Mr. TOL E RAncE
In part inspired by Spike Leeâs controversial film Bamboozled, Mr. TOL E RAncE makes extensive use of video projection, occasionally to bold effect. The work opens with archival footage of early minstrel shows, and as the dancers enter, their movements mirror those of the performers onscreen. Alternately languorous and sharp, thereâs a focus to the early choreography that lapses as the dancersâ steps grow faster and the live piano music more frenetic. This rhythmic quality can be entrancing, but it also feels limiting: The constrained movement vocabulary, so often confined to minstrel-show mimicry, stifles the obvious skills and dynamism of Brown and her dancers.
As the performance progresses, title cards of various sitcoms (Diffârent Strokes, The Jeffersons, Good Times) flash across the backdrop. At one oddly amateurish point, the seven performers sing the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at an almost intelligible pace. Later, in a profanity-fueled âgame show,â they compete for nominations as best âbadass Negroâ or best Jezebel. The interactions among the performers speak to the relationship between social gathering and dance, but the overly sexualized choreographyâcrotch grabbing, ass slappingâstruck me as painfully obvious. âMay the best coon win!â Brown shouts at the end of the awards spoof.
In the talkback that followed last nightâs performance (each show will be followed by a conversation between performers and audience members), dancer Mayte Natalio noted that âwe donât want to beat you over the head.â She went on: âThis is not a PBS special.â True: Mr. TOL E RAncE does not deliver a systematic history lesson on minstrelsy or a treatise on stereotypical depictions of blacks in popular culture. But it veers heavily toward the brash rather than the subtle, even as the performers inject it with intermittent bursts of effective humor. And while it did unsettleâas good performance shouldâit also left me feeling as if Iâd just watched a collection of music videos and comedy sketches, rather than a coherent and unified program.