The January 1964 Look magazine centerfold is iconic: Norman Rockwell’s painting depicts a small African-American girl, wearing a white dress and walking resolutely, flanked by four U.S. marshals, all caught mid-stride against a tomato-splattered wall upon which “K.K.K.” and a racial epithet are scrawled.
That image, The Problem We All Live With, inspired dancer and choreographer Afua Hall to create RED, “a dance theater-based art activism project” that opens Friday at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.
About 10 years ago Hall bought a print of the painting for her stepfather. The image stirred her, but she didn’t know its historical significance until years later, when she read The Story of Ruby Bridges, about the 6-year-old New Orleans girl who in 1960 was the first black child to desegregate a Southern elementary school.
“What resonates for me,” says Hall, “is how she overcame a traumatic event through the telling of her own story.”
Hall created an intuitive, nonlinear account of her thoughts and feelings about the story, conditioned by her experience as an “outsider” who emigrated from Jamaica to the United States. (She is now a Miami resident.)
“The parts of the Ruby Bridges story that have surfaced the most in the creative process are the isolation that Ruby experienced in school and her relationship to her teacher, Mrs. Henry,” Hall says.
The performance begins with Elana Lanczi as Henry and Hall, in the present, exploring their own issues before assuming their historical roles.
Hall sees RED as a community-building project and hopes it inspires “frank and perhaps uncomfortable conversations about our recent history that we might sometimes wish we could forget.”
Employing interviews and historical research as well as introspection, Hall developed the piece as part of MTC’s SandBox series.
The series, which won a $100,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant, is “a commissioning program for new work … from the point of view of the artists,” says resident artist Octavio Campos, who calls it “an idea engine, a platform for visionary works, unabashed play and new ways of engaging with our world.”
The SandBox commission provided Hall with rehearsals, peer review and time to study 1960s social dance styles alongside Lanczi. It’s her most elaborate work yet, with set design by Larry Miller, including a doll installation by T. Eliott Mansa, a film by Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez, music by A.J. Hill and costumes by Megan Swick and Asha Darbeau.
“I chose to title the piece RED to remind myself of what we all have in common,” says Hall. “And also to subtly suggest the Ruby Bridges’ story without creating too many expectations for it being completely re-enacted in my piece.”
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.