Dance and Narrative
Urban Bush Women is not a company that performs works that help us escape from our daily lives into fairytales. Giselle and Sleeping Beauty don’t count as Urban Bush Women. Instead, choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her dancer-collaborators plumb the communities from which they come to find source material for their art. Their dance theater presentations typically combine contemporary dance, text, and music, while also drawing on African American folklore and spiritual traditions. The pieces elaborate on untold or under-told stories of their traditions, as well as addressing very real present day issues that face women of color. The works tackle topical issues of the disenfranchised such as homelessness, and women’s issues such as abortion, but they also revel in the lighter side of life, using humor and song. In addition, Zollar has been a leader in using artistic work to stimulate activism. They frequently follow up on their performances with long-term residencies that lead to community organizing and cross-cultural exchanges.
In 2001, Zollar and Urban Bush Women presented the world premiere of Hair Stories at Jacob’s Pillow. In a Pillow interview at that summer, Zollar said that she started working on HairStories in 1996, explaining that it started out as a one-woman show that felt in many ways for her like a stand-up comedy routine. But then she noticed that this was not a solo concern, as dancers on tour would bond by sharing stories of growing up and getting their hair done, and participating in hair parties. So then the material grew to be a work for the company.
Zollar collaborated with the dancers, poet and recording artist Carl Hancock Rux, and filmmaker Carmella Vassor on HairStories. Zollar knew that audience members would come to the work with different understandings of hair and hair culture, so she wove filmed interviews with women and a few men talking about their hair through the performance.
Strong characters drive the episodic work, including Zollar in the role of Dr. Professor, an anthropologist; Madam CJ Walker, who invented of hair care products for African American women at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, and family members, waitresses, and girls.
As with all of Zollar’s works, even when topics are apparently light-hearted, there are always powerful messages imbedded in the fun about criticizing stereotypes based on race and/or gender. For example, one section of HairStories points out the difficult time the traditionally white sport of tennis has had dealing with the beaded hair and swaggering attitudes of Serena and Vanessa Williams.
When they move in unison, their individuality is maintained as a community is formed. The individuals of Urban Bush Women are grounded and fierce, their shared strength allowing them to investigate intimate issues belied by their toughness.
For additional analysis of Zollar and Urban Bush Women at Jacob’s Pillow, please read John Perpener’s essay.