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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Confronting the Sins of Omission

Ferne Caulker Bronson’s ‘Sweet Grass Project’

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The infectious sound of African drums guided me to the rehearsal room at UW-Milwaukee's Mitchell Hall. Ferne Caulker Bronson, the choreographer and artistic director of Ko-Thi Dance Company since its founding in 1969, stood behind a child, her arms around his, helping him step on the beat. Soon, two-dozen members of Ton Ko-Thi, the children's dance company, held hands in a circle for "life love lessons." "What are you learning?" Bronson asked. The answers came: Technique. Energy. Discipline. "What are you looking for?" she continued. "Shape. Form. Rhythm." "You ate too much sugar today and you're overtired," she admonished. At the next rehearsal, she warned, "I'm going to ask what you read this week."

A different, harder kind of learning commenced when the company of young adults—Ko-Thi members and students of the UWM Dance Department—entered the room to rehearse The Sweet Grass Project, a new work by Bronson that will premiere May 17-18. It's the result of a university Research Grant Initiative that let Bronson spend time with the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia. Connections have been established between the Gullah and the people of Sierra Leone in Africa where Bronson was born and raised to the age of 13. Not only Africanisms, but many slave traditions have been preserved by the Gullah. Sweet grass basketry is one such link back through slavery to Sierra Leone. The new dance travels from Africa to the plantations, escape attempts and lynchings. Embodied by these young dancers, history takes on painful immediacy.

Bronson's major collaborator is UWM film professor Portia Cobb who is Gullah and has filmed the culture for years. The performance includes recorded interviews with former slaves collected by the Smithsonian and personal reflections delivered live by the dancers who have had to absorb the realities of slavery in order to develop their performances.

Pointedly based on traditional African dance forms, Bronson's choreography for The Sweet Grass Project is nevertheless original. "I'm seeing what happens," she said, "if I create a vocabulary that expresses the research and then surrender to the other human beings in the room, give them freedom to laugh, cry, experiment and come out with self-knowledge."

The dancers spoke after the rehearsal. "We want the audience to understand how it feels for us to be in this piece," a young woman explained. "It was really hard because we were forced to confront what happened to our ancestors. As an African American, I've always been encouraged to ignore my family's history. Breaking down the walls I'd built was tough. I recently learned about my great-great grandmother, a slave on a Mississippi plantation. I learned her name, her work—she pulled logs from place to place. Before she died, she acquired some land, but the family sold it because they wanted to forget."

A dancer from Panama was horrified to learn about slavery in America. "I thought, how could this happen here? Then I wondered: Could it also have happened in Panama?" Research showed that indeed it had, extensively, though no one speaks of it. A common expression used to admonish questioning students is "Don't be a rebel," she said.

The story of what happened to people from the African continent is kept distant or abstract, Bronson argues, through intentional "sins of omission" by educational institutions, but also by African-American families who've learned to equate hiding with survival. Speaking of youth today, Bronson asks, "How can you grow up to be a peace-loving human being when big chunks of you are missing? When you are hollow because you don't know where you came from?"

In Georgia, Bronson took a guided tour of a slave-era plantation. Slavery was never mentioned, although the celebrated quilts, the hand-carved woodwork and the park that entertained the master's wife were made by slaves who lived in long-vanished shacks. Bronson dedicates The Sweet Grass Project to those whom the Gullah called "saltwater niggers," the newly arrived slaves "who ain't been beat enough, who hold on still, who ain't had their heritage whipped out of them."

"Black and proud wasn't a fad for me," the great teacher concluded. "My concern is the institution of racism. As long as I'm alive, my voice will rise."

The Sweet Grass Project will be presented Friday, May 17, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, May 18, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. in Mitchell Hall Studio 254. For ticket reservations, call 414-229-4308 or visit arts.uwm.edu/tickets.