Dwight Rhoden at the University of Mississippi
Few things would have been more provocative to a Mississippi audience.
A graceful embrace, a single kiss, a pair of strong brown arms wrapped around a lean white body. And to the side, four fellow dancers watching, with faces twisted, tapping their hips to a “clink-clink-clink” in the music, as if readying a weapon.
There’s a story of both hate and hope behind the movements of those six young dancers, and it’s one that associate professor Jennifer Mizenko knew had to be told with an equal dose of boldness and sensitivity. A $7,500 grant from the National College Choreography Initiative allowed her to bring in someone with the experience and credibility to pull it off—Dwight Rhoden, co-director of the New York-based Complexions, a dance company the University Artist Series was already considering bringing to town.
At the time the grant application appeared on her desk, Mizenko had begun pondering ways to broaden the role of dance at the University of Mississippi, where the program she directs is rolled into the theatre arts department. The project, she decided, would trace the journey of racial reconciliation at Ole Miss—ground zero for the integration struggle in the 1960s when James Meredith became its first African American student. Two people were killed and many more injured in rioting over his admission. Since then, the community has struggled to heal the past, and in 2002, Meredith was welcomed back as a hero on the 40th anniversary of his admission.
Rhoden spent two weeks meeting with community groups and students, learning how each generation viewed the race issue. Often going straight from the meetings to the studio, Rhoden would create new movement sequences for rehearsal within hours.
One Saturday morning at the public library, the stories spilled out while Rhoden stayed to the side listening. Among the 20 people present, accountant Sherrie Gardner described the “gap” between her own outlook and that of her mother and grandmother. Her task, she said, is to weigh their stories of humiliation—cleaning white people’s bathrooms, tending racist patients in a nursing home—against her own desire to put the past away.
“It’s hard for me to understand them and also to try to be ‘here’—to be progressive and move on,” she said. “For me, every day there’s a gap.”
Rhoden says that he hadn’t expected the issue to be so “vibrant”—even in Mississippi. “People had so many opinions,” he says. “It’s still so much on their minds.”
Forced segregation died long ago, but high-priced real estate driven by the university alumni market has recently pushed black families in Oxford farther from the town center—and deeper into marginalization.
At a meeting between two church congregations—black Missionary Baptist and white Episcopalian—that had been sharing potluck dinners and pulpit swaps for decades, relations deepened to a more raw and honest level.
“I thought it was just going to be a really sweet, pat-each-other-on-the-back kind of meeting,” says Kaye Bryant, a retiree from the white congregation. “I was shocked to hear such anger come from people I thought I knew well.”
On campus, young black men in a university studies class were candid with Rhoden about keeping relationships with white women “on the down-low.” The choreographer also drew stories from the six dancers he selected from UM’s student troupe, Mississippi: The Dance Company, who shared a belief that their generation would make the difference.
The result, Before Now and After Then, premiered February, 2004, at the UM Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts before a crowd of about 500. It later drew cheers at the 2004 National American College Dance Festival Association in Washington, D.C.
The piece opens with the circle of dancers swinging linked hands to the swelling sound of “Dixie.” They turn to the audience to reveal faces caked in masks of black and white. With gloved hands, they smear the makeup off and throw the gloves to the ground. It was a risky moment and one that Rhoden had tested in a public rehearsal.
“We wanted to see how the black community would respond to the black face makeup,” says Mizenko. “They were shocked at first but ultimately felt it sent the right message.”
The work spoke with a directness that Southerners themselves rarely would use. Even for those who could not fully comprehend the nuance of the dance movements, there was no missing the fear, pain, and anger—and hope as well. At times the dancers push themselves or others forward, lurching toward a brighter future. In the end they struggle to join hands and progress together—but two dancers who can’t quite reach each other suggest a missing link—the gap Rhoden had heard about from the community.
Mizenko notices changes in her students even a year after Rhoden’s visit and their interaction with the professional dancers of Complexions.
“To be around people who dance with that much passion drives you to become a better dancer—and a better person,” says Roxie Thomas, a musical theater major.
The discussions of race and social justice that Rhoden helped stir up continue. About 20 black and white churches have since organized a new community network to address issues like affordable housing and wage concerns.
Mizenko and Rhoden hope to someday expand their project into an evening-length piece.
Lucy Schultze is a staff writer at The Oxford Eagle in Mississippi.