The Roots and Realities of Colourism

Esie Mensah’s Shades: What is Colour? By Collette Murray
  • Esie Mensah and Miranda Liverpool in Mensah's Shades: What is Colour? / Photo by Dahlia Katz
  • Dancers in Mensah's Shades: What is Colour? / Photo by Dahlia Katz

September 27-30, 2018, Factory Theatre, Toronto

Esie Mensah was at an audition for a role in a major TV movie. She recognized some of her colleagues, fellow dancers of colour, in the room and she knew their internal dialogue was the same as hers: “There’s only room for one of us.” It was one of many encounters in commercial dance where Black dancers acknowledge what they’re up against – one in which their shade tends to be judged along with their talent. This was the impetus to think through and research “shadeism” and consider how to translate the idea into dance.

Shades is a work about mental health and a reworking of Mensah’s Shades of Blackness (2016), a dance project that accompanied a CBC Arts-featured documentary. Shades: What is Colour? is the newest iteration of the series. The work takes risks that enthralls audiences.

Rooted in the fractured phenomenon of shadeism or colourism, Shades engages with the discrimination deeply embedded in global communities of colour. This experience is personal. In my undergraduate thesis I studied ideological racism in beauty standards and colourism as one of many consequences of socially constructed categories. Historically, nineteenth century colonial scientists categorized humans by phenotype (an organism’s observable traits), which assigned darker skin with inferiority and light skin with superiority. What may not be understood is how power and privilege were assigned to one’s shade. The divisive effects of skin discrimination made against racialized bodies in past generations are tied to access and opportunity.

Ghanaian-Canadian Mensah and her cast share a contemporary, multi-faceted view of shade discrimination. Centre stage, underneath an earth-toned backdrop with rays of light shining through, the audience witnessed dynamic and fluid movement through gestures, facial expressions and vocal emotional outbursts. Mensah’s blend of Afrofusion incorporates multiple dance vocabularies, such as contemporary, urban, Afrobeat, commercial and traditional movement from the African continent. Castmate, Allyson Trunzer descibes Mensah’s Afrofusion technique a blend that “creates a spiritual and physical freedom in the body.”

I also spoke with Mensah about her socially-engaged choreographic process and she talks about the challenges of navigating how to stay true to the project while being unsure of its manifestation. The interesting twist for her was being filmed simultaneously for the CBC documentary and her insecurities about how to move the narrative forward were highlighted. She described the process as a journey of conversations, choreographic explorations, stagnation, discouragement, illness, roadblocks and staging unfinished work in progress. There were many growing pains along the way.

As Mensah led this project, dialogue and choreography uprooted generational trauma among the cast. She sought guidance in the final weeks of rehearsal with mentor D’bi Young Anitafrika and encouraged dance collaborators to take an introspective look at their own experiences, triggers and individual advantages and disadvantages of shadeism. Shades encompasses spiritual work for Mensah. “Through this shell, my body, I am absorbing,” she explains. “And what I am spewing up is what an elder or ancestor is speaking.”

Most of the production was physical theatre with no musical score. The opening scene paints a landscape of dancers in varying flesh-toned costumes – from copper to ebony. Representing the different phenotypes, the dancers magnetized together as a single-celled amoeba. In several minutes of silence, the symbolism of melanin manifests. The concentration of pigmentation in humans is interrogated at the cellular level along with notions of humanity. We witness an interplay of vulnerable embraces, as if by osmosis, and fluid bodily unravelling turns into inquisitive and humorous self-discovery through contact improvisation. Visual textures of touch, laughter, intentionality of eye contact, smiles, sensual curiosities and comparisons between dancers introduce the shade hierarchy that distinguished five characters: Sand (Miranda Liverpool), Rust (Tereka Tyler-Davis), Clay (Roney Lewis), Coal (Percy Anane-Dwumfour) and Tar (Esie Mensah). Simultaneously, the choreographic flow of multiple dance conversations between the shades, I felt were conceptually equivalent to the structure of multi-layered musicality found in African polyrhythms. The atmosphere was celebratory and we witnessed tender interactions between the shades. Acceptance of the similarities and differences among the performers is palpable.

A new character enters and the trouble began. External judgements of colour bring a shift in energy, and the tone of the conversation brings a divisive replacement of Sand with an unknown colour, Pearl, whose entrance reveals jealousy as the shades discern whether to accept her “passing” as a lighter skin colour. Pearl’s entrance and the choreographic conversation of light skin privilege, and the exclusion it brings, brought much needed suspense to the narrative. The circular group choreography involves recorded music and Afrofusion, including foot percussion, barrel turns, jumps, floorwork and sequenced polyrhythm with African aesthetics.

Silence returns. The entry of a final character was an emotionally overt and divisive interplay of how shadeism unfolds. Oak (Shakeil Rollock) enters, representing a clear divide-and-conquer mentality and an air of subtle yet undeniable racism within the shade hierarchy. An interesting addition of internal conflict is Rust, a neutral colour, meant to signify those who face peer pressure to conform to a racial identity. This scene is a glossy reminder of how racialized bodies negotiate identity and self-worth against stereotypes, generalizations and instances of everyday racism. 

We see emotional outbursts of anguish. Frustrations among the dancers introduced a definite notion of what colourism represents: the powerful and painful separation of lighter-skinned dancers from their darker-skinned castmates, on opposite sides of the stage. My eyes subconsciously drew towards the intense exchange between the darker shades. The triangulation among Coal and Clay symbolizes the pitting against the other in the group’s decision to ostracize Tar, who is the darkest. It was an interplay on gender as well – a glimpse into whether the Black man stands in solidarity for the dark-skinned woman.

With heart-wrenching silence, the brilliant Mensah channels Tar’s physical experience of internalized racism in her stillness and tears. Isolated in her solo, Mensah’s screams are the voice of the voiceless – internalized pain in the face of hate. She is faced with the decision to succumb to an altering consequence (skin bleach) for the potential hope of acceptance. The disturbing plot turn is a pivotal one, connected to sexism, classism, racism and the search for access and privilege.

I appreciated that Mensah and her theatrical co-director, Akosua Amo-Adem, did not use historical racial categories, instead assigning new titles to the cast. Dramaturge Debbie Wilson reminded the cast to return to the physicality of movement, given the subject matter. Within instances of a paralysing mindset she supported the cast in revisiting their freedom to explore movement reactions. Shades employs dance theatre to make space for community to unpack their understandings of skin colour and power dynamics.

With cast reflections, Trunzer felt the performance process was “a culmination of mind, spirit and body work” with choreography and authentic reactions to the emotional content of the piece.  Miranda Liverpool found her process with Shades to be “an exploration into hidden truths within, manifesting in movement, voice and various connections.” I wished to see further development of the exchanges made between the men of Shades, as patriarchy tilts shadeism heavily upon women. Lewis describes the work as an eye-opening journey. “It was more than a dance piece,” he explained. “We all had to dig deep within ourselves to portray the message.”

During our conversation, Mensah echoed my concerns of questioning what message we’re sending to young girls and boys about skin colour. Within communities of colour, there is ingrained division and internalized racism tied to social capital, success and beauty. Mensah and her dancers use the emotional impetus of shadeism to share positive identity and trauma and their impact on racialized communities. The audience was astounded, and the conversation is far from finished.

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