Representing Race in Choreography: A Case Study

Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, directed by Hiro Murai

Choreography is generally race neutral — this is great because it allows for more diverse casting of performers. Colour-blind casting is becoming more widely practiced (through some will agree, not enough) in most arts and is overall good news. However, when the performer’s race affects the message of the piece, it is important to consider how the role is cast. As an extreme example, you wouldn’t cast non-Black actors to play Black slaves in a historical drama. But let’s look at a slightly more subtle case:

Can a high school cheerleading squad in Canada with no people of colour learn and perform the choreography to Childish Gambino / Donald Glover’s This Is America?

As a white person, I find it difficult to say definitively; the people who should be asked are the people of colour attending the school. I don’t necessarily believe it would be a terrible cultural appropriation for them to learn and appreciate this art, but it could be taken as insensitive by others depending on the social climate of the school and its community.

It could in fact be a wonderful way to start a conversation and root out any related issues at the school. But an even more effective way of including BIPOC students could be an open call to collaborate with the team on this project, and perhaps even open up additional try-outs, having found there is a diversity problem with the team (which is probably the real problem in this scenario).

Furthermore, the project could serve as an artistic exploration of how white students can understand and support their BIPOC peers. I’m no choreographer, and maybe this is a bit on the nose, but I’m picturing the white students forming the base upon which BIPOC students are lifted up and supported in the cheerleading poses. How can we lift each other up outside of the choreography?

In any case, I don’t believe this project could go ahead without at least some input from BIPOC students (who must be truly heard, not just asked in passing to check a box).

When considering how to present these issues, there are many instances in the song’s video where white students probably cannot depict these characters, and these should be scrutinized. The problem with blackface is the stereotyped, insulting representation of minorities. This is clearly not okay. But what about white students stepping into this song and representing very specific black groups as seen in the video. It might not be explicitly insulting, but it is still a white person trying to impersonate a black person. Let’s look at some of these specifics:

The man who appears at 0:13 is barefoot, symbolizing poverty or slavery. So, it is not insulting in and of itself, but can a white student symbolically represent a black slave?

This man is then seen again at 0:49 wearing an execution hood, which bears a resemblance to a spit hood often used by police. Can white students embody the ongoing pain of racial executions and police brutality?

At 0:52, Glover adopts an exaggerated pose recognizable as one Jim Crow is depicted as using. Jim Crow is a highly racist character whose origins are unclear but who was often depicted by white people wearing blackface makeup. This character then shoots the man wearing the hood. Is this a white man shooting a black man, a black man shooting a black man, or does it matter because another black man has been shot, and that’s the issue. As a white person simply writing this down, I fear I am missing the point. Can white high school students be asked to fully understand and pay proper homage? Can they depict a character known for being played by a white person in blackface?

At 1:09, a group of black students appear. Surely white students shouldn’t embody their actual black peers, right?

At 1:20 Glover talks about guns in his area, a prevalent issue in black neighbourhoods that some white students may be able to connect with, but that is clearly being discussed in the song as an issue faced by black people.

At 1:41 the camera pans to an all-black choir which Glover promptly shoots, evoking the Charleston church shooting, which was racially motivated. Can white students portray black people murdered by a white supremacist?

At 2:44 there is a moment of silence. This part of the song any and all students could and should enact.

At 3:08, the man who was shot wearing the hood earlier reappears. Does this mean that slavery, and with it racism, is alive and well in America? That it cannot be killed out? Or is he the black spirit which also refuses to die or back down? These are complex issues that always stem from white hate or ignorance. Can white students play the victim in a case where they are the perpetrator?

Finally, at 3:43 Glover is seen running in horror from a group of people (Are they the police? America? His own nightmares?). In any of these cases, based on the rest of the video we can infer that who or whatever is chasing him is doing so because of his race. Can a white student run when there’s nothing really chasing them?

These are complex issues, and while they may not be suitable for an all-white squad to portray, they are most certainly necessary for that squad to think about and discuss. After this honest and open discussion, the students should be able to decide for themselves in a more informed way if this choice is appropriate. An important part of our education is also learning when to step aside, be quiet, and listen. The best way forward for this team is to understand not to shy away from this conversation, but that they should probably be doing most of the listening.

Works Cited:

Glover, Donald. “This Is America.” Youtube. Murai, Hiro, Director. May 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYOjWnS4cMY. Accessed Oct. 2020

sits alone having thoughts about theatre and the world we live in and grows a garden around herself with fleurs and hope and tries to understand.

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