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By Donna Bryson
Reviving Katherine Dunham's controversial Southland
Right: Julie Belafonte in the original Southland, as “Julie” urging lynching. Photo from Julie Belafonte’s personal collection. Left: Susan Richardson as Julie in the revival. Photo by David Andrews, Courtesy CPRDE.
At a 90th-birthday celebration for Katherine Dunham, the celebrated dancer/choreographer/anthropologist was asked if she had any unrealized ambitions. She spoke of Southland, the protest ballet she created in the 1950s and had managed to stage only twice, in Chile and France, during a decade when her outspokenness about the horror of racism earned her powerful enemies at home.
Cleo Parker Robinson, who once studied with Dunham and whose own dance company is a Denver institution, remembers Dunham looking at Julie Belafonte, who had a starring role in Southland, and saying, “It would be amazing if it could ever be done in our country.”
Parker Robinson thought at the time, “It sounds like a final request.”
Dunham died seven years later, never to see Southland performed in the U.S. Now Parker Robinson, with help from Belafonte and others who worked with Dunham, has restaged the historic work that initially was commissioned by the Symphony of Chile and premiered at Santiago’s Opera House in 1951. The 42-year-old Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, which has danced around the world and is a repository of works by Dunham, Donald McKayle, Eleo Pomare, Talley Beatty, Alvin Ailey, Dianne McIntyre, and other black American choreographers, among them Parker Robinson herself, performed it in Denver in September. The company hopes to do Southland again in 2014.
The plot of Southland revolves around two couples. Richard and Lucy, who are black, are introduced in a touching duet under a magnolia tree. Lenwood and Julie, who are white, engage in quite a different duet, one that descends into sexual violence. Julie, beaten unconscious by Lenwood, wakes to find Richard has stopped to help her. She spits out a racial epithet—the only word spoken in the ballet—and falsely accuses Richard of attacking her, bringing down a mob.
The audience does not see Richard lynched. Instead, Julie dances a solo that expresses both violence and self-loathing. Then Richard is shown hanging from the magnolia tree that had sheltered his delicate dance with Lucy.
Parker Robinson received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for her restagings—ironic because U.S. diplomats in the 1950s, angered because they believed Dunham was depicting America in a bad light before foreign audiences, had moved to suppress the production.
Parker Robinson says she hesitated up until the final computer keystroke about including Southland in her NEA grant application. “Oh, my God,” she thought. “I don’t know if we should touch that.” She was thinking of the emotional turmoil Southland caused among Dunham’s dancers. She also believed that, because it earned official condemnation, the production contributed to the financial collapse of Dunham’s company.
Dance writer Constance Valis Hill interviewed Dunham for a 1994 article, “Southland: Protest in the Face of Repression,” that remains a touchstone for Dunham scholars. Hill quotes Dunham as saying Southland sapped her “spiritual strength.”
Parker Robinson received $100,000 from the NEA’s American Masterpiece category. And then she faced the real challenge of reviving Dunham’s vision. Materials on Southland were few and scattered. Theo Jamison, who trained with original members of the Dunham company and helped restage Southland, had sheet music that lacked the piano part. He had almost despaired of finding a complete version of the score by Dino di Stefano, an Argentine-based composer who borrowed from spirituals, blues, and jazz for Dunham’s production. Then, a fellow dancer mentioned almost in passing to Jamison that she had it.
Parker Robinson, who had made regular pilgrimages to East St. Louis, Illinois, to study and talk with Dunham, canvassed other Dunham dancers for photos of the original production. She and her dancers studied them, but could learn only so much about movement from old photographs. Then, Parker Robinson remembered once having seen film of some of the field dances that open Southland. The films were unearthed in the archives of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which had produced a program in 1987 called “The Magic of Katherine Dunham.”
Ricardo Avalos and Belafonte, at the moment when Julie accuses Richard. Photo from personal collection of Julie Belafonte.
Tayana Hardin, a Rutgers post-doctoral associate, had done her own research into Dunham for a dissertation on how black American women have confronted painful racial history in their art. She had pored over a script, complete with dialogue in dialect, that Dunham wrote to help her dancers understand their Southland roles. Hardin also studied a prologue Dunham read in Spanish before the performance in Chile. The iconic dancer proclaimed her love of her country and said that because she loved it, she was compelled to point out its failings in hopes of helping to correct them. Dunham grew up in a time when lynchings of black men in the South were common, often based on perceived or assumed insults to white women.
Hardin says she found it especially difficult to envision, with only Dunham’s words as guide, scenes following the lynching in which Richard’s body is carried through a café. The café denizens seem oblivious of the corpse, as they dance scenes of drinking, drug taking, sex, and violence. What Hardin came to understand, and what Parker Robinson’s dancers were in the end able to evoke in Denver, was Dunham’s vision of unspoken brutality haunting survivors, playing out in cycles of self-destruction.
The Denver performance felt dated at times, but the dancers, supported by four singers and a jazz quartet, portrayed an intensity of emotion that brought some in the racially mixed audience to tears and brought them to their feet. “The audience was incredible,” Belafonte said later. “The applause was ongoing and ongoing and ongoing.”
The Denver dancers were able to draw on more than words and images. Dunham’s memory lives on in dancers like Ricardo Avalos, the original Richard. Parker Robinson says she had been told Avalos had died. He had not, and she was able to reach him for an interview. He told her that he thought of Dunham as a civil rights activist, and that reviving Southland was a way of ensuring that part of her legacy was remembered.
Belafonte, the original Julie, visited Denver several times to work with the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble. She was the only white dancer in the original production—her partner, Lenwood Morris, wore a wig and pale makeup to play his character. Belafonte was anguished to find that colleagues she thought of as family believed they heard her genuine feelings when, in character, she abused Avalos as Richard. The thought of being labeled racist by fellow dancers made her want to abandon the production. Morris, she said, told her it was her responsibility as an artist to deliver the role as Dunham envisioned it.
Susan Richardson had similar misgivings about her role as Julie for the CPRDE. Belafonte told her what she had told herself 60 years ago: “I said, ‘You’re going to do it, and you have to do it now. It’s not you there that’s doing it. You’re an actress. You have to transpose yourself to the part,’ ” Belafonte said.
Richardson, who is white and was a longtime dancer and then rehearsal director for the largely black CPRDE, says it was a measure of how much America had changed that she did not worry that fellow company members would believe she was a racist. But she nonetheless feared the company could face a backlash for reviving the ballet. And she was concerned about how she would be perceived by audiences. “I don’t want anybody to see me doing this,” she thought at first. “What are they going to think of me?”
Susan Richardson and Edgar L. Page in CPRDE’s revival. Photo by David Andrews, Courtesy CPRDE.
But, like Belafonte, she came to understand that her role was to help deliver a message. The process for her “involves you having to look at dark places in yourself and being able to touch on places that everybody has in themselves,” Richardson says. “You have to go places that you fear. But in facing those dark places, it just opens your light side even more.”
Preparing for a dress rehearsal the night before the Denver opening, Parker Robinson touched history gently at the elbow, leading Belafonte, who had taught Alvin Ailey at Dunham’s school and had understudied Dunham herself, into a dimly lit theater. Belafonte’s eyes are failing. But her memories of her days with Dunham are sharp, as is her sense of responsibility to art and to society.
Parker Robinson saluted Dunham devotees like Belafonte, Avales, and Jamison in a solemn moment with her dancers before opening night, which fell on Belafonte’s 84th birthday.
“Who’d ever have thought…” the Denver company leader began.
“I’d live this long!’’ Belafonte cut in, lightening the mood.
Donna Bryson is a Denver-based writer who has covered the arts on four continents.
Want to know more about Katherine Dunham?
Dunham, probably in a Universal publicity shot for the 1948 movie Casbah. Photo from the Dance Magazine Archives.
• Island Possessed. The University of Chicago Press, 1969, 1994. About Haiti and its dances.
• A Touch of Innocence. The University of Chicago Press, 1959, 1994. Her memoir from childhood to college years.
• Katherine Dunham’s Journey to Accompong (not in print)
• Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life, by Joyce Aschenbrenner. University of Illinois Press, 2002.
• Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham. University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.
Find YouTube clips of “Miss Dunham” and her troupe in Hollywood movies
• Casbah (1948)
• Stormy Weather (1943), also available on DVD (www.shop.tcm.com, $12.99; 20th Century Fox)
• You may find other videos from different periods in her life in various languages.
• Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities
P.O. Box 6
East St. Louis, IL 62202
618.874.8560 or 618.795.5970
• Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale