Störling Dance Theatre’s 16th year of Underground uses the language of movement to explore Black history
Remembering the past, striving for a more united future.
February 3-4 marked the sixteenth year that KC’s Störling Dance Theater has presented Underground, a story about the Underground Railroad told through the language of dance. Performed at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, this year’s production was stunning as it told the story of three enslaved people escaping the South to freedom, and a Quaker community that meets them along the Underground Railroad.
Part of what made this production unlike anything I had ever seen was its complete lack of dialogue. Music accompanied the scenes but forefront was the raw emotion of the dancers. When a slave is killed, the grief of his wife is heartrendingly told through her body, the effect of which is that the audience was asked to stay with her in her grief and to witness to her overwhelming suffering. Dance slowed down both the moments of pain and the moments of relief, inviting audiences to pause and more deeply reflect on this moment in our history.
As Artistic Director and Co-Choreographer, Mona Störling-Enna shares, “Slavery is an attack on the body and soul. Dance is the perfect language to express the depth of destruction inflicted on each person, but also on our community as a whole.”
Underground not only connected its audiences to the past but invited them to pursue a future that embraces racial unity. The end scene of Underground, entitled “Reaching for Freedom,” took the audience to the present day. All the actors all came on stage wearing brightly colored modern clothing.
The audience saw two girls, one Black, one white, growing up together as friends from childhood into adulthood and heard part of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This ending asked the audience to continue to reach for that ideal, to see both where we continue to fall short in our current time, and to reflect on what we can do better.
As Tobin James, Associate Artistic Director and Co-Choreographer of Underground during its first ten years explains, “The Underground cast must, on one hand, let the message of love extend to their communities at large, and, on the other hand, let the embers of the hope for a better world sustain them as they navigate a, sometimes, disappointing social climate.”
Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Culture House, the umbrella organization of Störling Dance Theatre, Jeremiah Enna adds, “After the show, might we all not just sit and clap for the story, but act its example out in our daily lives.”
Mending Racial Divides in the KC Community
And to this point, the organizers of this production did more than just present a thought-provoking performance; they gave us a way to act upon our desire for racial unity. Present at the performance were members of a local nonprofit, Unite KC, which describes itself as “a grassroots movement with a faith-based strategy committed to racial healing and reconciliation in Kansas City.” This group took its inspiration from the work of Underground, as Executive Director Ray Jarrett explained to me in a recent interview: “Unite KC doesn’t exist if there is no Underground.”
The tragedy of George Floyd’s murder sparked a desire among the Underground community to do more for racial reconciliation in the Kansas City community. Born in August 2020, Unite KC is rooted in two activities this organization has found help promote change: “educating people on our shared history and conversation.” Education and conversation are sparked through activities like Underground and the annual Walk for Unity, the latter of which the organization encourages walkers to speak to someone who doesn’t look like them, providing a card with conversation prompts. Unite KC also highlights other community events in which people can learn more about KC’s history, like a recent exhibit on redlining at the Johnson County Museum.
For Jarrett, learning another person’s story is key: “heart change [happens] through dialogue. You can enact laws, but a heart change will bring about unity. We are fighting towards how do we get people to talk to each other.”
Part of that dialogue happens through the various domains within Unite KC. For example, the Criminal Justice domain recently worked with Wyandotte County to get criminal records expunged. Jarrett was delighted by the profound impact this had on the 80 individuals whose records were expunged and their families: “Now they can economically move their people forward. They can go to their kids’ outings at school.”
Other domains include Arts and Culture, Education, Business, and Housing, just to name a few. Check out unitekc.org for upcoming events.
Telling Freedom Stories through Textile Art
Also present during Underground was the art of Sandra Scott-Revelle, a textile artist, whose texturally rich and beautifully colored hand-stitched panels tell stories in intricate detail. Pieces from “The Black History Collection” were on display, each of which highlights ex-slaves who made their journeys to freedom, some along the Underground Railroad. Walking through the panels was like walking through a history book I had never read.
Drawing from slave narratives gathered in the 1930s and 1940s, panels made from bright, and sometimes highly patterned fabrics, tell stories of heroism, like that of Emma Brown, a mother who lost most of her fifteen children to death and auction and was able to escape to freedom. Another panel displays the story of a nameless man who gave up his spot on a boat crossing the Ohio River when he realized his sacrifice would allow a husband and wife to travel into freedom together.
Scott-Revelle describes the stories she’s telling in this way: “I focus on the characters I call ‘the lesser-known lights in the vast heavens of Black history.’ They were common people who experienced bleak situations but persevered. Their stories will prick the mind and stir deep emotions.”
What Scott-Revelle is doing in her work is both prayer and storytelling. As she puts it in a video on her website (produced by Tim Oliphant), “The end result [of reading the slave narratives and following inspiration from the Holy Spirit] is creative historical fiction based on slave narratives and folk art panels for each story. The narratives are heart-wrenching. My imagination pulls out details from the white spaces of what is not said. These scenes are portrayed with simple stitch, raw-edged appliques, and sometimes uneven edges, for that is what life is.” Scott-Revelle’s website, Remnants Arise, contains a gallery of her work.
Her “Black History Collection” and “Elements Collection” are on display until March 31st at Christian Fellowship Church in Columbia, MO.