The story of Black women in classical dance is obscure enough that any show spotlighting the pioneers is welcome as a history lesson alone. But in Fleetwood-Jourdain’s Black Ballerina (cowritten by artistic director Tim Rhoze and Stephen Fedo), dancer Kara Roseborough’s stellar performance in two different roles, along with her breathtaking technique, makes us feel that history in the solar plexus.
More than once, characters note with exasperation that Misty Copeland isn’t the first Black woman in the art. Roseborough plays both contemporary Adrienne and her grandmother in the 1950s, Olivia. Despite the 50 years’ difference, both women wrestle with whether it’s better to keep fighting for acceptance in a frankly racist world (the fetishization of “purity” in the corps de ballet being a convenient fig leaf for that racism) or to walk away—or at least audition for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater instead.
The connective tissue between Olivia and Adrienne is Shariba Rivers’s Marie (Olivia’s daughter and Adrienne’s mom), whose own career was cut short when her jazz musician-addict husband ran off the road, killing himself and his bassist, Reuben (Zach Finch), and injuring Marie. Reuben’s ghost and young Marie (Bijou Carmichael) drop by to chew the fat with Marie from time to time, which feels more like an awkward expositional device than anything else, though Rivers imbues Marie with a potent mix of cynicism, regret, and pride in her daughter’s talent.
But the dance interludes (choreographed by Roseborough and Béa Rashid) and the fights both Adrienne and Olivia have with white people in charge of their careers capture both the joy of ballet and the heartbreak of discrimination with beauty and truth. v