Choreographer T. Lang takes on the mother of them all
Part of slavery's buried history comes to light in Mother/Mutha
This is a story about "motherfucker."
Spelman professor and choreographer T. Lang recently found herself confronted with a troubling explanation of the word's origin.
At a family reunion last summer, Lang's uncle asked a tableful of cousins to share their favorite profanities. "We started going around and when it got to me I said, 'My favorite cuss word is motherfucker.' Everyone was laughing except my uncle," says Lang. "He got this very stern look. He told me that the word stems from breeding plantations."
Lang's uncle explained that certain plantations existed in the 18th and 19th centuries with the specific purpose of breeding slaves valued for their size and stature. Blood relations mattered less than efficient reproduction, and today some people surmise that the word "motherfucker" originated as an insulting way to refer to slaves forced to break the ultimate taboo and reproduce with their own mothers.
The disturbing explanation stayed with Lang long after the conversation changed course and after the family reunion ended. Now when she heard the word in rap songs, movies, or on the street, her once-favorite curse carried a disturbing connection to slavery and the sanctioned rape of African-American women. "I was thinking. 'Could it be our family came from a breeding plantation?'" she says. "I didn't want to know. I was fearful, and I wanted to explore that fear."
Lang digs into that troubling legacy and its lingering effects in her latest work, Mother/Mutha. The hour-long abstract dance performance will have its world premiere at the Goat Farm on Thurs., June 7.
Lang began researching breeding plantations but only found limited information about something that was, by its nature, often unspoken and undocumented. "I really had to dig," she says, "and I didn't find much." She did learn that female slaves were usually sold or accounted for with references to their ability to produce children. Autobiographical narratives by former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs also contain references to rape and forced breeding. In the end, Lang turned to the images of contemporary African-American visual artist Kara Walker, who mixes buried history and imagination in her famous cut-out silhouettes depicting nightmarish scenes of racially charged violence and degradation in the Old South. "She scrambles history and fiction and fantasy, but she reveals the truth," says Lang. "When you look at these silhouettes, she's talking about the exploitative aspect of capitalism, violence, power, control, using sex as that weapon."
The research turned into movement as Lang gathered a group of 10 dancers willing to commit to the intense project. Assembled from a crew of former students and professionals she handpicked from the Atlanta and New York dance communities, the company began working on Mother/Mutha in November 2011.
Lang says the choreography emerged gradually through a collaborative process. "I don't create on my own," says Lang. "I like to be inspired by the individual dancer and what they can share and then expose that."
Lang (the "T" in her stage name stands for her given name, Tracy) was born and raised in Shorewood, Ill., a suburb on Chicago's southside. She began dancing in kindergarten, and made her first self-produced show in her backyard when she was 6, creating tickets with her crayons and selling them to the neighbors for 25 cents. ("I've been doing this for a minute," she jokes.)
"By high school, I knew I was going to dance," she says. "I didn't have a backup plan, no plan B, no minor. It was going to be dance." She received her BFA from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and then went to New York. There she danced with various choreographers and companies including Marlies Yearby, Nia Love/Blacksmith's Daughter Dance Theatre, and the Metropolitan Opera. She attended Tisch School of the Arts for graduate school where one professor in particular, renowned choreographer Phyllis Lamhut, encouraged her to begin creating and showing her own work.
"She really pushed me to present my work in the city," Lang says. "I'm thankful that she saw something in me and my work that she pushed me — damn near forced me — out there, and I've been doing it ever since." In 2008, Spelman invited her for a guest-artist residency, which turned into a tenure-track assistant professorship. Mother/Mutha will be her first major independent professional showing of her work in Atlanta outside of 2009's mixed program One Night Only.
Lang's dancers in Mother/Mutha come from a variety of backgrounds — hip-hop, ballet, modern — and it shows in the work's movement. A distinctive feature of Lang's choreography is its ability to allow individual personalities to pop, even when dancers are moving in unison. "I think it's important to be authentic, not machines," says Lang. "It defeats the purpose of art. It's important for me to see the humans, the authenticity and individuality of each dancer in the work. That's what draws the eye. ... Seeing them all dance together for the first time, there really was something special there, a whisper."
Creation of the new show involved far more than just dance. Lang shared related artwork, music, and excerpts from her research to get the crew thinking about the subject matter. The group also engaged in frequent, often very personal and difficult discussions. The studio became a place to learn and ask questions as talks ranged from family and personal histories to color lines within the black community — class status, hair, skin color, and height. "It's the professor in me," says Lang. "I can't really take that hat off. ... We all have these different stories and family histories, but still there's a theme of oppression. We learned a lot about ourselves."
"I did personal research within my own family," says dancer Debòrah Hughes. "When she gave me movement, I was thinking of myself as my family member back then. What was my bloodline thinking when they were in this moment? We're trying to understand the story from these women's points of view."
Dancer Nicole Kedaroe also found the subject matter challenging, and the choreography even more so. "You kind of have to put yourself in that position and that's what intimidates me about the work," she says. "But the part I struggle with most is the technique of T. Lang. ... Your whole body is invested in this piece. You have to immerse yourself in it. I feel like the content is the least of my struggles. I trust T. Lang completely with it."
In a mixture of ensembles, solos, and duets, the abstract dance performance is meant to create a space for the contemplation of black women's loss of autonomy under slavery and the abuse's lasting traces in contemporary culture. The central section, "Whip It," begins with a traditional rendition of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" sung live by Atlanta neo-soul artist Karlyn as the dancers fall over and are dragged across the floor. The song gradually becomes a mashup of the national anthem and Khia's "My Neck, My Back," a provocative play on sexualized images of black women that remain prevalent in the media. "We're still so conditioned to accept these problematic images," says Lang. "It's referencing this mixture, this lack of awareness in our society. This rhythm, this beat, this whip that's mesmerizing us to not really listen to the messages that are seeping in."
Lang also asked Spelman colleagues Opal Moore and Michelle Hite, both English professors and poets, to contribute poems. "They wrote these beautiful words that question our perception of women," she says.
As audience members enter, they'll hear sound designer Lee Blalock's soundscape of auction noises mixed with manipulated readings of Moore and Hite's texts. Projections of video by Georgia State University artists group Open Position will integrate various images and animation throughout the work: Vines will slowly grow and intertwine throughout the show to form a whip, while other images play off Walker's silhouettes or show montages of women augmenting their appearance with makeup, clothes, or surgery.
Lang says she hopes audiences understand that the new show is not meant to be confrontational or accusatory. The group's hope is to start conversation about a buried chapter of history whose painful legacy is perhaps more present than we like to think. "It's not to make a statement but to put this in people's ear," says Lang. "I hope people won't categorize us as 'That's just another black female company on the soap box.' That's not really my intent. I'm trying to open a conversation. ... There are some untold truths that we need to speak."