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Monday, November 28, 2016

CITIZEN—Being and Belonging

Raja Kelly. Photo courtesy Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel
By Christian Barclay

In 1936 Josephine Baker, then already a major star in Europe, returned to America to star in the Ziegfield Follies. The production featured choreography by George Balanchine, music by Vernon Duke, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. In spite of the marquee names, the show was a flop. Many critics specifically attacked Baker’s performance, labeling her “a Negro wench,” incapable of portraying a woman of sophistication and power. Disgusted and disheartened, Baker renounced her American citizenship and moved to France. She wouldn’t perform in the US again for over a decade.

CITIZEN, the newest work from Reggie Wilson and the Fist & Heel Performance Group, was inspired by the challenges that Baker and other black artists and activists faced in America––and the reasons why some ultimately chose to leave. The piece is predicated on the concept of belonging, and asks the questions “What does it mean to belong?” and “What does it mean to not want to belong?”

Wilson traces the genesis of CITIZEN to an ongoing interest in the work and life of Zora Neale Hurston, who unlike many of her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, never carved a path to Paris. A 2014 trip to the city raised a myriad of questions for Wilson: Were African-Americans “immigrants” in their own country? How did they fight for their right to participate? What did they find in Paris that was so different, and how did this difference affect their art? Paris had long been a haven for African-Americans. From the first mass migration in 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase, the city remained an escape from slavery and segregation.

Anna Schon. Photo courtesy Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel
Its embrace of black culture provided African-Americans a uniquely visible opportunity to explore and celebrate their heritage. W.E.B. Du Bois’ groundbreaking American Negro exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition showcased hundreds of photographs of African-Americans, seeking to belie the theory that they were a biologically inferior and monolithic people. The exhibit, which was largely shunned by the American press, won an unprecedented seventeen awards, including a Gold Medal.

James Reese Europe, a ragtime and early jazz bandleader and musician, had a similarly formative experience in France during World War I. After fighting with his all-black regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, Europe and his military band toured all over the country, performing for sold-out crowds. His compositions, a syncopated blend of spirituals and plantation melodies, helped spur the early growth of jazz. On his return to America in 1919, Europe said, “We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”

While some African-Americans returned from Paris with a renewed will, others sought a more permanent escape. Writer James Baldwin settled into a self-imposed exile in Paris when he was 24. In addition to escaping American prejudice, Baldwin was in search of a place where he could explore himself and his writing beyond an imposed racial context. He wanted to avoid “becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.”

What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to not want to belong? How is a sense of belonging related to being an individual? For these historic figures, and many more, their time abroad offered them an opportunity to explore these questions personally, publicly, and politically. CITIZEN is grounded by such experiences, promising to illuminate the complex ways in which we strive to define ourselves––both within a group and outside of it.

CITIZEN will be performed by Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group at the BAM Harvey Theater from December 14—17.

Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

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