The Real Story: Urban Bush Women’s “Hair and Other Stories” with Chanon Judson
Not all hair is the same, just as not all people are the same, and it is our task as human beings to make an effort to understand how our differences can unite us.
At face value, our hair is simply an element of our physical appearance. But if we look deeper into our past experiences, most of us can find a moment in our lives where our hair was more than just hair – where it morphed into a symbol of who we are or became the center of a defining experience. Whether it’s a parent saving a lock of hair from their child’s first hair cut or memories of community and camaraderie at a local salon or barber shop, hair has the power to connect us. But it also has the power to divide. The media is bombarded with images of smooth silky hair and with the advent of social media, idealized images of the perfect color or cut are more prevalent than ever. Whether we are aware of it or not, these images can heavily impact self-image. While a choice to change or modify hair may be a tangible change on the outside, it also has the power to affect our intangible psyche. Not all hair is the same, just as not all people are the same, and it is our task as human beings to make an effort to understand how our differences can unite us.
In Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories, hair is used as the jumping off point to begin a conversation about colorism and racism. Since its founding in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, UBW has sought to “bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” To this day the company stays true to its mission and artistic vision, and audiences can see the evidence of their drive and passion to push that mission and vision forward in Hair and Other Stories. Furthermore, upon learning more about the performance or physically being present for it, you’ll soon discover that each of UBW’s core values is also represented in the work. One such example is UBW validates the individual by recognizing the importance of hair stories from people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. They are an ear that is eternally and openly listening to anyone who has a story to tell; you can even submit a story to them at anytime via the Story Booth on their website. The company also has an long standing partnership with The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond (PISAB) – an organization devoted to undoing racism community programs, workshops and other educational experiences.
To learn more about Hair and Other Stories, DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera caught up with Urban Bush Women Associate Artistic Director Chanon Judson. Here’s what she told us:
The Black Hair landscape of 2001 is totally different from that of the present as well the social-political and social justice conversations brewing in our country.
Kristi Licera: As the conversation regarding racism and colorism continues and evolves, so does the work that Urban Bush Women brings to the stage, including Hair and Other Stories. The first iteration of this work, Hair Stories, debuted in 2001, with this second iteration debuting in 2017. The current program features opportunities for audience members to become part of the performance and join in on the journey and conversation that stems from the topic of hair and how it relates to ethnicity and life experience. Can you tell us more about how the concept and direction of the piece has evolved over time, and about how the audience participation has changed as you have toured this work across the country?
We had to understand the structure of Hair Stories, the formula of how much laughter per hard truth, what modules served to educate, reflect, inspire and agitate, and what modules were timeless gems.
Chanon Judson: In re-imagining Hair Stories, Samantha Speis and I held on tight to the role of Urban Bush Women work to speak to truth: truth that is in the gut, truth that is under told, and truth that is under the table. It was also important that the work vision forward. The Black Hair landscape of 2001 is totally different from that of the present as well the social-political and social justice conversations brewing in our country. Additionally, the Urban Bush Women company members that co-created the 2001 Hair Stories are all Black women. This also differs from our current configuration.
When Samantha and I took all these shifts to mind it was clear that the charge was beyond re-visioning Hair Stories; we in fact had to create something new. The process of creating the new, required that we research the original. We had to understand the structure of Hair Stories, the formula of how much laughter per hard truth, what modules served to educate, reflect, inspire and agitate, and what modules were timeless gems.
We sourced the hair stories and related experiences of the company. As co-creators they were charged with researching their own hair archives. We brought in childhood photos, shared stories, read related books/articles, visited museums and searched the web. We saturated our palette to span from our hair memories to our visions for the next generation.
We don’t want “Hair and Other Stories” to wash over folks, so we crafted moments to allow the audience to reflect, share and interrogate their individual experience within the work.
Chanon: Also present for us were thoughts of transcending and liberation. This work found us creatively on the heels of Walking with Trane – a work choreographed by Jawole Zollar and Samantha Speis, inspired by the life and legacy of John Coltrane/A Love Supreme. Samantha and I were churning in thoughts of Blackness as Expansion – Unlimited Possibilities. This new work, Hair and Other Stories had to hold that too.
Urban Bush Women has so strongly honed its facilitation practice alongside the development of the concert practice. Samantha and I wanted to allow Hair and Other Stories to build from both of these assets. We stretched the lens of how we hold concert space to make room for our Entering Building and Exiting community practices that are the foundations of our BOLD engagement. We don’t want Hair and Other Stories to wash over folks, so we crafted moments to allow the audience to reflect, share and interrogate their individual experience within the work.
Columbia College and Chicago has been a home away from home for Urban Bush Women for decades. We have a long history of studying, facilitating, performing and being inspired by the community. We are excited about being positioned in this body of support and hub to arts activism and innovation. We also love the structure of the Dance Center that so rightly supports the intimacy this work desires. Without offering any spoiler alerts, the Dance Center makes it easy for the audience to get into the action!
It is a celebration for [Urban Bush Women] that this new work recognizes the legacy of where we’ve been, with clear vision for what’s on the horizon.
Kristi: There are many works that live within a company’s repertoire; upon revival, these works typically undergo some sort of change, but often remain true to their original aesthetic and in some cases (especially in regard to historical works like Ailey’s Revelations) the changes are incredibly minimal and are often based on the growing technical ability of today’s performing artist. In the case of Hair and Other Stories, the evolution is continuous. Can you share with our readers more about the evolution of the work and more on its creative components (including costume design and music)?
Chanon: I wouldn’t describe this work as continually evolving in a way that is significant. This is the general practice of all UBW work. At two years young we are very much in the process of deepening and refining the work. Our development residencies generally allot time enough to find the bones of the work.
The process of fully maturing a work often extends into its performing period. In theatre practice, a two-year period can yield a workshop version. Concert dance is often asked to create work on a different timeline. We speak of Urban Bush Women’s work as having the process of devised theatre, the physicality of concert dance, and the analysis of community organizing. The work is evolving because of our development process.
Here, it’s important to understand that Hair and Other Stories is not a remake of Hair Stories but is in fact a new work that is in conversation with the 2001 Hair Stories. This distinction speaks to Jawole Zollar’s efforts in sowing leadership in a body of practitioners that hold Urban Bush Women’s unique approach to creative art making. It is a celebration for UBW that this new work recognizes the legacy of where we’ve been, with clear vision for what’s on the horizon.
In sourcing collaborators, we sought folks that embodied the artistic aesthetic aligned with our driving impulses towards boundary breaking, futurism, re-imagining and Super Heroes.
Chanon: Both Dee Dee Gomes our costume designer and music artist Monstah Black of The Illustrious Blacks came into the creative process before we fully knew what the work was. In sourcing collaborators, we sought folks that embodied the artistic aesthetic aligned with our driving impulses towards boundary breaking, futurism, re-imagining and Super Heroes. We knew that we wanted to ask ourselves and the audience to push into Extra Ordinary action, to have bold brave conversations, to own our brilliance (out loud!) and to interrogate liberation. Manchild and Monstah Black are fully realized Super Heroes. The multiple ways they challenge conventions and embody the future now made them likely partners. We also share a history of collaborating with like-minded artists including Chicago’s Barak Ade Soleil. Together we went through a swampy process of creative play, ahas!, and let’s try agains.
Our collaboration with fashion designer Dee Dee Gomes was similarly well fit. We shared relationships with trusted collaborators and a love for crafting new ideas by re-imagining the past. After conversations about the aspirations of Hair and Other Stories, Dee Dee was invited to a rehearsal. She witnessed choreographic swatches and exploration of the company members “Super Hero” personas. We showed her the clothing ideas and props that supported our Extra Ordinary self-image, shared our hero narratives and picture collages we’d created of our essence. That was all day one. Day two, Dee Dee came to rehearsal with the clothing that you see pictured in our Hair and Other Stories photos! These designs are still the anchoring costumes that you will see in our performance at Columbia College.
Urban Bush Women presents Hair and Other Stories at The Dance Center Columbia College Chicago (1306 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60605). Performances take place Thursday – Saturday February 28, March 1 and 2 at 7:30pm. Tickets are available in person at the Box Office or online at tickets.colum.edu.