I've had about 100 different hairstyles in my life.
I've been rocking this blond hair with dark roots
for over 10 years.
When I first did it, my father was like,
"You look so much nicer."
"So much prettier!"
My partner -- "You are so much prettier
with that blond hair."
Then I realized that being fed these ideas
that this blond hair and white skin is good...
that it's up here.
And I've been sitting in that comfort for far too long.
Our identity is complex,
and hair holds a lot of that complexity.
We send [indistinct] out to
all the hair that have been lost but not forgotten.
No matter the state or condition of your hair...
We pray that the strands of your hair would be liberated!
Zollar: We were really excited when this idea
and now the manifestation of being in residence at BRIC --
Certainly I've been here many times and it's a place
that we've really wanted to have connection with.
And we knew that it was an opportunity to ground
inside of the Brooklyn community.
We tour a lot and we travel a lot.
So we're often doing work in other places
that we don't get to do in Brooklyn.
[ Indistinct singing ]
The fact that we could be here doing the Hair Parties,
performing, it's really -- it's really important
and it's really special.
♪ Your hair
A'Keen: From the moment they walk into the doors,
they are walking into the "Hair & Other Stories" world.
So they'll have an experience in the opening space.
They'll come into the black box and the theater space
and they'll have an experience there that will be shared,
that will be participatory.
So it really is this three-hour long immersive experience.
But again, we're trying to have some hard conversations
and in shared space around race and racism,
as well as to look forward,
envision toward what is a world beyond that.
So we are already peeling back the layers that we're not
just talking about just hair, right?
It goes deeper than that,
but it also is shaped by the communities
that we are building and growing through and from.
So we're going to start at just the surface of that onion
that we're pulling back.
And I'm going to ask us to now,
if you can, just go back from your table
and just rise to your highest self.
So each Hair Party looks different.
But often what we'll try to do
is take themes from the concert work
and we'll thread it through a Hair Party.
So if you get your hair done in a salon or barbershop,
if you get your hair done at home,
you do your hair yourself,
or if you just don't even need to bother,
you are going to go to this corner, yes?
And break. -Whoop-whoop!
We have a series of games that make you question
where you get your hair done, how you get your hair done,
where these images of beauty first
came about in your community
or in your world through your eyes.
It's about creating a space where folks are able to examine,
talk about, unpack,
dig into their own experiences.
We're excited for if some of those folks
are able to make it to the show,
'cause some of those things will also be living inside
of that three-hour experience of "Hair & Other Stories."
Woman: [ Vocalizing ]
♪ Come on into my kitchen
♪ Oh, won't you come and sit down? ♪
Oh, no, baby, you know those are your church shoes.
You better go change into your play clothes.
Oh, girl, your hair's dry.
Hand me that Blue Magic and wide-tooth comb.
You need some oil up in this hair.
Ooh! Ooh, girl, you need some extra virgin olive oil.
You know what you need is some tea tree oil up in that hair.
Mm, no, what you need is some grape seed oil.
Uh, unh-unh. No. She need jojoba -- hojoba?
What -- It got a silent J. Don't it got a silent J?
Remember -- back in the day it wasn't about no oil.
Remember we had the activator?
[ Music stops, chuckling ]
I also have a hair story. -Right. Yeah, you do.
Because I did the crimping thing, I did the curling,
I was never really good at either of them,
but I did do some crimping and I did some curling because,
you know, in high school it's the crimping, it's the curling,
it's the dying, it's all the little things with the boys
and the cutesy and all that stuff.
So I tried that.
I tried the perm.
I tried getting the dye.
Kuumba: Mm, but back in the day,
one of the worst things was getting your hair pressed.
It was called "getting it done."
And in those days, you had lard and a hot comb
and coming at you was a big, thick sister
that was going to make sure you can run, you can hide,
or you was gonna get your hair done.
Oh, it was gonna be done.
Your ears was going to be done.
Your neck was going to be done.
Ooh, it would be the smell of burning flesh!
-Whoo! -Aah! [ Gasps ]
We also are interested in the communities
that we were entering in
and being able to create a safe space
that doesn't just exist on the stage.
We talk a lot about immigration and race
and how certain people are treated a certain way.
Our conversations center a lot around our government
and how our people are suffering.
Like, just with common interactions,
like walking down the street
and I can't walk on my side of the sidewalk.
I have to move out of the way.
Like stuff like that,
where you're, like, forced to conform
to realizing what skin that you're in.
I mean, we do discuss race in my house.
I don't think there's like a lot of consideration given to, like,
the way that might be different for a black woman.
It's like, you know, the way that so many people say,
like "for black people in this country,"
and they mean black men.
And they're kind of like forgetting about the experiences of women.
Kuumba: We make agreements so that we are validating
each individual in the space.
We understand they had multiple experiences and truth exists
and those are validated in the space.
You feel safer to really be raw and just like let everything out
because you know you're not going to be judged for it
or mistreated for it and you can just really, like, be.
We encourage everyone to stay in the room,
both physically and mentally,
and maintain what is spoken about in that space,
sacred to what we are digging and diving into together,
but also encourage that those conversations
continue to ripple out once you leave.
And you can choose one person at the table
who wants to described
or everyone can take a turn.
Zollar: They ask people to go through
all the different hairstyles they could name.
And I think I've had every single one of them,
From locks to ball to twists to the flip to the page boy.
Women: Twist out. Sisterlocks.
This is... the "I don't know what to do."
-Okay. -This is the top knot.
Just throw it all on top.
But this was before I got my big job.
And so I really didn't know what to do
with the heat-damaged hair that I had.
And so unless I had been sitting under the dryer
for about two hours with it all knotted up,
so it looked like something to me, it was up.
If you know what the big chop is,
I'm just going to have you wave your hand.
Okay, so I see some people in here
who don't know what the big chop is,
so I'm going to ask one of our community members.
I'm going to invite you to share with them briefly
what is the big chop?
My sister in the back right here.
Okay, the day you give up the creamy crack.
We got another glossary term. [ Laughter ]
Alright, sis, so now you got to unpack what is creamy crack
and then you got to tell us what the big chop is.
So we're going to imagine that she's representing the post-chop
and I'm going to represent the scissors.
[ Imitates scissors slicing ]
[ Imitates scissors slicing ]
[ Cheers and applause ]
For folks who are familiar with Madam C.J. Walker,
if you could please just shout out some things
that we want to celebrate about this woman's legacy.
Hair products. -Entrepreneur.
-Entrepreneur, first black millionaire.
-Job maker. -Job maker.
-Educator. -Ahead of her time.
Ahead of her time.
we reach back to Madam C.J. Walker
and the history of the legacy that she created
and what that has created within the black community
specifically of how we connect to our hair.
Here you were, the successful entrepreneur,
philanthropist and activist.
And yet the success comes at the price of what I see...
Woman: ...at the price of what I see...
Both: ...as the heart of black self-hatred --
Zollar: I often wonder what the world would be like
if you had taught black women to have pride, beauty, and style
with their hair righteously nappy.
I think of all the little black girls I see and remember
whose hair met its demise through the frying process.
I see the cry in that little twist of damaged hair
held tight with a ribbon
trying to make it something it is not and never will be.
I imagine that same little girl with her hair short
and beautifully nappy.
I love this feeling of nappy unruliness in my hands,
and it reminds me of who I am and what I come from.
I love it when I see all the beautiful textures of nap,
and I wonder if those little black girls
will ever see the beauty I see nappy hair.
Judson: With these bands representing conversations on race...
How are you toiling with, what is your proximity to or not,
so the response back will be "with our bodies."
We're stretching our bodies
because we're stretching our minds.
We're stretching to have these conversations
with our other classmates.
We're stretching to have these conversations
with our employees or our boss.
One of the things that feels really impactful
from any Urban Bush Woman experience,
whether it be going to see "Hair & Other Stories" the concert
or coming to a Hair Party, is that folks have a moment
to reflect on their individual experience.
A'Keen: I want you to think about how you came into the space,
and now I want you to think about how is this experience
leaving an imprint so that it doesn't just wash over us.
But where is it living in my body?
How are you archiving?
We want people to take a pause and say, "Okay,
how does this experience really sit with me?
How does it shake up, reflect or push my own values,
my own beliefs, my own practices?"
And from there then folks start to take those steps out into
and "then what's my responsibility
Now that I've assessed how it sits in my home community?"
What if the people who recognize it inside of themselves lift
their voices up in their schools, their jobs, their work?
And make another connection.
We want folks to be able to talk to their neighbors,
connect and build community inside of the room,
but essentially that everything comes back to the self.
How does this sit with me? Does it make me uncomfortable?
Does it make me excited and want to study more?
Or do I just actually need a moment to sit with it?
A'Keen: We're looking into this material
and we're saying, "What does this say to me about the beyond?
What does this say to me about transcending racism and race
and those traumas so that we can get to the beyond?"
And I want you, as you're looking at that material,
to think about what is the beyond.
One of the themes for the concert work,
particularly with "Hair & Other Stories,"
is this idea of the beyond, this idea of the superhero,
of us as individuals being everyday superheroes
and how we're the ones who are going to create change.
One final archiving.
I'm going to invite you if you have your phone,
and you're just going to take a picture, take a selfie.
We're not going to allow this experience to wash over us
because we're going to the beyond.
We do this thing in the show,
and we say when I asked you where you're going,
you say "to the beyond."
I asked you where are you going.
All: To the beyond.
Kuumba: To journey from entering from one conversation
and then how it goes deeper and deeper and deeper...
it's creating multiple ways
as to how we find our own liberation.
So we going to the beyond?
How are we going to get there? -Come on.
We are going to go by train.
Okay? The liberation train.
Alright. So all aboard!
We wanted to really do our due diligence as artists
and speak to what we understand to be on the horizon.
So that is something that we're doing inside of the concert work
and hoping to inspire and probe folks
into inside of the Hair Parties.
We go create a space...
And then also probing folks
into what's the next things that we want to grapple with
so that we can get to our own beyond individually
and so that we can get to the next place
that we want to see our world
and our society pushing to.
♪ The beyond is over here, and the beyond is over there ♪
♪ Right here, and then one, two, three, back there ♪
♪ The beyond is over here, and the beyond is over there ♪
Cook: It's a party, so people stick around
and they want to talk
and they want to ask more questions
and also just share share -- their own stories.
♪ Right here, and then one, two, three, back there ♪
They're seeing themselves reflected in the dialog
that's happening and what we're discussing.
These are the communities that we're going to dive...
It's just a push or a reminder or a vision for them
to continue doing the work.
Zollar: If they know Urban Bush Women as a dance company,
they will get to understand something more about the depth
that we work in with community experiences.
There are multiple experiences in this space...
And that they get both the joy and the work.
I'm really excited about the kind of blossoming
of the intentional leadership development
that we've been doing.
And so I'm seeing the leaders within Urban Bush Women
and those who have left and created choreographic careers
or going into academia, running institutions.
Kuumba: I have grown up watching Urban Bush Women perform
since I was young,
and it's definitely been an impact on me as an artist,
as a performer and as a woman of color
to see bodies like mine that are strong and graceful
and telling stories on stage and in the community.
Webster's says that that liberation is the act of...
Zollar: What's exciting is that these are people who...
...from another's control.
...understand that you don't have to
just be on the surface.
Liberation -- What does that mean to you in one word?
You don't have to talk down to audiences or simplify.
You can really be rigorous
with how you have experiences with people.
-So Sarah is [indistinct]! -[ Indistinct ]
And as I'm seeing that, I think that multiplication...
We gonna roll those troops.
...of voices out in the world in leadership
is really exciting, and we need it.
...that fought for liberation.
Cook: I love the saying, like, "the revolution
will not be televised"
because I really do feel like that.
I feel like it's,
you know, revolutionary acts happened every day.
-Liberation takes work! -Takes work!
Even small interactions
that happen between two or more people,
like, those are revolutionary acts.
Whenever a shift is made, a new perspective is found,
those are all revolutionary acts.
Zollar: Dance is a discipline and a practice.
You have to do it over and over and over again,
and that grounds you.
I think the message is that liberation is a practice,
it's a discipline,
and we will get to the beyond.
All: Urban Bush Women!
[ Man singing indistinctly ]