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Gitana's 'Muddy River' dances out history of racism in the time of Trayvon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - Throughout his boyhood, St. Louis alderman Terry Kennedy heard the harrowing true story of how his father crossed the Mississippi River on a makeshift log raft at the age of 7 to escape what's known as the East St. Louis race riots.

“‘Race wars’ is how the survivors described it,” Kennedy said.

In the summer of 1917, mobs of striking white employees killed 40 black East St. Louisans and torched 6,000 of their homes, angry that black workers might take their jobs at the Aluminum Ore and American Steel companies.

As blood flowed and fires burned across the river, St. Louis police banned blacks from entering the city by bridge, and Kennedy’s grandmother knew she had to think fast. Dodging bullets as flames engulfed her home, she hastily executed an escape for her and her five children.

“My grandmother took the children out the back and, in the chaos, built a raft and put the children on it,” Kennedy said. “It took hours to get across, and after they finally got on this side, they tried to find the other family members -- some were never found.

Kennedy’s family story is one of several historical events brought to life onstage in Gitana Productions’ “Muddy River,” featuring a free preview and discussion April 23 at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, followed by a regular run May 11-19 at the Cardinal Rigali Center.

Recreating and remembering history are critical in processing the past and the present, according to Gitana’s executive director Cecilia Nadal.

“It’s a coincidence we’ve got this Trayvon Martin thing going on. While there are still questions out there about that, it shows that underneath the surface, there is always this issue of racial conflict,” Nadal said. “Part of our way of understanding it is to remember how bad it was but to also look for the hopefulness.”

Words get in the way

A play without words may seem like an oxymoron -- unless you call it dance theater. That’s the concept behind “Muddy River,” whose stories are told by movement and music, aided by a few lyrics and some program guidance.

The production begins with the history of the world and moves toward a number of local scenarios, including the caging of African pygmy families and Filipino natives in “natural environments” at the 1904 world’s fair, and the more recent real-estate red-lining that kept white neighborhoods white.

Portraying these incidents wordlessly means the actions are subjected a different kind of interpretation, Nadal said.

“I’ve learned that words can be translated into whatever people want, not because they are intentionally manipulating the meaning but because we all engage in selective listening,” Nadal said.

For example, the word “racism” is often associated with “an underlying belligerence and intent,” according to playwright Lou Robinson. But the truth is that it’s not always conscious or intended to harm, she pointed out. It’s important for people to know that the production is about understanding -- not blame.

“I want people to walk away hopefully having increased their awareness of what racism looks like, how they contribute to it and how to fix it,” Robinson said.

Racism doesn’t hurt only minorities

Another message that Robinson and others involved in the production want to send is that all people -- not just minorities -- are affected by racism or prejudice. If you’re a person who crosses the street rather than come into contact with a particular group, your discomfort hurts you.

“That’s not a good way to live your life when you are a person who has these feelings,” Robinson said.

According to director and choreographer Vivian Anderson-Watt, divisions between groups are kept in place in myriad ways, including the ubiquitous question St. Louisans like to ask: “Where’d you go to high school?”

“Once they know, they put you in a category or location and everything that’s attached to that location,” Anderson-Watt said.

The “Muddy River” dancers with whom Anderson-Watt is working range from high school students to certified Katherine Dunham instructors to a Brazilian martial arts group. In a series of vignettes, they dance not only to tell the stories but to illustrate the meaning behind events like the Kennedys' raft crossing.

“The theme of that piece is hope, survival, perseverance, a sense of family structure and love -- that protective factor of ‘I will keep my family together,’” Anderson-Watt said.

While Kennedy looks forward to seeing his family’s history played out on stage, he also has mixed feelings.

“It brings up a lot of emotions; it’s a difficult story, and by knowing the survivors first-hand, I know the pain they carried from it,” Kennedy said. “But by the same token, we are honored.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.