Red, the dance-theater piece Afua Hall is debuting at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, has an intriguing premise based on an inspiring story. In it, Hall responds to the story of Ruby Bridges, the young New Orleans girl whose bravery and dignity in desegregating a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 was immortalized in the Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With.
But Hall’s expression of the painful and complicated issues embodied in Bridge’s story, while earnestly constructed and performed, feels diffused. Red, which is the final show in the MTC’s Sandbox series of original pieces commissioned from Miami artists, opened Friday and continues on Friday and Saturday nights through July 13.
Hall opens by reading from a children’s book that tells Bridges’ story. She is seated on a bright red wooden seesaw, part of a set by Larry Miller that also includes a pyramid of black and white stairs and T. Eliott Mansa’s hanging clump of old-fashioned dolls, painted stark black or white. The Jamaican-born Hall, who is black, wears a white dress for most of the show, while fellow performer Elena Lanczi, who is white, wears a black one. It’s an either-or world here. Sax music by AJ Hill is interspersed with civil rights, soul and R&B songs.
Hall’s demeanor is bright and explanatory, like a teacher reading to children — telling how Bridges sat alone in class with her teacher all year and prayed for the racist crowds that taunted her.
But for the rest of the nearly hour-long show, she mostly expresses fear, doubt and struggle — perhaps her interpretation of Bridges’ feelings, or Hall’s own reactions to the painful story. She cowers at the sound of barking dogs (which evoke the police dogs used to intimidate civil rights protestors), tearfully huddles under a white apron-like skirt around a pillar, stands amid the clump of dolls, batting at them, and tentatively climbs the stairs only to sit dejectedly.
Lanczi is by turns encouraging partner, teacher and seemingly a part of Hall’s own psyche, sometimes hesitant, at other times resolute. Early on, Hall keeps pulling a reluctant Lanczi out of a chair in the audience, but Lanczi keeps returning to her seat. Later Lanczi jumps and dances joyfully, urging a tearful Hall to dance and laugh with her. The two women rub and roll bodies around each other in soft, improvisational-seeming duets.
The program notes say that Hall wanted to tackle questions of racism and the forces that divide and unite us a half-century after Bridges’ odyssey and also to explore her own feelings about those issues.
Red is thought-provoking, but vaguely so — Hall’s struggle is mostly interior, and her response mostly seems to recoil or hesitate at the pain she evokes. The dancing, too, is constricted in scope and inventiveness. At the end of the show, she balances tenuously on the red seesaw, but it’s hard to feel strongly about her struggle to get there.
A previous version of this story mis-identified T. Eliott Mansa, the artist who created the dolls used in the set.