Berkshire Arts Organizations Addressing Race

Aug 18, 2016

Two Berkshire County cultural institutions are bringing the tough topic of race to their stages and exploring the role art can have in social issues.

The intense music of FLEXN, a show currently running at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, complements the street style dance performed to its beat. The show’s creator Reggie Gray says the style, which involves contortion that has been featured on some reality competition television shows, was formed in Brooklyn in the 1990s, later becoming a phenomenon. In FLEXN, the dance is used to address social justice issues in America.

“It’s not exactly made up for social protest, but it can be used for it because of how it is,” Gray said. “Bonebreaking; breaking your body and reconstructing itself, connecting; finding ways to connect with different people, gliding; moving slowly and smoothly through people and pausing; putting pause and play on life.”

Gray says people without an “eye” for dance can relate to flex because they can see and feel the emotion coming from the movements. With this is in mind, the show touches on some of the recent high-profile events that are part of an existing tension between police and minority communities.

“The Freddie Gray situation and the Eric Garner situation — these are different things that are really keen in the show,” Gray said. “It’s not exactly play for play what happened, but when you look at it you understand and you can see what the show is about. We feel like when we’re doing a show people can actually get a chance to see it visually instead of hearing about it all the time and it being written in the papers. Who better else to talk about it than some of the people that actually live through some of these things every day?” 

FLEXN runs through Saturday with area education, social and criminal justice leaders forming panels for pre- and post-show talks at the festival’s grounds in Becket. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn is scheduled to speak with Mayor Linda Tyer and the president of the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP Saturday. Wynn says art and cultural institutions are a natural fit to talk about social concerns.

“It’s a safe environment,” Wynn said. “You can address things that have been done in a dramatization or recreation without having the issues that go with a real incident. So there is some freedom there. The other thing is that these cultural institutions are natural draws. It’s not like we have to go out and advertise to get people to come to a community meeting. People are going to be there.”

Wynn also took part in talks surrounding the world premiere of American Son at Barrington Stage Company this past June and July. The play examines the country’s racial issues through the eyes of an estranged interracial couple confronting an unexpected crisis involving their son and the police.

“One of the things that I took away from it is how little non-law enforcement people understand about law enforcement does, why we do certain things or why certain things don’t happen,” Wynn said. “So there was a lot of feedback that people appreciate hearing — for them a unique perspective.”

Because of popular acclaim, especially from local audiences, the show is returning to the Pittsfield theater for a two-week run in September. Another symposium on race is being planned. Wynn says dialogues like these help address tensions that arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding.

“In Pittsfield, we try to engage in those conversations fairly frequently,” Wynn said. “People were surprised that I was there in my official capacity or that I brought other police chiefs to see the show or that other law enforcement officers were in attendance. They didn’t expect to see that in their communities.”

Barrington Stage’s Artistic Director Julianne Boyd says theatre helps people understand issues without being lectured to.

“What we wanted to happen and did happen was it fostered an open dialogue between people in the community,” Boyd said. “That’s what the play does. People stay in their seats after the play is done. They sort of can’t move and then they start talking. People stayed in the lobby for 25-30 minutes afterwards discussing the issues. No one’s right and no one’s wrong in the play. It is as it is in life.”

Jacob’s Pillow and Barrington Stage are offering special pricing and showings for teenagers for both productions.