PRINT December 1991


Urban Bush Women

THERE REALLY IS SUCH a thing as muscle memory, and if you grew up in Africa you would know what I mean. There are gestures, facial expressions, and a way of moving the body—dancing flat-footed, knees bent, hands moving around the face, with raised elbows drawing shapes in the air—that you see in African-Americans and that exactly mirror gestures found in Africa. It’s as though this body language had survived two hundred years of separation from its native soil expressly to prove the Africanness of African-Americans. It is just this point that historians, anthropologists, and artists in the ’90s are working hard to explain—the routes that African traditions in art, music, dance, and religion have taken in the process of transplantation as well as their effect on traditionally “white” American culture.

According to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder and director of Urban Bush Women, this country is more Africanized than we realize. “You really see the difference when you go to Europe. Watch the way people move there—it’s definitely European.”1 On the other hand, social and street dancing in this country have African sources, from tap dancing and rock ’n’ roll to double dutch and breakdancing. “Our religious rituals, particularly in the rural South, have West African origins. I never thought that we [Americans] had a sacred dance tradition outside of the American Indian,” Zollar says. Elaborating on her childhood experience of dances like the shout (a circular group dance of shuffling movements, one of whose rules is that both feet must never be off the ground at the same time), she adds, “We didn’t know that It was part of a sacred ritual.”

It is only when she began researching minstrel dance and music that Zollar discovered the sources of many of the dance forms that she had taken for granted at childhood church gatherings or in schoolyards in her hometown of Kansas City, which was then highly segregated. Along with scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson, Susan Vogel, and Thomas McEvilley, she is making the connections between African-American culture and those of other members of the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Mexico and South America, and Africa.

Zollar formed her ensemble of dancers, singers, writers, poets, actors, and musicians in 1984 (its name was inspired less by the ancient and resilient Bushmen tribe of South Africa’s Karroo and Namib deserts than by such album titles as Gary Bartz’s Harlem Bush Music and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Urban Bush Men). With the stated intention of finding “a modern outlet for the folklore and religious traditions passed down by African Americans from generation to generation,” the group, like diligent anthropologists, mines a variety of research fields for material that will illuminate the present and, by the same token, refocus attention on past pioneers of “African” dance such as Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.

To this end, Zollar, who considers herself an outsider in both Africa and America, feels herself free to appropriate material from any number of sources. She has adopted the underlying structure of jazz, allowing strong individual performers to bring their own material to the work from the beginning, and to improvise freely in performance. A broad range of dance training—Caribbean-influenced classes with Joseph Stevenson, a disciple of Dunham; study of the Graham technique; exposure as a student to the work of ’70s inventors like Trisha Brown and Simone Forti—prepared Zollar to make expressionistic work out of deeply felt personal obsessions. The writers who have influenced her, ranging from her sometime-collaborator Laurie Carlos to Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Nigerian performer Fela, and Ugandan poet-in-exile Okot p’Bitek, have inspired her to write material that is crammed with detail—spiritual, sexual, magical, political, ancestral. Turning to her own childhood, she has resuscitated the rituals of church and playground for use in her communal dramas. And, not least, she has embraced as her own both the energetic collaging of dance, music, and harmonizing narrative that distinguishes South African township theater—Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina!, for example—and the equally fast-paced Nigerian or Ugandan dance theater, which incorporates ancestor worship and tribal dance.

In the process, Urban Bush Women has created an unusual and irresistible hybrid of performance that is peculiarly authentic and fake at the same time. Sophisticated postfeminist, African-American, English-speaking women dressed up in African tribal costume! An imaginary tribe, with real-life American anxieties! Such an approach is very American, for only in this multicultural climate could one dare to concoct such a heady brew. Yet it also exhibits what Farris Thompson has called “ancient African organising principles of song and dance [that] have crossed the seas from the Old World to the New”: “dominance of a percussive performance style,” “overlapping call and response,” “songs and dances of social allusion.”2 Each may be found in any number of Urban Bush Women performances, all of which have an underlying tempo of drumming and the syncopated rhythm of bare dancing feet; mix Southern-style “calling” and response with songs and soliloquy; and cross-reference politics and sex, past and present, Western and African, in pertinent social commentary.

Indeed, it could be said that the dance of Urban Bush Women is less about choreography than it is about how bodies group together to shape moral narratives. Equally, as theatrical works, their performances are less about predetermined image-making or linear scripts than they are about a working artistic community. This explains why many of their performances feel like workshops in consciousness-raising—whether Heat, 1988, a collaborative four-part evening-length work of sexual desire, homeless street life, and cosmetic paraphernalia that conjures up summertime in any American inner city, or Song of Lawino, 1988, in which a group of tribal Acoli women in a Ugandan shantytown debate the effects of white men’s education on their menfolk.

In such pieces, the universal litany of angry stories about the distance between men and women, and the disinterest of one culture in another, threatens to overflow the stage. One could, in fact, imagine these events as taking place on a street corner, on a village green, or in a schoolyard, and that the community might, at any time, be invited to join in. Praise House (which is part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 1991 Next Wave Festival), especially, suggests this. Inspired by the life of Minnie Evans, a North Carolina folk artist whose explanation for taking up painting at the age of 43 was that “something told me to Draw or Die,” Praise House is a heartfelt but simple work about spirituality. Elder Hannah is a “seer” who can converse with angels, as can her granddaughter Younger Hannah. Child cries for grandma, mother complains of too much housework, grandma watches with the angels from heaven, as the grown Hannah suffers dreadfully from her ability to see and from the perception of others that she’s “crazy.” Everyone sings, dances, and wails, but even the angels cannot transcend this animated illustration of Minnie Evans’ homespun words and crude paintings.

Praise House is a disappointing hiatus in Zollar’s impressive oeuvre, but it is understandable how this material got the better of her and dramaturge-collaborator Carlos. Attempting to celebrate the importance of seers in rural Southern communities—their outsider status as prophets and artists gave strength to the community in the struggle against slavery and racism—they obviously wished to interfere as little as possible with a folk artist’s view of the world. The challenge was for two sophisticated New Yorkers to create a work of theater in homage to a folk artist. But while this piece has all the modesty and naïveté one associates with folk art, it has none of its innocence, for that thrill is impossible to imitate.

Zollar and her ensemble, nonetheless, are well on the way toward creating a folk-theater genre capable of containing the vast encyclopedia of imagery and spiritualism, history and ritual, that they now have at their fingertips. The pioneering work of Urban Bush Women speaks in many tongues and at many levels, all of which we need to hear and see. For such performance provides a form of spiritual cleansing—freeing us both from the shackles of the art world and from the ignorance of those cultures in whose midst we live every day.

RoseLee Goldberg is a writer who lives in New York, and lectures on art and the media at New York University.



1. All quotations from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar are from interviews with the author, summer 1991.

2. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, New York: Vintage Books, 1984, p. sill.