Zaccho Dance Theatre honors W.E.B. DuBois

Joanna Haigood opens her arms to the sky, shakes her shoulders loose and looks around the room with a lithe movement. She has brought this group together on a winter day in the single digits.
She is the artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre, a nationally recognized choreographer based in San Fransisco, and a creator of performances steeped in places, and she is creating one here.
She opened a week of residency in the Berkshires with a movement workshop at the Boys and Girls Club in Pittsfield as part of the 10×10 Festival.
“We can come together with a group of strangers,” she said afterward, “and get to know about each other, and reveal even tender parts of ourselves. We’re holding that part of each other. We have an equal investment in holding and protecting each other.”
Young women from Pittsfield gathered around a loved and respected elder. Dance students from Bard College shared stories with an actor and director who came here after Hurricane Katrina. A father watched his daughter running and spinning across the floor. Two young children were carrying a younger boy, holding him on their linked arms, and they are all laughing.
They were opening a celebration of William Edward Burghardt DuBois — people are thinking about his ideas this week, talking about them, playing them in music and holding them in their bodies.
He was born here, and this weekend, Great Barrington will celebrate his birthday in the third annual W.E.B. DuBois Legacy Festival.
DuBois was a writer, scholar and professor, a world traveler, an activist with a national and international influence, a leader in the Freedom movement, a co-founder of the NAACP.
On Saturday, at the center of two days of events, Haigood will bring Zaccho Dance Theatre to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to perform her immersive work, Between Me and the Other World, rooted in DuBois’ book, Souls of Black Folk, and drawing it into the 21st century.
“She has a knack of bringing DuBois alive and relevant today,” said Gwendolyn Van Sant, director of Multicultural Bridge, a co-sponsor of the festival.

Writing in 1903, DuBois takes a broad look at the lives of black Americans — students, intellectuals, share croppers, workers in cotton mills, families in the cities. He was a professor at Atlanta University then, and he had taught children in a remote schoolhouse in the Tennessee hills.
In Haigood’s performance, people will come up on stage and move among the dancers. Film from video artist David Szlasa will surround them, and scenic design by Sean Riley. Dr. Anthony Brown has composed original music, woven in with spirituals and Duke Ellington.
This work began in the Berkshires, she said, in the 1990s, when she was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, doing research for a work that would rekindle memories of people who came to the Pillow when this land was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and enslaved African Americans were making their way to freedom.
“It was life-changing for me,” she said. “It was as though the ground was speaking to us. Their spirits were rising up to teach us.”
She talked with Sam Miller, the director at Jacob’s Pillow then, about a work on DuBois. From that seed, she created the work on the West Coast in 2013, and for years she has wanted to perform it here.
Now Pam Tatge, director of Jacob’s Pillow today, has helped her to return. Tatge is excited to bring this visceral work as part a broad community collaboration.
“It’s effective and tough,” she said, and very sobering.”
“It’s distressing how much (of Souls of Black Folk) could be written now,” Haigood said. “It’s a good resource for us, to sit inside those observations. There’s a point of clarity that comes from that work.”
It begins here, along the Housatonic. He is a lonely young man in a Berkshire school. He had dreams of reading law, healing the sick and telling wonderful tales that swam in his head. He could beat his white classmates at exams and races.
But he felt a division between their lives and his.
“The worlds I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine.”
Enslaved black Americans had been free barely three years when he was born, in 1868.
He feels a ‘twoness’ in being an American and a black man, Haigood said — he wants to be both, without meeting contempt in the people around him.
“(He talks about) what it means to live in a society where you are considered other,” she said. “So many social structures are designed to keep you in a position of being other — lack of education, the justice system and incarceration.”
She feels the tension he describes every morning. She prepares a shield as she gets ready to face the day.
“I have to prepare myself to be Joanna,” she said, “and I have to prepare myself to be black, before I leave my house. I prepared my son. The crisis we manage can be overwhelming, and it’s invisible to many people who don’t have to live in it.”
The consequences can be immediate and frightening. The performance includes film footage taken near her studio of a man police officers killed close to her door.
And the day to day pressure can weigh heavily.
“Sometimes the systems are so deeply designed,” she said, “sometimes we are led to believe untruths about ourselves.”
So in this work she wants to bring to vivid life Black Americans’ resistance, brilliance and extraordinary contributions to American culture and civilization as a whole.
“We have such bright stars,” she said. “Our faith guided and supported us, and through all of these troubles we always return to that. We start there and return to it. It’s a reminder for us, the performance of this work, to stay grounded — that part of us that is truth.”

This story first ran in the Arts & Entertainment pages in the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to Arts & Entertainment editor Jeffrey Borak.

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