‘Stalwart Originality’ highlights black art

As a culmination of Black History Month, the “Stalwart Originality: New Traditions in Black Performance Conference” began at Williams on Feb. 22. The conference, in its second year after a successful run in the spring of 2001, is themed “Secular Uses of Spirituality.”

After a rousing opening with a workshop and performance by the world-renowned Randy Weston Jazz Ensemble, the conference promises to continue its rare blend of black performance and criticism throughout the week and the following weekend. The conference showcases student performances and offers lectures, panel discussions, workshops and performances in order to explore the various manifestations and deeper meanings of black performance in the twenty-first century.

At first glance, it might seem as if the title of the conference implies a narrowly-defined focus. However, the definitions of “black” and “performance” that this conference employs are far from conventional. “Black” here refers to the African Diaspora, including America, the Caribbean and Africa. “Performance” is not rigidly confined to the performing arts; the conference extends its focus to visual and cinematic art. Indeed, this year’s student performances feature artists that are not African-American or black and include visual and video art.

Last year’s conference included a heavy emphasis on theater and film, featuring a showing of independent black films as well as a panel on the role of black female directors in theater. This year, Ron K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company is one of the major players in the conference, offering master classes at Williams during the week and a performance at MASS MoCA on the evening of March 2. The company, which was founded by Ron Brown in New York City in 1987, has received accolades extraordinary for an organization of its size and age. A young and immensely gifted choreographer, Brown was named one of the “30 Geniuses Under 30” by the New York Times in 1999 and went on to choreograph work for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2000. Grounded in West African, hip hop and modern dance, his company has a broad understanding of black performance, evidenced by its frequent collaborations with acclaimed dance companies and choreographers in both the United States and Africa.

One of the most exciting elements of this year’s conference is the fact that student performances will be featured at MASS MoCA on Saturday afternoon. Working with this year’s theme, students will be presenting a range of spoken word, photography, video, music, dance and theater pieces that speak to the ways that the secular and the sacred intersect in their lives. Groups slated to perform include Sankofa, NBC, Sol Ka Fe and the Gospel Choir.

Several students have created original pieces for Stalwart Originality collaboratively and on their own. Students Jason Lucas ’02, Ben Sands ’02 and William Green ’03, along with Office for Informational Technology specialist Andy Chiu, have created pieces that combine African rhythms and dance in an innovative exploration of this theme. In an effort to encourage students and the Williams community at large to think critically about the reasons why they choose to perform and what black performance means in general, the student performance segment of Stalwart Originality will feature a panel of faculty who will ask students to talk about their work and offer feedback. Panel members include David Eppel of the theatre department, KweYao Agyapon from the athletic department, Ernest Brown of the music department and Julia Foulkes, who has a masters degree in art history from Williams and a Ph.D. in black performance styles.

Stalwart Originality does not lack for engagement of pressing intellectual questions raised by its themes. A panel discussion at the Williams College Museum of Art on Wednesday is entitled “When Heavens Fall to Earth: The Confrontation of Spirituality and the Arts.” Joe Thompson, a Williams alum and the Director of MASS MoCA, will lead a tour through and gallery talk about Robert Wilson’s visual art installation at the museum, “Stations of the Cross.” Wilson’s controversial piece, using everything from Shaker log cabin architecture to pictures of singer Madonna for his original interpretation of the Lenten ritual of Stations of the Cross, is inexhaustibly intriguing. The panel discussion on Wednesday features an arts journalist from the Berkshire Eagle, choreographer Ron Brown and the Director of Performing Arts at MASS MoCA for a lively discussion of the topic at hand.

All Stalwart Originality events are open to the Williams College community and are free, with the exception of the student performances and Ron K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company performance on March 2 at MASS MoCA. Transportation to and from MASS MoCA will be provided; sign-ups for transportation are in Baxter Hall.