Performing Livability

8.5 / Review

Performing Livability

By Anisa Jackson May 22, 2018

How do white art institutions profit off of Black bodies? This question was written on a chalkboard positioned at the front of the stage for the last performance of the sold-out premiere of Dani Tirrell’s Black Bois, and the audience was invited to respond as they trickled in. One respondent answered, How do they not?

Faced with social, economic, and political pressures to both adhere to and resist white supremacist logic, Black artists are often set against a frustrating paradox in which (as writer Kareem Reid articulates) Black art is required “to mean something to black people, to educate white people, to contain an inherent duplicity.”1 How Black artists choose to engage—or refuse to engage—with these parameters raises the question: Within the context of this racialization, is it possible to be Black and not perform?

Black Bois, organized into a series of vignettes, is a multidisciplinary performance including dance, original poetry by J MASE III, a live soundtrack composed by Ben Hunter, and live water paintings by Roache the Muralist. By thinking through strategies that Black artists can employ to resist economies of racialized capitalism, we might consider what constitutes a livable Black life, and search for strategies that lead towards freedom from systemically inequitable structures. The wide breadth of artists who collaborated on Black Bois center an exploration into the makings of a livable life—or how to ultimately divorce their work from institutions or agendas that seek to monetize Black bodies.

Black Bois artists. Courtesy of On The Boards. Photo: Naomi Ishisaka

One vignette is narrated by poet J MASE III, who assumes the voice of a white woman named Susan. “Susan” informs the audience (both the performers on the stage as well as the audience seated at On the Boards) that they will be learning, “How to be a n*****.”  Dancer Markeith Wiley is the target of Susan’s lessons. As Wiley hesitantly begins to follow Susan’s requests to alter his stance and dress, he is verbally reprimanded—and her instructions become increasingly ridiculous. One of Susan’s final mandates is for Wiley to find “the most beautiful b**** to mack on.” Wiley engages an unsuspecting white male audience member in the front row, who seems uncomfortable and resistant throughout Wiley’s performed flirtations. The encounter is representational of the endless complications for the legibility of Blackness in such gendered and racialized interactions. On one hand, the fictional white woman, Susan, defines the guidelines that Wiley must comply with; however, though Wiley embodies a role that is not of his own construction, he is the one who is met with hostility from the white audience member. In response to the passage “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying,” from her book Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine says in an interview that “blackness in the white imagination has nothing do with black people.” Tirrell includes both quotes in the first page of the program guide. The narrative arc and audience engagement seems to gesture towards white subjugation of Blackness, which occurs regardless of how Blackness is performed and despite visualized linkages to how these constructs are created. Thus, Tirrell emphasizes that there is an imperative to center Blackness and Black stories.  

Black Bois artists (left to right (Markeith Wiley, Mychael Hodges, Randy Ford, Cipher Goings, Michael O’Neal, Jr). Courtesy of On The Boards. Photo: Naomi Ishisaka

A vignette highlighting the 2010 wrongful incarceration of New York teen Kalief Browder leads us into a solo performance by Randy Ford. As a young black boi, Kalief Browder was imprisoned for three years on Rikers Island—nearly two of those years spent in solitary confinement—all without being convicted of a crime. Seamlessly blending vogue and contemporary dance, among other styles, Ford’s performance reminds us how “black folk have been dancing joy through danger, loss, and grief for so long.”2 As Ford moves powerfully across the stage, she conveys a somatic relationship to loss, collapsing and rising with endurance and grace. Anna Martine Whitehead describes this alternative compositional paradigm, which wanes by both pulling and resisting gravity, as “fall-fall-rise-rest-rise-rest-fall or rise-fall-rise-fall-rest-rest-snap.”3 The Buzzard Lope, among other African spiritual dances, appears in the video compilations that play in the background. Similar to voguing, the Lope disregards Western narrative arcs that privilege linear efficiencies.   

The temporal presence of Roache the Muralist’s fleeting water paintings, which appear in the background of each vignette, subtly disrupts attempts to reduce Black art for commodification and exploitation. Using water as paint, Roache’s imagery rejects attempts at its own abrasive erasure. The water from Roache’s brush strokes slowly dries, revealing traces of the original canvas. This reminder of ephemerality leverages its place within Black Bois’s broader narrative, inducing a collective consciousness around witnessing temporal acts. The water’s resistance to a permanent composition or stillness becomes a metaphor for the resistance of Black performance work becoming commodification.

Black Bois artists (left to right: Ben Hunter, Dani Tirrell, Roache the Muralist). Courtesy of On The Boards. Photo: Naomi Ishisaka

Black Bois is expansive. Scenes throughout the performance commemorate Black queerness and the temporal and spatial dimensions that generate the possibility to heal, nurture, and live within the context of racialized capitalism that Black people find themselves within. The process of generating and nurturing spaces for Black folks begins long before the performance and requires many months of caring and collaborating with the artists. In a talkback with Tirrell and the performers following the performance, there was unanimous consensus on the inclusive and intentional environment that Tirrell had fostered for Black folks to come to the work as they truly are. The continual process of caring should be read as a politicized response to the objectification and reduction of Blackness, the ways in which Blackness is expected to perform, and is perhaps always read as performing. In its centering of Black queer subjectivity, and particularly in Tirrell’s efforts to exercise choreography as a site of care, Black Bois is honest, commemorative, and joyous; it is a radical love story.  

Black Bois was performed at On the Boards in Seattle from April 26–29, 2018 by dancers David Rue, Randy Ford, Michael O’Neal, Jr., Markeith Wiley, Stefan Richmond, Kyle Bernbach, Mychael Hodges, and Cipher Goings; with poetry by J MASE III, set design by Roache the Muralist, and music composition by Ben Hunter.  


  1. Kareem Reid, “On Cecile Emeke and the Conditions of Black Cultural Production, Kareem Reid,” Arts Black, April 25, 2018,
  2. Anna Martine Whitehead, “Expressing Life Through Loss: On Queens That Fall with a Freak Technique,” in Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings, ed. Clare Croft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 286.
  3. Ibid.

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