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Alfreda Rollins (right) sharing her stories at St. Paul.
Facing Dallas’ Racial History — Through Dance
by Jerome Weeks 5 Nov 2015
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Dante Jones in the atrium of the African-American Museum at the start of ‘Bricks & Bones.’ Photos: Jerome Weeks

There’s a different kind of dance company in Dallas this week. Dance Exchange is using dance — and song and story-telling — to draw out the conflicts in Dallas’ racial history. The Maryland-based company works with community members, even audience members, to build a series of performances designed to elicit memories, spark conversations. KERA’s Jerome Weeks checked out two of their shows.

‘Bricks & Bones’ performs at the South Dallas Cultural Center 7:30 Saturday.

Christine King sings “I’m On A Long Journey Home” at the African-American Museum in Fair Park. It’s the first in a week-long series of performances called ‘Bricks and Bones: Race, Erasure and Resistance in Dallas.’

And that idea of home certainly resonates at this moment — considering where we are.

Dance Exchange first interviews people about a community’s background, but its members also watch how people tell their history. The idea is that physical movements can raise memories out of our muscles and bones, and they can be encoded in those muscles and bones as well.

Matthew Cumbie is the project manager for ‘Bricks & Bones.’  “We think of our work as creative research,’ he says. “But it’s all about thinking about how the body is both a way to help tell the stories and also how the body helps us remember the stories.”

The company’s work actually began more than a year ago — in the Exchange’s summer workshop set up as a preparation for the Facing Race conference in Dallas last year. Now the company has brought its techniques directly to Dallas, courtesy of the Embrey Family Foundation and SMU. Sonya Spencer, a Dallas marketing consultant, recalls that 10-day workshop in 2014 — with people from Dallas, across the country, Canada, even Europe — and the conversations that flared.

“We got down to the nitty and the gritty,” she says. “The conversations were rough and dirty and I mean, we cried and we cursed, but at the end of the day, we all came together in one accord. We all understood where everybody was coming from.”

‘Where everybody was coming from’ – Spencer means Dallas’ history of bulldozing African-American homes, entire neighborhoods, to create Central Expressway, Woodall Rodgers, Uptown (formerly State-Thomas), even the Arts District. That’s why the first Dance Exchange performance was in the African-American Museum – in the ‘Facing the Rising Sun’ exhibition about Freedman’s Town Cemetery. Freedman’s Town was settled by former slaves near what’s now Central Expressway and Woodall Rodgers. The exhibition shows a community of African-Americans who helped build Dallas’ railroads, who laid the city’s bricks and mortar. Spencer says, seeing the Freedman’s exhibition is like basic homework on race relations.

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Performing at the African-American Museum

“If you’ve been to the museum,” she says, “you’ve seen the pictures of the people, how they worked, how they labored, what they did. Then when you say things like black people are not important, black people are lazy, you understand how insulting that can be.”

Today, very little remains of Freedman’s Town — the remnants and fragments are all tucked away in the upper corner of the Arts District along Routh Street: the historic facade on the front of Booker T. Washington High School, the former Moreland YMCA — now the home of Dallas Black Dance Theatre — and the St. Paul United Methodist Church.

The church was built in 1927, brick by brick by its black members. It took them 26 years. This is where Dance Exchange holds its second show.

A Dance Exchange performance isn’t a shimmering ballet. It’s built up out of repeated ordinary motions, work movements, gestures. Linda Jones is a Dallas writer and journalist (a former reporter with the ‘Dallas Morning News’). She was another local source on Dallas history for the dance company, and as she laughingly warned them, not a professional dancer.

“But as an African-American woman, there’s a compassion that I have for my community,” she says. “And when I talk about it, Matthew will look and say, ‘Linda, that move when you talked of this particular situation, it showed so much. Let’s do that, let’s move that way.’ And before you know it, there’s a piece.”

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Alfreda Rollins (right) sharing her stories at St. Paul.

In the audience at the St. Paul performance is Alfreda Rollins. She’s not a member of the church — in fact, as a child, Rollins spent her weekends at her grandmother’s home, right across the street, and attended St. John Missionary Baptist Church nearby. So this area — this transformed, gleaming, Arts District — used to be as familiar as home. She giggles, recalling the safety and small-town nature of the neighborhood. She talks about how everyone knew everyone else — even knew when she snuck out of Sunday school and they told her grandmother.

Years ago, St. John’s moved to Oak Cliff. Rollins’ grandmother moved to Fair Park. And Woodall Rodgers wiped out church, home and neighborhood. Not all of the changes have been bad — hardly, she says. Her children all graduated from Booker T, and she still volunteers there. But Rollins has seen it all change.

“So what does that make you feel?” I ask.

“It makes me feel sad,” Rollins says, “because, it’s like, you can’t go home. Literally, you can’t. There’s nothing tangible.”

But there are memories. As Linda Jones says, people are dead, something is really gone, only when there’s no one left to remember. For Dance Exchange, part of the ‘resistance’ in the title of ‘Bricks & Bones – Race, Erasure and Resistance – involves remembering, honoring.

Refusing to forget.

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