Company fuses Teenie Harris images with dance in 'One Shot'

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Charles "Teenie" Harris continues to inspire 11 years after his death and decades after taking his now-famous photographs of Pittsburgh's African-American community between 1936 and 1975.

His life work is a legacy, and that's one reason Harris' imagery was so appealing to Ronald K. Brown, choreographer and founder of the dance company Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.

The Brooklyn-based company performs the Pittsburgh premiere of "One Shot: Rhapsody in Black and White," inspired by both Harris and his subject matter, at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Byham Theater, Downtown.

Harris was given the nickname "One Shot" by the late Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence for his ability to get the photograph he wanted in the first shot, a talent developed out of frugal necessity. That, combined with Brown's observation that life offers only "one shot," provided the title.

For the work, Brown selected 31 photographs from the Carnegie Museum of Art's Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection. They will be projected during the 90-minute performance behind the dancers, but aren't simply part of a stage set.

"The photographs are totally integrated with the dance," Brown says. "The piece is divided into seven sections, and I selected images I thought represented the different sections."


'One Shot'
  • Where: Byham Theater, Downtown
  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday
  • Tickets: $19-$40
  • More information: pgharts.org, 412-456-6666 or buy tickets at Box Office at Theater Square.
  • Special:A free Contemporary Dance Master Class with Brown and Company for ages 16 and above will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Dance Alloy Theater, 5530 Penn Ave., Friendship. Pre-registration is required at 412-258-2664

While each image informs "One Shot," three images that spoke to Brown the most, he said, were ones of "a group carrying flowers to the grave site, Harris' portrait and the Tom Thumb [children's] wedding."

Another photograph, shown during the funeral/grief section, is titled "Mourners and pallbearers with three caskets outside West's Funeral Home next to Lew's Loan Office." The dancers wear army green and the music is "Free Spirits" by Mary Lou Williams.

"The photo of the caskets that were three different sizes spoke to the service and compassion that the piece needed," says Brown, who has explored black history and culture in America through dance since 1985.

Harris did not provide titles or even identify the subjects of most of his images. The titles for the Carnegie collection were applied posthumously. That's what makes another image so unusual: "Group portrait of Mary Louise Harris, Ada Harris, Gus Greenlee and Helen Greenlee, seated on railing in front of clapboard building." Gus Greenlee was a friend of Harris' and well-known in Pittsburgh as a numbers banker and owner of the Crawford Grill and Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team. Dancers in that section wear boxy suits like the cigar-smoking Greenlee.

Another image that Brown considers pivotal to the piece is "Little boy boxer," circa 1949.

"The little boxer boy, with the gigantic gloves and the tears, spoke to the determination that the piece needed," Brown says.

When the little boxer appears on the screen, the music is "Poinciana" by Ahmad Jamal. The dancers wear slacks, white, gray and black shirts, and hats.

There are eight dancers in the company and all participate.

"There are many solos in the first act that show the journeys of the individuals. The second act addresses prayer, service, grief and self-determination. What do you do with all the work happening in the first act? What do you do with that effort? You put love first," Brown says, noting that there are three love duets.

"A feeling of love changes to a feeling of paying homage. That love translates to Mr. Harris, who gave us a legacy."

"One Shot" was commissioned by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, which co-presents Saturday's performance with the Pittsburgh Dance Council. The dance premiered at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., in 2007, and has traveled extensively since.

"It deepens every time [it is performed] because the piece is supposed to be about legacy," Brown observes.

He's especially gratified by responses from audience members who identify with the photographs. A woman at Penn State told him afterward that she'd attended the same church as Harris. A man in Houston said Harris had taken his wedding pictures. At one stop, a Jewish woman noted that her mother had worn her hair like a woman in one of the images.

"We're excited," Brown says. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like when we go to Pittsburgh."


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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