Review: Urban Bush Women’s ‘Haint Blu’ evokes past in site-specific performance
Chanon Judson with Courtney Cook in “Haint Blu” by Urban Bush Women at Historic Hampton House. (Photo courtesy of MDC Live Arts Miami)
You summon ghosts, you don’t know where they’ll take you. Happily, the spirits brought to haunting life by Urban Bush Women’s “Haint Blu,” an extraordinary dance-theater event at Miami’s Historic Hampton House, took us from benign gathering to harrowing memory to explosive emotion to culminate in a luminous, otherworldly sense of power, affirmation, and redemption.
That this astonishing event, the result of three years of collaboration by UBW with Miami Dade College’s Live Arts and local artists and community figures, was staged just four times (from Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12) reinforced its power. “Haint Blu” (a color that Blacks in the southeast United States believed would ward off malignant spirits) seemed as much ritual as performance, embodying lives and feelings in a singular, intensely meaningful act.
Urban Bush Women’s history with various incarnations of Miami Dade College’s cultural division goes back to the late 1980s. But “Haint Blu” is its most in-depth and community-connected project together. Founded by the visionary Jawole Willa Jo Zollar in New York in 1984, UBW is now led by co-artistic directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis. Performers on an incandescent plane of their own, Judson and Speis are charged with guiding a company whose mission extends far beyond performance to profound work in community building, fostering artists, and activism. Judging by “Haint Blu,” UBW is in excellent hands.
For me, and likely for others, setting “Haint Blu” at Brownsville’s Hampton House, probably Miami’s most significant Black historical site, where culture-shifting figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammed Ali stayed, implied that the piece would invoke the former hotel’s specific history. It did not – at least not that I could tell. But the Hampton’s pristine, bright-colored, modernist interiors made for a dramatic and visually striking setting, while our awareness of all that Black history, those Black icons, imbued the site with a significance you could never get in a traditional theater. Wilder sections, set in raw spaces upstairs, brought to mind the underlying violence of the racism that created this segregated hotel.
Sunday evening’s final performance opened with an audience of 60 people gathered in the Hampton’s high-ceilinged former nightclub for explanatory welcoming speeches by Live Arts executive director Kathryn Garcia and Hampton House brand manager Edwin Shepherd. But the piece began when we filed into the small lobby, to encounter Judson, imperious and possessed, burning with intensity, twisting in invitation and incantation to the spirits. “I’m the transporter,” she says. “A witness to what they want me to show.”
Moving to the interior patio around the pool, the atmosphere was, at first, casual. White-clad performers invited participants to add to a shrine filled with candles, offerings, and photos of famous Black figures; to get a drink at a bar; to cleanse themselves from a bowl of scented water; to explore. In addition to the eight UBW performers, the ensemble included Michelle Grant-Murray, the powerhouse dance professor and coordinator of dance at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus, and members of her student Jubilation Dance Ensemble. All radiated a fierce, joyful engagement that was essential to the power of “Haint Blu.”
As the audience settled into chairs, dancers in white dresses (the wonderful costumes were by Arianne Zager) stalked around the pool, arms undulating and summoning to an echoing soundscore. The invocation intensified as Grace Galu Kalambay, a towering woman in skintight black pants and a wide black hat, entered strumming a guitar and singing “Oh, Susana” in a magnificent, bluesy voice, riling up the audience to sing along to a gospel-sounding tune. Speis, a compact woman with wild graying hair and the force of a gale wind, raced up stairways and across the patio, bellowing: “What do you remember? Who’s calling you? Can you hear me?!”
There was a confusing amount going on – multiple performers moving and speaking. But maybe this is what happens when you call on many ghosts, many stories. We were sent off to explore. I ended up in the former café, with two dancers moving to a recorded tale of a bootlegging grandfather who shot two white sheriffs. Then we were all guided upstairs to the second floor; past a hypnotized-seeming Judson, performing a kind of ritual in an alcove; past a stairwell filled with a rippling line of dancers to dark, raw rooms stripped down to concrete and ragged silver hangings on the wall. (Nicholas Hussong did the beautifully detailed production design.) Kalambay and percussionist Lucianna Padmore, drumming fiercely, added to a musical dance party storm, EDM and Parliament Funkadelic, the dancers screaming (at one point “the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!”), pumping, cheering each other on, lights flashing red and blue. It had a familiarity, like an underground club, with an eerie edge – as if demons and ghosts were attending the party.
“You can find it, you can find it!” a performer howled, and ripped down the silver hangings to reveal a line of windows and glass doors, the outdoors suddenly showing. There was a dancer on the opposite balcony, framed in red neon; then a slow parade of arching, red-lit dancers, as if on an epic, otherworldly journey. Moving back to the patio, we could be submerged – Kalu booming the children’s song “there’s a hole in the bottom of the sea” was ominous. Speis yelped from stairways and a balcony with the fathomless pain of a woman giving birth, then plunged into a bathtub full of water, overcome, until two dancers, draped in gold netting, tenderly raised her up and draped her too. The performers, wrapped in gold, huddled, rose, and circled as the mood and movement shifted from apocalyptic to defiant to celebratory. Then, Kalu and Padmore thundered into the blues anthem “CC Rider.” One of the Urban Bush Women told the story of her great-grandmother, who persisted in dancing though her husband forbade it. “I been HERE,” she pronounced, pointing to herself, “I been HERE the whole time.”
Another voice called out, repeating, “Don’t look down, keep moving, press on to higher ground” as she moved away from us, arching, lunging, reaching, towards a doorway filled with light, moving through and beyond, taking the memories with her and leaving the ghosts behind.
Urban Bush Women’s “Haint Blu” was performed Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12 at the Historic Hampton House, 4240 NW 27th Ave., Miami in collaboration with Miami Dade College’s Live Arts. To find out more about Live Arts, go to liveartsmiami.org