'In Perpetual Flight' Took A Deep Look At The History Of Black Life In America

by Michael Mahany | 4/18/2019 1:58 AM

The National Black Theater. Photo credit: NBT.

Last Tuesday evening, artists from Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre teamed up with the Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture to present ‘In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body’.

The performance at New York City’s Schomburg Center was a part of Carnegie Hall’s Migrations: The Making of America, "a citywide festival featuring events about the journeys of people who have shaped and influenced American culture.“ The performance program, ‘In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body’, "examined the movement of the Black body in America and the impact that movement has had on the quest for liberation."

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Four different theatre and dance makers -- all of African descent and from within New York City’s vast arts community -- were commissioned to create pieces for the performance focussing on four distinctly impactful periods of time in Black American history.

First, National Black Theatre CEO, Sade Lythcott, and Artistic Director, Jonathan McCrory, created a piece that explored, “the transatlantic and domestic slave trade and runaway journeys of the 1450s to the 1860s”, while Award-winning musician and sound designer, Justin Hicks, and Drama Desk award-winning actress and singer, Kenita Miller, created a new piece of music that focussed on “the wide range of Back-to-Africa movements from 1773 to the 1920s”. Playwright and television writer, Keith Josef Adkins, orchestrated a monologue about “the origins and impact of the Great Migration from 1916 to the 1930s”, and finally, Alvin Ailey dancer and choreographer, Hope Boykin, developed a dance piece that delved “into the Civil War era to examine the first northern migration of the 1840s to the 1890s.”

Dance Network was able to set up an in-depth interview with both NBT Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory and Ailey choreographer Hope Boykin, both of whom contributed dance work to the evening's programme.

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Read the full interviews below.

Dance Network: Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us.

First, to Ms. Boykin — you're an extremely accomplished dancer who's worked with some of the most incredible companies, in some of the most amazing places, and with of the world's most remarkable dancers, but tell us -- what initially drew you to dance?

Hope Boykin. Photo credit: Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

Hope Boykin: As a young person my mother wanted to make sure that I was involved in anything and everything. I tried clarinet, I played field hockey and softball, and I started in dance and gymnastics when I was about three or four. I was also interested in cheerleading and took piano lessons— but I always came back to dance. Back to movement and this art form as a way of expressing myself. At one point you do things because someone tells you to do it, and then you start to weed out the things that you don’t love for what you do love and what you actually need. I clearly needed dance in my life and that’s why I am still here. 

DN: And, for you, Mr. McCrory — as an award-winning artist who practices in multiple disciplines and runs a successful theatre company, would you tell us a little bit about how you initially found your way to theatre and dance?

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Jonathan McCrory: My commitment to the craft began at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC. This is one of the oldest arts high schools and nationally known for the cultivation of phenomenal artistic leaders, visionaries and innovators. There, I learned the focus, rigor, and nuance of how art in all its various shapes and forms can and should be a radical tool of a healing expression--that it is through the arts that we have the opportunity to articulate with the clarity of one’s ancestral grace. It was in those years that I began to understand the power of living in a hyphenated realm and not just doing one trade. Being a student at Ellington, I was given access to the time and resources to not only study musical theater -- which was my major -- but to begin to understand what it meant to be a lighting designer, a set designer, how to do house management. I mean that in high school I was privileged to really begin to uncover and unmask all the various different verticals that help to support the creation of the artistic form. From there I continued to be curious and that curiosity turned into the career I currently have.

Jonathan McCrory. Photo credit: AT.

DN: With the enormous and arduous task of telling the stories of and “examining the transatlantic and domestic slave trade and runaway journeys of the 1450s to the 1860s”, tell us, Mr. McCrory, a little about how you’ve approached your piece? From a leadership point of view, how have you managed, delegated and taken on the process?

JM: The piece that I’m created for ‘In Perpetual Flight’ is called ‘The Roll Call: The Roots To Strange Fruit’. It is an opportunity to uplift and examine the detrimental roots that have produced the strange fruit we as a society are addicted to, like capitalism. Our capitalistic hunger has turned humans into objects and the way I have approached my piece to examine the transatlantic and domestic slave trade and runaway journeys is to peer into how we have historically objectified human suffrage, to manifest the desire to have financial wealth. People will hear actual slave auction block notices, fugitive notices, and find-your-family notices. I hope by the end of the night and in particular, with my piece, we ask the question, “At what cost?” And that we start to wrestle with how we continue to lead with that mindset as many of our brightest die at the vine. When will we shift, change and disrupt this mindset to produce a different kind of fruit? 

As one of the lead curators of this event, it has been a huge honor to work with such brilliant people to co-curate with, such as Chelsea Dee, Artistic Associate at NBT, and Sade Lythcott, NBT’s CEO. Together we have worked to challenge assumptions, create a framework and establish a platform that will allow for dynamic artists to interpret the history that has and continues to have ripple effects that impact our present condition. I would be remiss if I also did not highlight that it has been a huge honor to work with a sister institution in Harlem, the Schomburg Center, in a beautiful synergetic partnership that allows for both institutions to uplift what we do best. For them, it is their archive and for us our ability to develop new work that captures the present-pulse vibration of the Black experience in America.

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DN: And, to you Ms. Boykin, Obviously it's an enormous undertaking, but can you tell us a little about your process of translating the stories for your piece -- in that, how you went about, thought about, and then, translated into sculpted movement, the myriad of emotionally and physically unimaginable stories of people moving north away from the slave South in the Civil War era?

HB: Yes, it is a huge undertaking especially since it is a piece dealing with moving away from slavery in the South.  My process with creating anything is knowing that movement is abstract and I can tell a story through the context of what it is that’s going on. There are moments of frustration, there are moments of freedom, there are moments of bondage, there are moments of just wanting to scream but not being able to. All of the trials that I feel like a person leaving the South during that time may have experienced and despite those trials, they still pushed forward in their journey because they wanted to provide a better life for their children and future generations. We will never really know what the struggle is or what the struggle was that they went through during this migration but we can imagine. We can say to ourselves: If a reaching symbolism with the arm is what is going to pull me, if I am going to constantly run, if I am going to constantly look over my shoulder to see if someone is chasing me. Can I get settled, can I finally find a place that I can call home and plant my feet? Those are images that I can translate into movement.

Hope Boykin. Photo credit: Richard Calmes.

DN: And, considering the amount of change that occurred during the years of the first northern migration, did you approach your storytelling with more of a zeroed-in and focused point of view or one of a "bird's eye" perspective?

HB: I would say yes and no. I tried to put myself in the position of one particular individual -- and that’s the fighter. The person who was willing to do any and everything to rid themselves of a situation, to escape a certain type of bondage. This person who is willing to remove themselves by any means necessary and put themselves in a place where they can start to thrive and prosper and build and grow with what’s around them as their own. The person who is finally able to take ownership of his or her own life and their abilities. What I want the performance to show the most is me trying to put myself in the footsteps of a person who has been told no, a person who has been led to believe that “yes” is not possible for their life. As a result, the movement of the piece is like a pushing and pressing — a releasing of tension and frustration.

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DN: Mr. McCrory, how did this whole opportunity come about? Tell us how NBT and Schomburg came together with Carnegie Hall on their city-wide ‘Migrations: The Making Of America’ festival?

JM: This event is actually birthed out of a two-year relationship that NBT has had with Carnegie Hall in conjunction with their citywide festivals. Last year, we worked with them to curate an event that celebrated the power of the ’60s. NBT partnered with Harlem Stage to produce a series of events entitled “Mothers of the Movements” and our event was “The Black Woman: She Does Exist.” This series looked at unearthing and celebrating the huge contribution Black women from the ’60s had in helping to shape, guide and establish the movements that changed and shifted America during the 1960s. With the success of that event, it was just logical to work with Carnegie Hall on their next citywide festival “Migration: The Making Of America.” When thinking about how NBT could curate and produce an event as part of this, the Schomburg was a logical partner as we could utilize the historical repository found there. By partnering with the Schomburg Center, NBT is able to articulate black migration from a new perspective that was not relegated to just the known and celebrated time period coined as The Great Migration. We wanted to examine and celebrate all the ways the black body has been essential to the making of the American cultural landscape because that fertile and turbulent history is the foundation of this society.

DN: And, on that, tell us a little about NBT’s work with regard to dance and movement? How important is that aspect of the theatre’s overall work?


JM: Dance lives at the foundation of the National Black Theatre. Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of NBT, was originally a dancer who trained under such masters as Martha Graham. It is because of that fundamental love and relationship to dance that 50 years later we see it as an essential energetic force to the creative experience and expression. It’s why we are so happy to work with an artist like Hope Boykin to generate a newly commissioned work. In all our theatrical works how the piece utilizes movement and moves is a key consideration.

DN: That’s quite remarkable. Specifically then, to Ms. Boykin —were there any specific places or sources of inspiration, in regard to your piece, that helped you choreograph and tell these stories?

HB: Yes, I think about women that I have watched break down barriers and watched break down the situations around them currently. If I focus on the women in the past, I can read about them and I can understand what they’ve gone through, but I don’t necessarily have a face or a voice for them. So I’ve taken people like my mother, elders in my church, or women that I watched work through trials in their lives and that helped me decide what I was going to incorporate in this piece for 'In Perpetual Flight'. Of course, I used those influences to complement the readings and archives that I was given by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre and the Schomburg Center, but in general I tried to put a name and face to people and tried to incorporate what I know and who I know and how I imagine they would have reacted during that time [the migrations during the Civil War era]. We are fighters in general. We have learned to sustain and remain and I’m thrilled that I’m able to share a little of that through my performance in 'In Perpetual Flight'.

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DN: With that, is there anything that you’d like the audience to take away after they see your piece?

HB: It’s hard to tell an audience what to accept and what to reject when they are just seeing something for one performance. It’s hard to understand necessarily where the creator is during the process.  But in talking about 'In Perpetual Flight’, I think that they will know that there is a freedom, there is a release, a rapture of trials and tribulations to a certain degree. 

Founder, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, outside the original National Black Theatre. Photo credit: NBT.

DN: Lastly, Mr. McCrory, we’re curious about the piece ‘125th & FREEdom’ that’s happening later this summer. Can you give us some insight?

JM: National Black Theatre has a residency program called the SOUL Series L.A.B. [Liberating Artistic Bravery]. This residency program works innovatively to help train and give access to the next generation of Black diasporic artistic leaders within our field. This year to expand the L.A.B., NBT launched the SOUL Directing Residency program. This program gives one Black director a home for 18 months to develop a devised or reimagine an existing work for a New York City or world premiere. To launch this program, we selected Ebony Noelle Golden as our first director-in-residence. The project she decided to develop and world premiere is 125th & FREEdom. 125TH & FREEdom is a five-hour, multi-site performance ritual that activates Harlem’s entire 125th street corridor as a performance site. The premise of the piece is to explore the question: "If Harriet Tubman was alive today, how would she free black people?” 125th & FREEdom weaves dance, music, and poetry to tell a shared story of legacy, love, and liberation through a dedicated ensemble of artists. It will take place each Saturday during the month of June.

[Also], this season we are celebrating NBT’s 50th anniversary and with this milestone, we have launched a new institutional program called NBT Beyond Walls. This program allows National Black Theatre to really engage beyond our physical location to a national and international platform that takes our pedagogy, forged by Dr. Teer, and stewarded now by Sade Lythcott, Abisola Pat Faison, Nabii Faison and myself,  and share it. We are inviting people to connect and reconnect with the institution locally as well and to grow with us as we embark on a redevelopment of the property we own and manage on 125th Street and National Black Theatre Way (Fifth Avenue) Harlem, New York.

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Carnegie Hall’s Migrations: The Making of America is a five-week festival of more than 100 events at more than 70 prestigious institutions celebrating the people who built American culture.

You can find out more on Hope Boykin by visiting her website and by following her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

For more on Jonathan McCrory, the National Black Theatre, and the most up-to-date information about NBT’s 50th anniversary season visit the company’s website or follow Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He is also a professional actor, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.

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