Something to Say: Urban Bush Women take the Overture Hall Stage
A conversation with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
For 30 years, Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women have put the struggle of the African American woman on stage, and worked to connect communities of color with artistic and economic opportunity. Their community outreach work has become almost as important as their dance. The seven dancers in the ensemble will fill Overture Hall with messages of resistance, femininity, defiance, and history when they take the stage on Wednesday, February 18. We spoke with company founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar about the company, its origins and mission, and what you can expect to see in Overture Hall.
Overture Center: What was happening in 1984 that you felt the need to start the company? How did the company come about?
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: I think in the 80s, in the early to mid 80s, there was a lot of energy toward people forming companies. A lot of people were forming companies at that time. I think there was just kind of a momentum. That’s one thing. And I think there was a lot of financial support. That’s kind of the larger picture. Then for me, I felt like I had something to say, and maybe a perspective that might be a little different that what was out there. I wanted to bring that.
OC: What had you been doing before founding UBW?
JWJZ: I had gotten my graduate degree in dance from Florida State in 1979, and then I moved to New York in 1980. I was studying with a woman named Diane Mackintyre at a studio called Sounds in Motion. I went to study with her because she was working with improvisation and jazz and that was my interest. I wanted to work with storytelling and theater and vocal sound and all that good stuff.
OC: Now, the company’s community outreach efforts are paramount to the company, in addition to the dance. Has that always been the case?
JWJZ: That was the result of our early touring. We realized that we wanted to see more African American people in the audience. We started to try to go to find them. That led to us developing strategies and methodologies to engage in audiences, and have them come see the work. That’s really where the impulse came from. But then we realized there was something deeper beyond just audience development. We had something to say both on the stage and in working with communities. I wanted to give as much attention to methodologies of working with communities as I did to methodologies of working on the stage.
OC: You mentioned there was a lot of financial support in the 1980s. Is that still the case?
JWJZ: I think there are a lot of different things. A lot of people are moving toward a project basis, as opposed to companies. I love having a company. I love having a group of people that I work with on a regular basis, and if I need other people who are outside the expertise of that group, then I look to find them. I really enjoy working with an ongoing group of people and really developing an ensemble practice.
OC: Do you think you would have a hard time starting that company today?
JWJZ: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It’s not that it was easy. It definitely wasn’t easy. I didn’t get any financial support for five years. It’s not that it was easy. It wasn’t that I was always getting the money that was out there, but I think that there was just maybe more validation that this was a fine direction to go.
OC: How many dancers are in the company on tour?
JWJZ: When we first began, we had seven, and we now still have seven. I’ve liked that number. I’ve liked being small, because again, I’ve wanted more of an ensemble process.
OC: What can people here in Madison expect to see when they come to Overture Hall? Let’s start with Walking With Trane.
JWJZ: Walking With Trane is inspired by the structure and the themes of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane’s master work. This is the 50th anniversary of A Love Supreme. We have created new music. And also, it’s solo piano. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, there’s no one who’s approached that concept of the music as a solo piano. We wanted to create new music, but using the themes that are in A Love Supreme, which are Pursuance, Resolution, Acknowledgement and Psalm.
The first one, Pursuance, that’s the first section. The audience may not see sections, but that’s how we focus it. It has to do with when Coltrane was pursuing his musical dream, his vision, but also when he was being pursued by his own demons. Those are things that we are working with, and this is all in abstraction. Our next section is Resolution, and that’s a trio that looks at when he was dealing with a drug addiction, or when the critics were calling his work anti-jazz, his resolution came through the music that was inside of him. That was his vision. And then the third is Acknowledgement, when he really started into a spiritual practice, and he began to acknowledge something greater than himself, and something that he was connected to in a very cosmic, spiritual way. And then the last section is Psalm, and that is kind of like a prayer. A prayer to God. We’ve taken those ideas and interpreted them in new ways.
OC: Dark Swan is also on the program.
JWJZ: Dark Swan is Nora Chipaumire’s very provocative work. Nora likes to live in provocative space, and you know, I love being there with her. It’s definitely adult-themed, and it’s really looking at the idea of survival and resistance. In the Russian ballet The Dying Swan, there was a romanticization and a beautification of death. Nora is from Zimbabwe, and looking all around her, people were not dying these beautiful deaths, but in fact the were resisting it. As women, she also wanted something about that resistance of women to being objectified. For her, it’s like reclaiming the body and reclaiming one’s own agency in the body as a form of resistance. With all of that, there’s pain, there’s pride. If you think of the swan, there’s the preening in the transformation. So there’s the struggle, and you have the transformation and the preening, and then the claiming of self and the power of self as women.
OC: And what about Hep Hep Sweet Sweet?
JWJZ: That is about my family’s migration story from Texas to Kansas City, Missouri, as told in this fictional jazz club, Hep Hep Sweet Sweet. It’s narrative. It’s definitely a linear — well, it’s not exactly linear, but it’s a narrative of that history. The women in the club are living, telling and being the history.
OC: Dane County, according to a report that came out last year and took us all by surprise, is actually one of the worst places in the country to live as a minority. A lot of people here are trying to address that, and those issues. Given that, if there are young African American women or young African American men in the audience, what do you hope they come away with, given the environment they’re growing up in right now?
JWJZ: I think just a sense of possibility as an artist. How you can express yourself, address provocative issues, address your family, both collective and personal history. I would hope that for everyone, not just the African Americans or students. I hope everyone sees American history in a broader, more profound light than how African Americans are relegated to Black History Month, as opposed to American History.
Urban Bush Women perform at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, February 18 in Overture Hall. Tickets start at $20. Questions? Call the Ticket Office at 608.258.4141.
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