Camille Brown’s concept for “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” was an intriguing one.
The dance, as seen Friday night at The Egg, was described as one that explores African-American humor in entertainment — how making the audience laugh was a pathway to acceptance. Through humor, their otherness could be accepted and even applauded by the majority white population.
Furthermore, the program explained, that clowning is instilled in black performers as an alter ego ingrained in their DNA.
Yet the dancer/choreographer’s work fell short of intriguing. Rather, it was a confusing mass of images that carried the viewer through the history of black entertainment, from minstrels to gangsta rap films. Brown’s movement for her seven dancers, herself included, expressed nothing but an embrace of clownish or combative behaviors. By not including a single thoughtful or sympathetic character, Brown depicted all of the race as buffoons.
Thus, in the end, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” was offensive. It also mocked performers like Jimmie “Dyn-o-mite” Walker to Gary “What You Talkin’ About Willis?” Coleman. While their characters were one-dimensional, both actors broadened the lanes of opportunity for all black actors.
The piece started with promise. Juel D. Lane, dressed in a jazz-age costume of spats, high-waisted pants and suspenders, emerged in front of a screen projecting old film footage of singers and tappers. Moving slowly and then sharply, his solo was an awakening to what was expected of him. Soon, he was shuffling and smiling — eyes popping out of his head — in the feigned fear and mindlessness black performers in the 1920s were expected to show. That was fine, but what followed was dreadful.
Here’s an example. Brown inserted a segment on the mid-20th century tap dance hangouts where performers would trade taps. And while that was serious and respectful business for these old-time dancers, Brown debased this haven of creativity by depicting it as a free-for-all where dancers rudely pushed each other out of the way to demonstrate their latest feats.
It kept on that way as it moved through history, portraying black women as belligerent and men as idiotic. Both were also drawn as crudely oversexed.
Brown needed to create some likable characters in “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” for the audience to take this journey with her. No one can endure a series of episodes in which characters are only victims or victimizers. She needed to demonstrate a thoughtfulness, not a disregard, for her people’s history.
She tried to in the end with her own heartfelt solo, which clearly shed the past. But it was far too late to rescue “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.”
While the piece was distasteful, the man behind the piano who played for the dancers throughout was a treasure. Scott Patterson performed with a conspicuous passion that kept ears tuned to his chords. The pianist performed an interlude of two of his songs, demonstrating his talent to engage an audience.
Brown is lucky to have him, but that sentiment should not be regarded as mutual.