“Dying While Black and Brown”: Interview with Joanna Haigood and Antoine Hunter
Last year I met Antoine Hunter for an event I co-organized featuring Deaf and disabled artists. Recently, he introduced me to an amazing performance piece, “Dying While Black and Brown,” created in 2011 in collaboration with composer Marcus Shelby and Joanna Haigood, Choreographer/Artistic Director of Zaccho Dance Theatre.
Below are condensed and edited interviews with both Antoine and Joanna. Here is a video (captioned) featuring a performance of “Dying While Black and Brown” and a discussion at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice from 2015.
What was the inspiration for “Dying While Black and Brown”? How did the Equal Justice Society’s campaign influence your understanding of mass incarceration and the rights of prisoners?
Joanna: Eva Paterson, the President of the Equal Justice Society, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in creating a work with Marcus Shelby that would support their campaign to restore 14th Amendment protections for victims of discrimination, including those on death row. Currently, black men make up about 41% of the inmates death row (African Americans make up between 13 – 14% of the population). It became clear that black and brown men were being disproportionately sentenced to death. Both Marcus and I wanted to support the effort to bring awareness of this situation and to support the movement to abolish the death penalty in this country.
As a choreographer and artistic director, can you describe the creative process with a composer? What drew you to working with Marcus Selby for this piece specifically?
Joanna: Eva had paired Marcus and I together. She had been working with Marcus for a number of years and thought that we would be a good match artistically. She was absolutely spot. I am so inspired by Marcus’ work, by his creative process, by his commitment to social justice. In terms of our process, Marcus and I spent quite a bit of time on research, together and independently. Eva had invited a number of people to speak with us who provided invaluable information and insight on the issues. Among them were Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin who oversaw four executions, and Anthony Graves, who was wrongly convicted for murder, sentenced to death and who was eventually exonerated after spending 18 years in prison (16 years on death row). We also interviewed members of ACLU who are working on death penalty issues, lawyers representing inmates, read execution procedures, listened to interviews with death row inmates and execution teams, read last statements, studied cases, watched documentaries. And we continue to study the issues. Marcus and I were profoundly effected by the stories that were share with us and worked to capture them through the poetry of dance and music. This was a challenging task but the performers, who have also invested deeply in this process, bring both an extraordinary grace and power to the work.
What themes and ideas did you want to express in “Dying While Black and Brown”, especially with the use of a metal structure in the shape of a home?
Joanna: We wanted to bring humanity to the story. So often incarcerated men and women are considered other, when in fact they are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. Men often talk about how the visits begin to dwindle over time and how lonely it becomes. Themes that kept arising through our research were loneliness, extreme distress – physical and emotional, noise, fear ….as well as hope.
I was interested in how the inmates reconcile the idea of home in situation that is so dire. The size of the house structure also brings attention to the size of the inmates’ cells. A typical cell size is is about 6′ X 9′. A typical parking space is 8’ X 9.’ The cells are very small and cramped.
What did it meant to you as a Deaf Black man to be in such a powerful piece about mass incarceration? How did it change you?
Antoine: It woke me up. I didn’t know about this world and how dark it was. It made me a better man. It made me want to tell everyone in the world how bad this is. In fact it had inspired to do my new work about Deaf people in prison. I even called and email HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) to work together. There so many Deaf in prison but getting the same rights as hearing prison. Their hearing aids are taking, they have no tty or anything to communicate with home, no tranlator or interpreter to communicate with their warden or guard. Sometime put blame on the Deaf because can communicate with anything about what happening.
But dying while black and brown – I didn’t know you can vote to remove legal injection until 4 years ago. I didn’t want my African American and Deaf people to be too far back! It made me want to learn more and be a better leader!
What was the audience reaction to the piece during the past performances of “Dying While Black and Brown”?
Antoine: My role is Charles Rector, a person who was executed in Texas on March 26, 1999 which was not too long ago. I’m the only one who dies and it’s really emotional for people see me perform a death. Before I die I give a long running chase of a dance then present verbally my words. Here a few words (I won’t share the whole thing because I want people to see it but these are my lines before I die in the chair):
The first statement I would like to make is to my sister. I want her to know that every thing that is said, every move that is made, every motion, I hold it true to my heart. I hold it in my soul. I want you to know that I am not guilty and I will say this to the family. I did not kill your daughter.
Again, I said more but often people cry. Some can’t watch, some pray, some watch and blink. This dance moves people. It’s waken people on so many levels…It’s a dark and sad story that brings light into people’s souls.
So much has happened since “Dying While Black and Brown” was created in 2011. What are your thoughts about the power of dance and art to resist?
Joanna: Art is both our gift and our tool. It allows us to communicate on a deep level and to touch people in an empathic way that “data” sharing can not. For me, it is important to be in conversation about events that effect our communities, to participate in any way I can that helps facilitate positive change.
As an Artistic Director of a dance company, can you tell me about your experiences working with D/deaf and disabled dancers? What do they bring to a performance when it comes to their interactions with the built environment and other dancers during a performance?
Joanna: Antoine Hunter is the only deaf dancer I have worked with. He brings a very different perspective to all the work we collaborate on. For instance, in this case he brought light to the inmates with have physical challenges and in particular deaf inmates. Their challenges are often not considered and reform in protocols is very slow to be introduced. Antoine is a powerful performer and absolutely stunning dancer. He is also an articulate and insightful advocate for his community. It really is an honor to work with him.
I saw a performance and discussion of it on YouTube from 2015 and was blown away by it. Are there any plans to perform “Dying While Black and Brown” in the near future?
Joanna: Thank you. We are planning on performing the piece again at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland on May 20th. My hope is that we can build a new tour for the piece around the US.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Antoine: I wish people take the time to see this dance and in invite us into their city. It’s sad to see such little support such wonderful companies like Zaccho Dance Theatre. People are willing to see a basketball game but what about supporting a dance company that actually save lives?…So my hope is people go support a dance company that supports communities of all kinds.
A Bay Area native, Born in Oakland, Ca, 2017 King of SF Carnaval, Mr. Antoine Hunter is an award-winning African-American Deaf producer, choreographer, film/theater actor, dancer, dance instructor, model, poet, speaker, mentor and Deaf advocate. Mr Hunter received his training in dance and acting training at Skyline High School Oakland, Ca, California Institute of the Arts(CalArts), and Paul Taylor Dance School in NYC. The founder and artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance, Hunter has performed with Savage Jazz Dance Company, Nuba Dance Theater, Alayo Dance Company, Robert Moses’ KIN, Man Dance, Sins Invalid, Amara Tabor-Smith, Kim Epifano, Push Dance Company, Fly Away Productions, Joanna Haigood, OET theater, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theater. He has performed throughout the Bay Area and the world including Cuba, Rome, Hawaii, Peru and London. Hunter is a faculty member at East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, Shawl-Anderson, Youth in Arts and Dance-A-Vision. He is the founder of Iron Tri-Angel Urban Ballet in Richmond, was an instructor and rehearsal director for the Ross Dance Company, dance captain for Expedia.com commercials and was head Choreographer director for an Philippines’s Musical “Amerikana-The Musical”. while he love doing short films and long films plus music videos, he was Head Choreographer for D-PAN: Deaf Professional Arts Network ASL Music Video: “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
He is known as former president of the Bay Area Black Deaf Advocate and Director-at-Large for the Northern California chapter of the California Association of the Deaf. He has been featured in Oakland North, CNN’s The Great Big story, KQED’s Arts, and many appearing for Purple Technologies, which sells Deaf services and products. Mr. Hunter is an active supporter of DeafHope, an organization whose mission is to end domestic and sexual violence in Deaf communities through empowerment, education, and services. He teaches dance and ASL in both Hearing and Deaf communities and is the founder and artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance Company and has been producing the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival since 2013. His projects have been awarded funding by both CA$H Theater Bay Area and the Zellerbach Family Foundation.
Since 1979 Joanna has been creating work that uses natural, architectural and cultural environments as points of departure for movement exploration and narrative. Her stages have included grain terminals, a clock tower, the pope’s palace, military forts, and a mile of urban neighborhood streets in the South Bronx. Her work has been commissioned by many arts institutions, including Dancing in the Streets, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Walker Arts Center, the Exploratorium Museum, the National Black Arts Festival, and Festival d’Avignon. She has also been honored with the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Cal/Alpert Award in Dance, the US Artist Fellowship, and a New York Bessie Award. Most recently, Haigood was a recipient of the esteemed Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Joanna has had the privilege to mentor many extraordinary young artists internationally at the National École des Arts du Cirque in France, the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in England, Spelman College, the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University, the San Francisco Circus Center and at Zaccho Studio.
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