As a black, gay man, I am aware of being seen in a particular way. I know firsthand what it is like to be perceived as a threat. My body has been criminalized, demoralized, dehumanized, and made the object of contempt. Although I consciously attempt to shed those perceptions, the weight of them still lingers, unaffected. And this weight is not unique to my experience—it has become woven into the fabric of our societal norms. In light of the highly public brutalizing of young people of color, specifically black men, by police and fellow citizens, I feel compelled to connect my art to something beyond autobiography; to offer something that might potentially initiate dialogue.
"Threat" came out of an investigation of agitprop, an 'in your face' choreographic device, while studying Advanced Composition with Susan Foster at UCLA in the fall of 2014. When thinking about making work designed to educate and agitate audience members around an important issue, I turned to aggressions I have read about, witnessed and experienced myself recently. In Los Angeles, I travel by public transit and by foot. The ride from MacArthur Park, where I live, to Westwood, where I attend graduate school, spans a great range of socio-economic groups, and so I encounter people of varying backgrounds on my commute. On one hand, it is a wonderful sight to behold people who would not normally mix sharing a row of seats on a bus. However, while seated in this 'melting pot' gathering, my critical mind awakens whenever I enter the neighborhood surrounding my campus, in a segment of Los Angeles where traces of racially restrictive housing covenants waft in the air. And I have more than once witnessed incidences on the bus where black men are unjustly targeted because they are presumed to be threats or perceived as threatening.
With the usual performance jitters and anxieties aside, my performance of "Threat" was riddled with adrenaline. The structure of the work asks the audience/participants to be self-aware and self-reflexive, while simultaneously demanding they react to intense visual and aural stimuli. It was cacophonic. The energy was palpable. I felt vulnerable, at times as if I was being verbally assaulted by a mob. Positioning myself to be physically and emotionally exposed elicited an instinctive desire to recoil. At the same time, I also felt a sense of power. I had been given the opportunity to yield my own agency in the face of my "oppressors." I could also give a specific face to the sometimes abstract-seeming, albeit very human, casualties of systemic oppression.
After performing “Threat,” the class and I had a discussion. Having recently encountered pedagogical theory, I decided to have everyone sit on the floor, in a circle to level the field of authority. The discussion was slow to start but it amped up to a level of depth and insight that pleasantly surprised me. Some of the students, who were not people of color, mentioned feelings of guilt that arose during their participation, and their great discomfort at having to witness someone being groundlessly targeted and punished. This was the outcome I had hoped for. One viewer/participant, however, spoke to why he did not follow the "script." He saw a chance to execute his agency and took it. He deviated from the prescription of playing along with something he did not agree with; he, unlike the other two participants, would not hurl the verbal epithets at me. This was an unexpected outcome that disrupted the set of audience/participant responses I had predicted. I was not ready for his choice of quiet disobedience. Yet, in retrospect, it was a beautiful moment. Instantly, I had to reevaluate my actions as a performer and ultimately, as a human. His radical act of not following the "script" is what activism is. Not only is the dancer/activist open to radically shifting our world, so is the audience/participant/citizen.
I imagine this work being enacted and experienced in a variety of group settings. Ideally, it could be performed in schools across the nation. I am curious about what the experience could be like in a principally homogenous population. In subsequent performances on campus so far the bulk of the students in the audience have been white, although UCLA has a diverse population which has lead to lengthy discussions incorporating multiple perspectives.
Ultimately, I believe most, if not all people have notions of who and what is a threat. I believe this work can continue to facilitate fruitful confrontations and reevaluations of pre-conceptions that have been handed down to us. I feel this kind of work is valuable. I believe this kind of art is valuable.