This fall, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company restages its 2010 work “Southern Exposure” with the help of a $10,000 Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. “With all of these things that have happened in the past few years, many years, actually, I thought it was time to revisit it again, in a slightly different perspective,” said Mary Pat Henry, choreographer and WHCDC’s artistic director.
The multimedia dance theater work is a period piece, set in the American South during the 1960s. It tells the story of a young white girl and her Black friend, innocent, at first, to their environment’s violent societal forces.
The scenes trace Henry’s memories and experiences. Henry grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. “Integration started when I was in high school. I remember the theaters were segregated and the water fountains and the counters. All of that I go through in the story.”
“Some of them,” she said of her memories, “I couldn’t even put in.” Even though it is a hard story to tell, Henry has never steered away from works that explore social issues — and injustice. “I always wanted to do it for a very long time . . . but I was reluctant to do it. I was reluctant, because I was thinking, ‘Who are you to say this?’” she said.
“It took me a long time to figure out how I might do a piece like that. William Christenberry did an exhibit at the art gallery at UMKC, and all these events and memories came back.”
The exhibit, in 2000, was of Christenberry’s pivotal and controversial “Klan Tableaux Sculptures” from his “Klan Room” series, featuring photographs, paintings, sculptures and scenes with dolls dressed in KKK hoods. He started the project in 1963, amassing a large collection, but the work was mysteriously stolen from his studio in 1979. Over the decades, he reconstructed the work, which includes more than 400 objects.
Christenberry’s work confronted that legacy of hatred and provided the perfect palette for Henry’s story. She spoke with him, and he gave her permission to use his images as long as they were not altered.
The images are more than backdrop, though. Images of crumbling buildings, blurred around the edges with the veil of nostalgia, capture a way of life that was already, then, fading, decaying. The work also includes archival footage from the era, some of it the lush Southern landscape, some of it capturing the South’s inglorious past.
“Some people have told me,” Christenberry is often quoted, “that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist or of art. On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality.”
Christenberry died in 2016, but his work continues to instigate conversation, to measure our past and present. Some of his pieces are now part of the Belger Arts Center’s collection.
“Southern Exposure” also uses the music from the era, selected from UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives. With the assistance of curator Chuck Haddix, Henry pored over the music for weeks to find the right mix, including pop, gospel and instrumental tracks, as well as a spoken word recording by the Last Poets.
The work requires a large cast, with both Black and white dancers, as well as a narrator and actors: “to make it more real and not pure dance.” As the work developed, she talked with the dancers to ensure authenticity in emotion and detail.
The dancers “walked back through it with their experiences when we did it . . . I talked about what happened to me; they talked about what happened to them,” she said. “They were very verbal about what is real and what is genuine, and they wanted to share that because they knew it was important.”
“They got emotional, too. We were all crying in the end. It’s powerful, because it’s still relevant to what’s happening now.”
What was happening in 2010 is amplified in 2019. We were told, then, that we lived in a post-racial society only to learn, now, that the heritage of racism infiltrates at every level, insidious and violent.
As Henry finalized the logistics of the performance, she also considered how to incorporate recent events into the period piece.
This summer, she traveled back to Charleston to talk with people in that community, in light of the 2015 tragedy at the Emanuel AME Church, a place she walked past many times as a little girl. Blending modern elements into the period piece can be challenging, but for Henry, it is a way to reinforce the message that the stains of our past are still present and need to be remembered and addressed.
There are practical changes, too, though she is working with the original technical designer, E.J. Reinagel. The work was originally staged in UMKC’s Spencer Theatre, but scheduling constraints required the production to move to the neighboring White Recital Hall, which doesn’t have a fly system, so there are technical issues to consider and work out.
Henry has expanded the piece to an hour, and it will be the concert’s entire second half. The first half features two pure dance pieces, choreographed by Christian Denice and Frank Chaves, as well as Christopher Huggins’ award-winning, adrenaline-fueled “Enemy Behind the Gates,” presented in partnership with the UMKC Conservatory Dance Department. Henry was chair of the dance department for many years and maintains close ties as professor emerita. WHCDC is artists-in-residence with the Conservatory.
WHCDC will also extend the discussion into the community. Last time, they brought the performance to the students at the Paseo Academy, hosting master classes, and Henry intends to create similar opportunities with this restaged version and continue those conversations.
“Art can reflect what’s going on in society,” said Henry, echoing Christenberry’s statement. She hopes these conversations and performances encourage people to realize that there has to be a coming together for our society to heal and progress.