This week brings the Midwest premiere of System by Francesca Harper to our landmark stage. Since System was created in direct response to social justice issues, we asked dancer Da’Von Doane what System meant to him and how he incorporated his own experiences into the piece.
What events or experiences were on your mind as you worked on System?
During the process of working on System many things came to mind during our conversations with Francesca. My own personal story is woven into the work. We reach back into history to a time where blacks were treated as less than human because of the color of their skin and the perception of whiteness and its perceived superiority. We live in a world where we judge so much based on these man-made systems. We touch on the current social and political climate and how we all have a burden to bear in this age in the creation of a future that is brighter than our present circumstances. As a kid I encountered a lot of teasing and unsavory actions at the hands of kids from my community who did not see me as one of them. Some black and some white, but because I wasn’t like them in some way I was made a target. I turned inward and my happiness turned to sadness and confusion. What had I done to deserve to be treated this way? Why was I a target? I was always pretty small in comparison to other kids growing up and maybe that was it. Whatever it was, it made me feel inferior and hurt me far more that I realized. From that experience I was able to find dance and music and these things gave me something to hope towards and allowed me to see the beauty in the world. These experiences left a mark of my psyche much like the trauma of slavery and the current prison system [that] still affects us. We are a people who have lived on this earth for countless generations and our stories have only just begun to be told. There is a stain on the sheets of this nation’s past that will never wash out. There is a wound that lingers on the hearts of men that can only begin to heal once we acknowledge the truths of the past.
How did you incorporate these events/experiences into the piece?
I considered this work to be an acting exercise of sorts. I placed myself in a dream like state where the past, present and future collide. I enter the space as one of my ancestors, a current or former slave fighting for his right to be seen as a man amongst people of many other backgrounds. In other moments I am myself dealing with my own desire for personal identity in a world that still sees black men as inferior or as sexual objects or even simply as means of entertainment through music and mainly sports. Our humanity is real and we deserve love and to be seen as we are, not as you want us to be. Our bodies have been used and abused for years and we simply desire to love our lives to the fullest and be given opportunities to build for ourselves so that our children can have the best opportunity to thrive. So many of our leaders have been taken from us because of the strength that we have when we are united for a cause. We have endured more than most and are stronger because of it. Our ancestors populated the globe and gave the world civilization. So many of the things we have now began in antiquity with my people. This is not about superiority, it is about truth and reconciliation. We can never get back those years or those that we have lost, but we can allow the truth to be told of who we are.
My solo in Movement One [of System] for example, comes after a group pose in the front of the stage that we refer to as the “Middle Passage.” During this part in rehearsals I began to be overwhelmed by the reality that our circumstances, while they may have been significantly improved by the abolishing of slavery, are still affecting us in other ways. I ask myself what pain did my ancestors endure? Were the lives of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castille and so many others so meaningless that their killers will never be prosecuted? How many of us will never see justice? Will my children have to face these same pains in their lives, or will the work that our ancestors did and what I’m building now be enough to secure their freedoms and place in this world long after I’m gone? My solo is me working through those feelings and deciding to continue the work they started so that we can all be free to be as we choose not what society would label us.
What do you hope audience members will take away from the experience of witnessing System performed live?
I sincerely hope the audience is able to see each individual person as they are, not as they wish them to be. The truth in our experiences is evident in our movement and the expression through this dance. While we are all very different we all have the same goal and that is to show the world who we are and be the best we possibly can be for ourselves and our future generations to come. I hope the audience is able to see themselves in us as well. We represent many nations that have at some point felt the sting of oppression. As we enter into this election we realize the burden of what we have been tasked to do as people, make choices that affect more than just ourselves. We can learn from history exactly how we have made it to this time and place. Will we make those same choices or decide to turn a different page towards a better future, one united for the good of all and not just for some?