Telling stories of racial injustice through dance
By Stephanie Meditz
After a two-year creative process conducted via Zoom, Kupferberg Center for the Arts will host the world premiere of Edisa Weeks’ “Action Songs/Protest Dances.”
“Action Songs/Protest Dances” is a live performance that combines original music by Martha Redbone, Spirit McIntyre and Taina Asili with modern dance to tell stories of past and present racial injustice in America.
Three songs incorporate Queens College Professor Edisa Weeks’ research on civil rights activist James Forman, especially his book, “The Making of Black Revolutionaries.”
The Queens College Rosenthal Library is home to an archive of Forman’s personal documents, including his FBI files, collection of political pamphlets and original drafts of his books.
Weeks was interested in researching Forman’s archive because of his critique of capitalism as an exploitative system.
“As a choreographer, I really believe in a researched performance process where it’s looking at history, looking at what has gone before and to bring it forward into the present. And so, for me, it’s been really satisfying to be able to do that with this project,” she said.
“What are things that James Forman cared about and how many of those issues like reparations are we still needing to address in America? And what are things that we actually have achieved?” she continued. “For me, as a Black woman, it would’ve been impossible for me to teach at Queens College 60 years ago, but now that’s something that’s actually possible because of the work and efforts that people like James Forman did.”
The other two songs reflect current social justice issues and were inspired by the chain of racial hate crimes in 2020, including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“I kept on wondering what is a way that I, as a choreographer, can lend a voice to a lot of the ferment or protest that was happening,” Weeks said. “Or just for America to be a just and truly great nation.”
Weeks’ choreography is inspired by African dances from her childhood and modern dance that she has studied.
The creative process paired each of the three composers with two dancers, and each group drew parallels between current social issues and relevant topics in James Forman’s archive.
Taina Asili wrote a song related to the idea in Forman’s “Black Manifesto” of financial reparations for direct descendants of enslaved people.
The song and accompanying choreography both incorporate Afro-Caribbean elements.
“Each song is unique to the dancer and also to the message of the song,” Weeks said.
This project began at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Weeks worked with the dancers and composers via Zoom until this September.
“I’ve had a month to work with the dancers and to choreograph, so it’s been a little intense and stressful,” she said. “However, also incredibly generative. I think, partially because we were in such a long gestation period, the dancers really are invested in the songs and the songs are coming from them.”
Weeks hopes that the performance will expose a new generation to James Forman’s ideas and motivate people to strive for justice in their communities.
“I’m hoping people can…experience a work that engages song and lyrics and dance and be inspired,” she said.
“Action Songs/Protest Dances” is the inaugural work of the Kupferberg Arts Incubator, an initiative that began in 2020 to give professional artists who teach at Queens College a two-year residency.
“Without the immediate prospect of resuming live events, we decided that we wanted to devote significant resources and energy toward the development of new work, which obviously takes time,” Jon Yanofsky, Kupferberg Center for the Arts director, said.
KCA’s mission is to provide accessible cultural entertainment for both the Queens College community and the entire borough.
The Kupferberg Arts Incubator is geared toward artists of color, artists who live and work in communities of color and artists whose work addresses social inequities.
“We picked Edisa Weeks, a choreographer and professor that Kupferberg had the opportunity to work with on multiple occasions. She led the dance program at Queens College, and we were just all so impressed with the way she connected with students,” Yanofsky said. “She soundly met that criteria.”
“Edisa just has such a unique dynamic point of view and she pulls people along by the strength of her conviction, just her incredibly ebullient spirit and this collaborative nature that is truly authentic,” he continued. “It was really wonderful and refreshing to see the hard work that true collaboration requires…The piece is a composite of all the people involved.”
The Kupferberg Arts Incubator’s next iteration will be in 2024 with Queens College professor Chloe Bass.
Action Songs/Protest Dances will premiere at Kupferberg Center for the Arts on Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 3 p.m.
After each performance, audience members are invited to participate in a discussion with Weeks and the rest of the creative team.