In the years leading up to the Civil War, Harriette Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an unprecedented impact on promoting the cause of abolition, demonstrating that art is one of the most powerful tools available in the fight for social justice. Similarly, Dying While Black and Brown is a profound artistic experience that advocates for the abolition of the Death Penalty.
Commissioned by the Equal Justice Society, the work is a choreographed dance theater piece expressing both the struggle and the will to survive in an inherently dehumanizing system. The four male dancers performing in Dying While Black and Brown symbolically depict the extreme overrepresentation of black and brown men in the prison system and on Death Row, and how their voices are deliberately extinguished. The virtuosic movement style is highly physical and theatricalized as the men act out various scenarios that occur behind bars. But even in the most oppressive circumstances, there is always hope that transformation is at hand. Dying While Black and Brown manages to convey a hopeful message in the midst of seemingly overwhelming realities.
Dying While Black and Brown was created by choreographer Joanna Haigood in collaboration with composer Marcus Shelby, whose radiating jazz score energetically infuses the work. The piece runs about 30 minutes in length and is always immediately followed by a panel of experts and activists who further enhance the audience’s experience with the most up to date information from the front lines of the struggle.
The research process for this work included interviews, facilitated by EJS, by Joanna Haigood and Marcus Shelby with many activists including Anthony Graves, the 138th exonerated Death Row inmate. Despite having no prior record, he was convicted of murdering a family of 6 solely on the testimony of the person who actually committed the crime. Arrested at 26, Graves spent 18 years in prison, 4 of those after he had already been exonerated. Twice he was scheduled for death by lethal injection. The prosecuting attorney in the case was eventually disbarred for concealing evidence and using false testimony. Among the others interviewed was Jeanne Woodford, a former Warden at San Quentin who oversaw four executions and is now an activist against the Death Penalty.
"The piece Dying While Black & Brown impacted me in a very profound way, because it took me back to a place emotionally that allowed me to reconnect with the tragedy of the past 18 years of my life, and then it also reminded me of the triumph of winning back my freedom."
-- Anthony Graves, Texas Defender, Former Death Row Inmate
“This was one of the greatest events the institute has ever sponsored and the entire audience, which included many long-time advocates for justice, was deeply moved. The dance itself (Dying While Black and Brown) was certainly powerful beyond words, but hearing the troupe discuss its meaning for themselves and their understanding of justice was perhaps as important. We all left the room feeling a little more human and a lot more determined to fight on.”
-- David Harris, Managing Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School
Choreography and Direction: Joanna Haigood
Composer: Marcus Shelby
Scenic Design: Wayne Campbell
Byb Chanel Bibene, Travis Santell Rowland, Michael Valez, Folawole Winfunke
Subsequent Tour Performers
josé abad, Delvis Friñon, Antoine Hunter, Robert Henry Johnson, Erik Lee, Frankie Lee III, Rashad Pridgen, Travis Santell Rowland, Matthew Wickett
Yoshi’s, San Francisco, CA
Subsequent Performance Dates & Locations
2013: University of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
2014: Zaccho Studio, San Francisco, CA
2015: University of Massachusetts, Amherst
2015: Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, MA
2017: University of California, Davis, CA
2017: Black Choreographers Festival, Oakland, CA
2017: Malcolm X Jazz Festival, Oakland, CA
2019: Bolinas Community Center presented by the Bolinas Museum, Bolinas, CA
2019: Point Reyes Dance Palace, Point Reyes Station, CA
2023: Brava Theater presented by San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, San Francisco, CA
Funders / Commissioners
Commissioned by Equal Justice Society
Dying While Black and Brown was also made possible with generous support from San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, The Surdna Foundation, Bayview Hunters Point Community Fund of the Tides Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, EastSide Arts Alliance (2017), University of California, Davis (2017), and the Bolinas Museum (2019)
If you would like to view the full performance video, please contact Zaccho Dance Theater by email here.
Photography by: Kegan Marling
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