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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CITIZEN—A Note from Reggie Wilson

Choreographer Reggie Wilson (Moses(es), 2013 Next Wave; The Good Dance - dakar/brooklyn, 2009 Next Wave) returns to BAM next week with CITIZEN—a brand new work inspired by African-American figures throughout history who chose not to leave their home country in spite of pervasive racism. A note from Wilson follows.

I am excited to return to the BAM Next Wave Festival with a new dance.

It’s amazing how life and current events change the perception and meaning of artwork. I began researching CITIZEN in spring 2014 during a visit to Paris. I was intrigued by a portrait of Jean Baptiste Belley. Who was this man? Who painted the portrait and why? Who was able to commission a full-figure portrait of a black man in 1797? Who decided to continue to save this portrait during the political upheavals? How was it determined that this painting should be housed at Versailles (the only image of a black person in the entire collection—a self proclaimed bastion of French heroes). Why was this painting not on public display? Why are there so few paintings of black folks in “history” who aren’t enslaved, wild, or caricatured?

Jean Baptiste Belley
So many questions… about a black man’s portrait. I was intrigued. At the time, France and Europe were experiencing protests and riots in centers of immigrants and minorities. Jump to America and a spike in police killings of unarmed black men. Black Lives Matter. Jump to Trump. It all seems like a bit of history repeating. But what is my individual character made of? Do I have the stuff to survive this time?

The peculiar American crucible of enslaving humans has had a particular impact on the African-American identity; the ongoing wrestling with basic human desires, relationships, and responses to—and about—the concept of “belonging to.” What does it mean to belong, and what does it mean to not want to belong? Why was it that the always inspiring Zora Neale Hurston did not follow her compatriots Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and countless others to France in the face of deep and persistent racism? What was the allure of Paris? What did black folks find there that was truly different from here, in America? How did this difference affect them, their art, and their craft? Is exotique another name for “other”?

Or what about Senegal-born Jean-Baptiste Belley who fought for Haitian independence from France; William H. Johnson, valet to Abraham Lincoln who nursed the president back to health after the Gettysburg Address and bears the US government-issued headstone with the title CITIZEN; and black Shaker leader Mother Rebecca Cox Jackson who prayed herself literate within a conflicted America. What did and do folks need to do to learn and exercise agency, and be free and truly independent? What do any of us—immigrant, refugee, outcast, common citizen—have to do? How do we get from here to there?

It’s just a dance. But then again… Take what you will and leave what you won’t. Be blessed.

CITIZEN plays the BAM Harvey Theater December 14—17, and tickets are still available.

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