Dancers from New York-based Urban Bush Women explored the space in front of the Andre Cailloux Center, the former Church of St. Rose de Lima on Bayou Road, last week. By Thursday afternoon they were on the side loading dock that served as the porch for this exercise. During the first week of their stay in New Orleans, they explored the converted theater space inside and out to create a site-specific version of “Haint Blu” conceptually based on a southern house.
The piece takes its name from a color often used on porch ceilings. The shade of blue resembles water and is said to trick unwanted spirits. Seeing their reflection scares them and they leave the house and its occupants alone.
“Haint Blu” explores holism and places the work in the context of a home. UBW have developed a stage version of “Haint Blu” which is part of their touring presentation “Legacy + Lineage + Liberation”. During the pandemic, Haint Blu Artistic Directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Samantha Speis are expanding their ideas by creating site-specific workshop versions in four consecutive residencies. The New Orleans phase ends on Friday with a workshop performance at the Cailloux Center. A more definitive version will be presented when UBW returns in January.
The residency is in partnership with Junebug Productions, a long-time collaborator, and the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. Junebug coordinated local artist and organization participation in the residency, and Junebug members contributed to an early pandemic video collaboration, Wading in the Wobble, which helped inspire some of the ideas for the site-specific iterations of Haint Blu .
The last time UBW performed in New Orleans was also in collaboration with Junebug as presenter. In 2018 they brought “Hair & Other Stories” to the CAC. This piece updated UBW founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s original “HairStories”. This work and “Haint Blu” are directed by Speis and Judson. The two artistic directors represent a new generation of leaders at the UBW. In many ways, Haint Blu expands on Hair & Other Stories.
“One of the spaces that came out of Hair & Other Stories is the kitchen and conversations that happen in the kitchen,” says Speis. “As a young black girl, a lot of the conversations were in the kitchen that weren’t in the living room. That turned into real conversation. The conversations came from the gut.”
Judson and Speis’ reflections on “HairStories” and their updated work spurred them to expand on it, particularly the presence and perspectives of black women at the heart of the play. “Haint Blu” also focuses on healing and reckoning.
“It’s about looking at our family lines, tapping into memories, stories and experiences, and looking at what we’ve inherited, shared or passed on to us,” says Speis. “What do we want to share? Which cycles do we want to break or redirect. To do this, we look at it from the perspective or think of a house. What does this house have that can support holism?”
The concepts, movements and design of the work are also influenced by New Orleans and its history. The participating performers and artists planned visits to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, Congo Square and the Whitney Plantation and met with Leon Waters of Hidden History Tours. The musicians Dr. Michael White and Jackie Harris spoke to them about jazz and the city’s musical traditions.
“The history of New Orleans jazz and African retention as a form reflects their practice as dancers—notions of play, improvisation, ensemble, and call and response,” said Stephanie McKee-Anderson, director of Junebug Productions, who attended the residency .
The two organizations have a long history together. Junebug founder John O’Neal and UBW founder Zollar shared personal and professional relationships. Junebug is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, delayed due to the pandemic.
When Zollar founded the UBW, it operated more at the grassroots level. It often performed in alternative spaces and reached out to community organizations. The performances were often preceded by “hair parties” with talks and social engagement.
The “Haint Blu” residences return to some of the company’s early practices. Community engagements and networking with local organizations are part of the design. The performances will not necessarily take place in theaters either. In the Cailloux center, the workshop production will be immersive and move throughout the space, possibly also outdoors. It will include video, lighting and other contributions. It is also likely to return to the practice of performing to live music.
Speis is excited about how the New Orleans residency reflects the organization’s history and sense of place.
“I can’t remember when I first came here, but I thought: ‘This is different,'” says Speis. “It’s like the past, present and future are moving together at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with “Haint Blu”. We are in the past, the present, the future and they all move in and out of time. That’s magic.”
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