The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater was the place Friday night as it officially opened its season with pastel lighting, vintage items from Lawrenceville store 720, deejay Nate Da Phat Barber and an effortlessly chic and mostly young audience.
The main draw, however, was New York choreographer Camille A. Brown's company and the world premiere of "Mr. TOL E. RAncE," a historical/contemporary look inspired by Mel Watkins' provocatively titled book, "On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock."
Ms. Brown has been rapidly ascending the American choreographic ladder with citations such as the Mariam McGlone Emerging Choreographer Award and Princess Grace Award. She has designed pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, Urban Bush Women and Pittsburgh's own August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, among others.
"Mr. TOL E. RAncE" may be a significant uptick in her career. For a group of eight dancers, including herself, Ms. Brown created a brash, often chaotic work that covered a lot of territory. In its own way, it was a terrific celebration of black history to kick off the KST season.
There were opening credits projected with images of Gregory Hines, Richard Pryor and Whoopie Goldberg and a slow bow to serve as the prelude. When showtime(!) erupted, it was easy to notice that the dance was a little too festive, the smiles a little too broad. Accompanied by Scott Patterson, who displayed festive musical chops himself while hidden behind the upright piano on stage, it resembled a minstrel show sans black face, but still embodying the artifice.
Things weren't always absolutely clear. For example, the vintage-costumed cast had robust, stomping rhythms going strong, channeling tap in their saddle shoes without specific shuffles and flaps.
A whip-snapping jitterbug served as a transition to television sitcoms. For "Diff'rent Strokes," two men performed, holding hands like brothers. For "Amos 'n' Andy," there was some scratchin' going on. The audience responded mightily to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and a salute to the often abrasive character actor Sherman Hemsley of "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons."
Then Ms. Brown continued to spin her dance web, introducing white gloves (Michael Jackson or minstrel shows?) and a surreal and satisfying segment where large shadows were cast on the backdrop.
On the whole, I would like to see this piece establish a point of view earlier on. And at the other end, I would like to see more irony in Ms. Brown's intense solo that concludes it all. Set to "What a Wonderful World," the solo was sometimes raw, always full of her trademark energy. But it didn't seem to provide the appropriate punctuation.
Perhaps the key to everything was a program quote from Langston Hughes: "Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh. Humor is your own unconscious therapy."
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at email@example.com. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.