Last Saturday night at the terrace of Case Park, which overlooks the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, an unusual drama unfolded. A young Black woman helped free an older Black man from a white cloth covering his entire body. As she finished, she called out in concern to a young Black man lying motionless on the nearby concrete. “Hey man!” she yelled, running over to help him to his feet. Moments later, the three individuals stood alongside each other in a line, feet planted wide and arms extended in unified motion as they began to dance.
These events were the opening sequence to “NOT 4 SALE,” a debut dance performance by choreographer Tyrone Aiken, featuring himself and dancers Latra Wilson and Winston Dynamite Brown. An audience of several dozen people sat along the walls or stood on the periphery, all of them wearing masks. Dogwalkers paused to stop and watch as well. This wasn’t the usual venue for a dance event, but the setting was chosen with a purpose.
Only a week earlier, the park’s plaque commemorating the 1882 lynching of Levi Harrington had been torn off its stand and thrown off the cliff, an act of vandalism that, for all its pettiness, still resonated with hate. While such actions can not be undone, they can be met with more constructive and imaginative reactions, such as Aiken and company’s evening ritual of art, music, poetry, and dance.
The event started at exactly 8:01, signifying the exact time a Minneapolis police officer first began kneeling on the back of George Floyd’s neck. “7 Seconds,” a musical piece by Ryuichi Sakamoto featuring spoken word poetry by Latasha Natasha Diggs, set a funky but serious tone, with lyrics about injustice flowing over an ominous rhythmic bounce. The spiritual jazz strains of “Olokun” by Dianne Reeves complemented the beauty of the panoramic sunset scene.
The dance itself featured a fluid, athletic interplay between the dancers. But their facial and physical expressions contained a tension and hardness not normally seen in most concert halls or even street dance events. As one dancer fell to the concrete, another would rush over to help, then suddenly pull away, as the tandem steps of the opening movements turned into a series of interrelated but mostly individual struggles. The dancers never lost their poise and grace, but they seemed to be dancing through pain, like actors in a pantomimed Greek tragedy.
The music transitioned to a poem by poet and educator Sheri Purpose Hall. Each line began with the words “that ass,” with rapid-fire lines of verse addressing the contradictory experiences of glorification, objectification, and subjugation of Black bodies in America. During the poem, the dancers’ movements exuded a mocking sexuality as they ran their hands along their backsides, seducing and then scorning the audience’s attention with swiftly turned backs and disgusted expressions.
The poem, too, was powerful. It was the kind of poem that reminds you what real poetry is and what real poetry can do — how it can move, awaken, teach. Once the video of the performance and the full audio of that poem is available, we will make sure to link to it here.
After the poem and the dance ended, Aiken read a short statement about the piece and its depiction of the “Black ass experience” in America, part of his graduate thesis in dance at Hollins University. Aiken, an artistic officer at Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, talked about growing up as a Black man in America, how from the age of 5 it is something he has been reminded of daily. Even the compliments people paid to him while growing up often seemed designed to denigrate Black people in general. He talked about the importance of community, a notable statement at a time when political and social conversations are fracturing people across the country, and even in the local arts scene.
Another question came from a young boy who wanted to know why there were “so many bad words” in the performance’s soundtrack.
“Well, because I’m angry right now,” Aiken explained after a short laugh. “The more I discover, the more I find out, I’m angry, and I want you to know that I’m angry. And when you’re angry, sometimes you use language that you wouldn’t otherwise.”
Aiken said that he wishes some of the things he has learned in his graduate research were taught to children in grade school. He cited the plantations that existed in our city, commemorated as historical sites without their full history being discussed. For example, the Wornall House has a plaque saying that it was a farm, but it leaves out the fact that slaves were the ones who helped produce the family’s wealth. A plantation near Troost Lake had dozens of slaves as well.
Until we teach our children the basic facts of inequality in our history, Aiken explained, we’ll never really understand why such disparities and inequalities still persist today. And if we want to address racism in America, we need to dismantle and change the systems in place that uphold it. But even when those disparities are acknowledged, sharing power is not something that comes naturally to us in America.
Glenn North, a Kansas City poet and liaison for the Community Remembrance Project, thanked Tyrone for the performance, pointing out that while the people who vandalized the Andrew Jackson statue in front of the Jackson County courthouse were already in custody, there were still no leads in the vandalizing of the plaque at Case Park.
For some, responding to the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor with works of art rather may seem like a curious choice. But Aiken — whose involvement in the arts encompasses a wide range of organizations and performances — suggested that art contains a potential for communication that concrete speech may lack.
“When we are dealing with art, there is the ability to interpret, to inform, to re-imagine and to discover,” he said. “Art has a great place in any society, in any culture, to develop and understand solutions to real problems.”
For this audience member, “I AM NOT 4 SALE” reaffirmed that message. People can very quickly read an article, hear a speech, or listen to an interview, almost automatically accepting or rejecting its message depending on whether it fits into their existing worldview. We internalize the intellectual arguments and then go about our business.
But walking past a city park at sunset and seeing the anger and pain in a dancer’s eyes while a spoken word piece plays in the background — that kind of experience grabs your attention, stays with you, makes you want to dig deeper into the reasons it was composed. It brings you closer to the heart of someone else’s experience and allows you a glimpse of their personal anger, pain, and fear, and possibly a glimmer of their hopes and dreams as well.
An audience member asked Aiken if he felt hopeful about what was happening in America right now. The question reminded me of the recent NPR interview with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who said that America has broken his heart too many times for him to remain hopeful.
Aiken had a similar reply, explaining that he has already experienced moments like this in his lifetime and found that little changes. “I am hopeful. But this is 400 years,” he said, gesturing at the plaque and the divided city around us. “I’m tired of waiting.”
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text and photos by Lucas Wetzel