“I never failed at being a boy,” recites the poet, the words lingering hauntingly. A dancer gracefully spins and leaps as other dancers sit cross-legged, watching with awe. A musician gently beats a drum as dancers freestyle and come together in a joyful cypher, laughing and shouting encouragement to each other. Then, the levity shifts as the dancers begin stepping and calling out hateful comments and slurs they’ve all undoubtedly heard before.
And each step of the way, the audience is with them — at times hollering, laughing, calling out and dancing in their chairs; at others, crying or quietly holding space for the struggles the artists depict on stage. There is a conversation, a recognition connecting audience and performers.
It’s that connection that made Dani Tirrell’s “Black Bois” such a powerful, memorable experience when it debuted at Seattle’s On the Boards in April 2018. Performed by an all-Black, all-local cast that welcomed the hollerin’ and engagement from the audience, the multidisciplinary “Black Bois” was a peak Black arts experience and an unapologetic celebration of Black folk, Black artistry and Black queer identity. The original three-day run filled the theater and moved the audience every night.
Now, largely due to its powerful reception in 2018, “Black Bois” is back for a one-night-only performance at the Moore Theatre on Feb. 14.
The show incorporates dance, music, video, poetry and even painting to highlight the great diversity of experiences among a community of individuals that Seattle movement artist and show creator Tirrell lovingly calls “Black bois.”
That’s right, b-o-i-s — an intentional respelling of “boys” meant to create a more inclusive understanding of what it means to be a boy.
“It gave me a little bit more room to talk about our identities. Some people are in genderqueer bodies, some people are in nonconforming bodies, some people are in cis[gender] bodies,” Tirrell said. “It’s so many different things.”
This year’s cast has grown from its original 12 artists to include 22 local Black “bois” showcasing their talents in contemporary dance, House dance, movement centered around African diaspora dance, violin, drums, spoken word poetry and more. Community members are rallying to support the show financially through donations.
Sharon Williams, executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, remembers nearly jumping out of her seat during a 2018 “Black Bois” performance, wanting to join in as the performers began an energetic step dance, stomping and clapping in rhythm. Williams used to step with her sorority in college, and the ode to the Black dance tradition took her back to those days.
“I was overjoyed with ‘Oh my goodness, how do I take in all these components at one time? It’s got spoken word, it’s got music, it’s got painting, it’s got video, it’s got dance. Oh my god, it’s like Disney World for Black people!’” she said. “It’s like, ‘Look at all the things we can do that they often say we can’t do,’ and they’re doing it at a high level. You want to be in it.”
So what is it about “Black Bois” that struck a chord with audience members, and still has Seattleites raving about it almost two years later? To find out, we talked with Tirrell, original and new cast members and people in the community who felt deeply impacted by the show.
The origins of “Black Bois”
Tirrell says “Black Bois” was originally inspired by three specific Black men: Tirrell’s father, Tirrell’s nephew and Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old Bronx youth who killed himself in 2015 after enduring trauma at Rikers Island jail, where he was held for three years without trial because he couldn’t afford bail.
Tirrell’s father, who raised the family in Detroit, “never rejected me or told me to change parts of my identity or self. Never,” said Tirrell. “[He] took me to Alvin Ailey, took me to my dance classes. He’d be the only Black male father at my recitals. As I got older it was like, ‘Oh, you actually was there.’”
When Tirrell’s nephew was diagnosed with a fatal deteriorative disease, Tirrell’s brother watched his son fade away and supported his family with strength as well as vulnerability.
“We don’t talk about the resilience and the strength of Black males,” said Tirrell. “You all have to endure a lot and you didn’t do the thing that people think Black men do. You didn’t run away, you didn’t blame the world. You were present.’”
And in Browder, Tirrell saw how even with strength and support, Black bois are so often still broken by systemic racism.
“The system killed him before he killed himself,” said Tirrell. “He just didn’t have a chance at 18 years of age. We see Black, male-bodied folks and we don’t think about [how] you don’t even have a chance, because the system is already killing you.”
Although the show’s concept began with reflections on the Black men in Tirrell’s life, the “Black Bois” that audiences would eventually enjoy grew through incorporating the experiences and talents of the Black bois who made up the dynamic cast.
This year, as in the original production, each artist’s unique experience informs every movement, making the show as much theirs as it is Tirrell’s.
“This is really just a love letter”
At first, the “Black Bois” revival rehearsal looks like any other rehearsal. Tirrell sits in a chair at the front of the room looking on as the dancers go through the movements choreographed by Tirrell. Then, as one piece ends, Tirrell rises to offer direction.
“I don’t want it to have a resolution,” says Tirrell. “Gender and sexuality is not resolved for a lot of people. I don’t want it to be predictable. I want it to be uncomfortable for everybody.”
There’s no directive for a dancer to turn a certain way or move their arms just so. For Tirrell, the importance lies in the meaning and feeling behind the movement.
“We know you can dance, you’re pretty, you’re beautiful. What are you feeling?” says Tirrell.
Later, Tirrell explains that while there are certain aspects of the performance that do need to be a certain way, the show is collaborative.
“They have to dance it, they have to be onstage. They have to rip their hearts out onstage in a way that I don’t have to,” Tirrell said.
And every cast member brings something different to the performance, in terms of style or artistic genre, as well as in their personal interpretations and experiences of their identities as “Black bois.”
For dancer Gilbert Small II, a new cast member this year, working on “Black Bois” has been a welcome relief from his usual dance performances, because he gets to perform material that speaks to his own identity.
“I feel like so many times when you’re performing you have to step into a world that’s being presented to you and you encompass it,” Small said. “Here, I am the world. I was born a Black boi. I was born in my body, 100% the way I am, and I have gone through all the things that we have to go through.”
Dancer and new cast member Marco Farroni says “Black Bois” has helped him explore his experience as a Black person from the Dominican Republic living in the U.S., and has expanded his understanding of just how vast and diverse Black identity is.
“I don’t relate to collard greens as a Black thing because there’s no collard greens in the Dominican Republic,” he said as an example. “Blackness looks and feels and exists in so many ways.”
For dancer, show collaborator and original cast member Randy Ford, the nontraditional spelling of “Bois” reflects the show’s inclusiveness.
“I like the spelling of bois, because not everybody in the cast identifies as a cisgender boy. I identify as a nonbinary transfemme and I think queerness and Blackness is also a highlight of what the show really does, and [it’s] a thing that Black bois don’t really get to explore or even fathom the idea of being queer,” said Ford. “This is really just a love letter. We’re kind of writing our own letters to ourselves and forgiving ourselves or giving ourselves, because this world is always hard on us. It’s time for us to be soft and be intimate and all those things.”
That plural “Bois” also invites other “Black bois” in the audience to be part of the story, said dancer and new cast member Robert Adam Moore.
“[If] you don’t necessarily see yourself represented in the stories that you see on the stage, it’s still open-ended enough that it can empower you to maybe tell your own story, or maybe the next iteration, you can be onstage too. We’re not closing it off. It’s a never-ending story.”
Tirrell’s vision for the show is similar. “It’s everyone’s show. I just have been blessed with the idea of the show, but everything else you see is everyone else involved in the process. It’s not my show. It’s the community’s show.”
“It doesn’t throw anybody away”
Seattleites who saw the show in 2018 walked away with diverse impressions and insights, making Tirrell’s vision for “Black Bois” as “the community’s show” a reality.
Dancer Lisa Kwak said the show made her think about how her own identity as a mixed Asian and white woman impacts her experience and her relationship and responsibility to the Black community.
“Yes, the title is ‘Black Bois,’ but they made it universal by just being truthful about it,” said Kwak. “I am not Black and I am not a boy, but at the same time, I’m living in this world where I turn on the news and yet another Black man has been shot or these other devastating things I hear in the community. So it brings up a lot about how I show up for a group of people that is not being valued or protected.”
Poet and actor Naa Akua was inspired by the show’s multidisciplinary approach.
“When I was younger all I did was poetry, and then someone told me, ‘You know that you can rap, right?'” said Akua. “I think by seeing [“Black Bois”] it lets me know that expansion is possible. Because it’s so many mediums, you would think, how does that all work on one stage, but it does.”
Williams, the executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, said “Black Bois” was a learning experience “around gender and people’s stories and things of that nature. I think me sitting in the audience was learning more of some of the things that Black bois go through and how they present themselves in the community and how the community responds to that.”
Design researcher Zithri Saleem said the show made him think about his role as a father and a Black man in his everyday life.
“Being a father, being a husband, having four daughters, there was a lot there for me to critically look at — how are you spending your time, how are you showing up — not only in my family’s life but in my own life. It’s just work.”
For writer Lola Peters, “Black Bois” resonated because it showed Black men from the loving perspective of the Black community.
“It doesn’t throw anybody away,” said Peters. “It says, ‘This is our community and we are beautiful and magnificent, and we come at it from a whole lot of different points of view and perspectives. Look at us, we are fantastic!’ And I love that so much.”
“Black Bois,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14; Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; 206-682-1414; $40-$50; stgpresents.org