Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
We cannot dive into a review of the performance Still I Rise without discussing the poem on which it was based. Maya Angelou grew up during the 30s in America, a time where slavery had been abolished but segregation was still very much in place. During her lifetime she was a prominent civil rights activist alongside Martin Luther King and Martin X. In 1978 her poem Still I Rise was published, a powerful poem that illustrates rising up from a “past rooted in pain.” This has often been described as one of Angelou’s greatest works and Nelson Mandela read it at his inauguration in 1994, after having spent 27 years in jail.
Since its publication, the poem has touched people from every race and gender all over the world. One thing that cannot be denied, however, is that you cannot adapt the poem without focusing on Black History, especially since black people still face discrimination in America and in the UK today. Still I Rise isn’t just about being a woman; it’s about being a black woman. The blend of misogyny and anti-blackness is discrimination only black women face.
TRIBE//s production of Still I Rise, created by new choreographer Victoria Fox, is a contemporary dance piece, with music from classic arias juxtaposed with beats mixed with the sounds of a dial up modem. The stage is mostly in shadow with warm and cool spotlights falling on the dancers onstage, sometimes focusing one and then the other until every dancer has been to the forefront. The dancing takes a lot of technical skill and the dancers’ heavy breathing after an hour of unbroken performance speaks for itself.
However, beyond technical excellence, the production falls down. Out of the five dancers, only one is black. This is extraordinary, when considered alongside the importance of the poem’s place in black history, and the discrimination black women face today, sometimes by other non-black women.
The performance is described as a “call to arms,” and it favours duets between the dancers, composed of lifts and intimacy. Everything from the boldness of the dancers’ movements to the emotive music strives to portray the empowerment of women and the fight against misogyny. But with blackness erased from the story, the message feels incredibly hollow. Some elements are emotive, like Mike Bignell’s lighting design, which falls during the aria like light filtering through a church window into a dark space, but moments like this aren’t enough to hold up the performance.
By making Still I Rise just about misogyny from the casting alone, the production erases Angelou’s identity from her poem. Its adaptation of words written in response to a world rife with racism, misogyny and discrimination feeds into the myth that racism is over so we do not need to show it anymore. Maya Angelou’s work has been meaningful for so many people through modern history and we absolutely should celebrate and adapt it – but not at the expense of the people the poem was written for.
Still I Rise was at The Lowry on 19th November. It tours to Hemel Hempstead and Bournemouth until 28th November. More info here.