March 17, 2017 Updated: March 20, 2017 9:33pm
Dominic Clay, exhibitions manager at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, likes the way a narrative about life plays out in Michael Paul Britto's installation "A Night with Beau Willie Brown." Domimic Clay was prepared to be on the defensive when the exhibition "i found god in myself" opened at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.
Dominic Clay was prepared to be on the defensive when the exhibition "i found god in myself" opened at the Houston Museum of African American Culture.
Timed to coincide with Women's History Month, the show features artworks based on choreopoems (monologues performed with dance and music) from Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." A once-radical anthem for black sisterhood, Shange's 1970's performance piece-turned-Broadway hit contains the stories of seven women who navigate sexism, racism and mental and physical abuse.
It still reads as culturally aggressive, with a raw anger directed as much at black men as at whites.
Clay, the museum's assistant curator, is 31, heterosexual and black, and the show made his male-bashing alarm go off.
He previously knew Shange's writing mostly through Tyler Perry's 2010 flashy film adaptation, "For Colored Girls." The exhibition gave him a different perspective.
"I think it's a complete reflection of today," Clay said. "It's about experiences … and trying to understand other peoples' identity."
The show debuted at the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2014, then traveled to the African American Museum in Philadelphia. HMAAC is presenting a condensed version.
The curator, Souleo, is a New York LGBTQ activist who grew up in a strict, religious household where homosexuality was taboo. He experienced a revelation through Shange's work - thus the show's title, which is taken from a line of the play.
The same lines also inspired Amber Robles-Gordon's vividly realized "My Rainbow Is Enuf." Consuming much of a wall with fringed layers of fabric on chicken wire, it neatly expresses the emotional states and personalities of Shange's characters - whose names are color-based (lady in red, lady in brown, and so on) - within a single body, as it were.
Beau McCall's jaunty "darkmuskoilegyptiancrystals&floridawater/redpotionno.1" commands the center of the room. He has covered a vintage claw-footed bathtub in shiny buttons that are mostly red, except for lighter colored buttons that create the shape of a skinny, reclining woman who represents lady in red.
Kimberly Mayhorn, the Houston-born artist among this nationally known group, draws on Shange's lady in brown. Her minimalist installation "Half-notes Scattered" elegantly evokes black lines on a musical score with thin strips of wood, small framed objects and a silky black gown.
You can't escape the voices emanating from the three small video screens of Dianne Smith's "STUFF," based on the lady in green choreopoem "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff." Smith twists brown craft paper into ropelike forms to create a dense field around the screens. The material resembles braided hair, with two strips of colorful printed textiles that dangle like ribbons in the center.
The poem is about a breakup, but in a larger sense, it's also about "what causes someone to take your stuff in a relationship," Clay suggested. "That's really all divorce is about, right? You're trying to keep your belongings and keepsakes that mean something to you. She's talking about emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse - just all the things that revolve around it getting to a point where someone is taking your stuff."
In Smith's signature material, Clay also sees a reference to self-inflicted racism. The practice of "brown bagging" was once common at some black social clubs, where only those whose skin was no darker than brown bags could gain entry, he said.
Clay's favorite piece, however, is Michael Paul Britto's "A Night With Beau Willie Brown," because it contains a dramatic narrative. The piece contains several rows of used liquor bottles on two shelves. Dye-cut vinyl characters appear on each bottle, like a storyboard for one of Shange's most devastating choreopoems. The character Beau Willie, a war veteran with mental health issues who turns alcoholic and abusive, drops his two children out of a fifth-floor window as his victimized wife watches.
It could have happened yesterday. Or might be happening today.
All the excellent works of "i found god in myself" remind viewers that we need Shange now, as much as ever.
Clay knows his generation still has a lot to learn from other black thinkers of the late 20th century, too - including figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Some of them are just discovering James Baldwin, thanks to the recent film "I am Not Your Negro."
"On this quest to try to find our identity and our place in the world, we run into these ambiguous figures behind the cloak," he said. "I love seeing peoples' faces light up when they realize it's about more than civil rights or slavery, when it goes deeper and gets more dense intellectuality."
Senior Writer and Critic, Arts & Culture