.Native Land, Native Hands: Choreographer Antoine Hunter’s latest turns to Bay Area sculptures

Antione Hunter’s site specific, world premiere production, Native Land, Native Hands, uproots and re-envisions the script on two well-known tree proverbs and slays the dragon that says to see the invisible—to see Deaf people—requires magic.

Instead, the new dance work made by Hunter in collaboration with Epiphany Dance Theater and special artists, declares, “Don’t miss the land for the sculpture” (a transformative version of missing the forest for the trees). It asks, as it echoes and expands the familiar, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one sees it, does it make a sound” proverb with, “Deaf people have voices; do you hear them?”

Native Land, Native Hands investigates and unfolds the historic oppression and racial injustice enacted toward Bay Area Deaf communities and communities of color in several performances. Separated by geography and time—but tightly interwoven in theme and purpose—the production takes place May 7 on the UC Berkeley campus and May 14 in San Francisco. The work combines dance, text, American Sign Language and original music composed by Radha Mehta. Epiphany’s Kim Epifano is dramaturg, and costume design is by Jhia Jackson. Lead Deaf actors are JAC Cook and Sarah Young Bear-Brown. The dancers are members of artistic director Hunter’s Urban Jazz Dance Company: Kelly Garrett, Marissa Head, Cynthia Rodriguez, Danielle Silk, Zahna Simon, Piper Thomasson, Korea Venters, Geraldine Wong and Linda Steele II.

Hunter, in an interview, says the work is not centered on but was in part created in response to four sculptures by Bay Area Deaf sculptor Douglas Tilden (1860-1935). The bronze sculptures depict realistically rendered muscular men, sometimes scantily clad, engaged in various physical pursuits: The Football Players (1898), a football player having a leg wrapped; Bear Hunt (1892), two men wrestling a bear; the Mechanist Monument (1901), five machinists engaged in their craft; and Admission Day (1897), commemorating the admission of California into the United States, with a man holding aloft a flag that appears to flow forcefully in the wind.

Hunter views the sculptures and, more crucially, their locations as symbolic of historic and current marginalization and relocation of Deaf and Indigenous people in the East Bay and San Francisco. 

Hunter, aka PurpleFireCrow, is an award-winning African, Indigenous, Deaf, Disabled, Two Spirited choreographer, dancer, actor, instructor, speaker, producer and Deaf advocate. He founded Urban Jazz Dance Company in 2007 and the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival in 2013. His work has been performed worldwide. As an ambassador for social change related to the Deaf community and BIPOC artists, he has presented keynote lectures at Kennedy Center’s VSA, Harvard and Duke universities, the National Assembly of State Arts and more. During 2020, he created #DeafWoke, an online talk show that amplifies BIPOC Deaf and Disabled stories as a force for cultural change. His shoe company, DropLabs and Susan Paley, produced a haptic product that allows hearing, limited-hearing and Deaf people to feel music.

“I’m still unpacking many stories,” he says, about the new work. “When I say Native Lands, that comes in many layers. And Native Hands as well.”

The stories spring to life out of questions Hunter finds intriguing. “Who truly owns the sculptures is a really good question you just asked. But so is who owns the land. Why did the City of San Francisco place that sculpture there? Why this street? Why did the street change; where is the garden that used to be here, the place I would sit and have lunch, the circle that’s now v-shaped? Why did the people of Berkeley want to keep Tilden’s Bear Hunt sculpture?”

The answers to these questions and others he leaves unspoken steer Hunter—and will steer audiences—directly into conversations about the marginalization and segregation of the Deaf community in mainstream society and about BIPOC people being pushed out of native lands and groups. He is relentless—“My motivation is quite fierce. I’m tireless,” he says—as an advocate for Deaf and BIPOC communities.

“I continue to always want our people to be seen. Especially BIPOC people. Deaf or hearing, we need to be seen. Many people don’t realize a Black person (Garrett Morgan) created the traffic signal: the red light, green light, yellow light, so people can be safe. People watch football today and don’t know the huddle in football was created by the Deaf community. (Quarterback Paul Hubbard developed the formation for his all-Deaf team so the opposing teams could not see the ASL signals they used.) Why do we still not know about Deaf people? Why aren’t we a part of this society? Why is there segregation? I’m the intersection. I am Deaf, Disabled, Cherokee, Blackfoot, African—and I can’t separate that.”

He recalls once defending a young girl who was kicked out of a Girl Scout troop because she was deaf. “The original Girl Scout founder (Juliette Gordon Low); you won’t find most people know that she was deaf, but she was. She became deaf at age 17, yet this one girl was discriminated against because she was deaf. I wanted to let people know we can be working together. I wanted to lift this (kind of question) up: We used to belong; why are we now segregated?”

Belonging on the UC campus—the original site of California School for the Deaf—was short-lived, and in 1979 and 1980 it finally ruptured during rigorous legal disputes between the Deaf community and UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley over the Bear Hunt sculpture and the land on which it stood. The split came with a steep cost. The trust that had been enjoyed between hearing and non-hearing people as they “hung out together on the campus in front of the former site of the school and hearing people learned ASL,” according to Hunter and historical records, was eroded, if not decimated. Ultimately, the Deaf community was forced out of its home in Berkeley and relocated to the 91-acre campus in Fremont. The Deaf community won the legal battle over Tilden’s sculpture; it stands on the Fremont campus today.

Hunter says the performance in Fremont will tour from the front of the school to the Bear Hunt and finally, to the front of the theater. “I don’t want to focus on the sculpture itself, but on the land. In 1980, hearing people and the City of Berkeley wanted to keep that sculpture there. The Deaf community said no, you can’t have it. They went to court and (hearing people) spent years fighting with the Deaf community. Long story short, Deaf people won, brought it home, put it in Fremont and showed it with pride. The conversation at this site is about Deaf history, community and art.”

At UC Berkeley and in San Francisco, slight changes in the scripts that Hunter wrote shed light on other stories and questions while remaining embedded in the imagery and messaging of Tilden’s sculpture of two men wrestling a bear in Fremont.

“You know, they didn’t have TV in 1898, but Tilden loved wrestling. Bear Hunt was a man wrestling with a bear. The Mechanic was all men aggressively at work. I see his sculpture as being about what he was inspired to watch, wrestling. I wonder, I question for myself: Was Tilden also wrestling about being openly gay? Back then, he couldn’t be openly gay. He was married to a woman. Even though Tilden had a lot of privilege as a deaf white person, that was one privilege he didn’t have, to be openly gay. That is a question I have in my work.”

Tilden married Elizabeth Delano Cole in 1896. The couple are described in historical archives and text as having a “troublesome” union and divorced in 1926.

On days when Hunter and the dancers rehearsed on site near the Mechanics sculpture, he recalls fielding questions from passersby. “Someone asked me, ‘What are they making in that statue?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I was investigating. Another person asked if they were making sunglasses. I said that was a possibility. Many people asked what my dance was about. I wasn’t offended. It made me less afraid and made me excited to be in that space.”

Asked what he means by “afraid,” we touch on Hunter’s creative process during the pandemic and now, as the vaccines and lower rates of Covid bring a return to in-person activities. “I had to do a lot of work creating art inside my home. I’m still wearing the mask for safety for others and myself. But even before Covid, when I walked to the dance studio as a Black person, it wasn’t like I didn’t look out for myself. To do art is risky every day. I can’t say if I’m (bolder or more vulnerable) now.” 

For the dancers, he says dancing indoors with masks and outdoors on “a lot on concrete” was challenging. In addition to devoting their bodies and time and bearing the travel expenses necessary to work on-site, he says, “We have mixed dancers: hearing and deaf, White and Black. They got closer to learning about their roots and each other. Sometimes they needed a moment of pause because there can be overwhelming emotion when they were learning about oppression they never knew happened right here in our home in the Bay Area. We normally don’t work with a script or work with actors. It’s normally all dancers, so we tried to balance supporting them. That was awesome.”

Also remarkable was the collaboration with Metha, who composed roughly seven works for Native. The two artists, both deaf and finding connection through their interest in music, had long conversations about each other’s deaf experiences and Native cultures. “She’s from India. We all have different deaf experiences, whether you call yourself hard-of-hearing, deaf with disability, deaf-blind or limited hearing. We talked about how we want to make this work come alive. How we have textures and rhythms that match the script and the monologues. We played with drums and different pitches, because some Deaf people can hear the birds, but not the motorcycles; others can hear the motorcycles, but not the birds. Where could we find common ground where everyone can experience something?”

Hunter found commonality through his long interest in and study of classical Indian  Kathak dance. “I learned it for about 11 years in my childhood and usually don’t talk about it. Kathak dance is spiritual work for me that is more personal. Me and Radha had wonderful conversations about traditional cultural dance and music. Kathak dance, you make music with your body and hands, but also with your feet. People don’t know those traditions, so that was a connection we had. We had never met before this production. I talked with several composers, and after talking with her and feeling that connection, I said, ‘you’re hired.’”

Deaf actor JAC Cook and Deaf performer and Indigenous community activist Sarah Young Bear-Brown bring individual assets to the production. Hunter says having a Deaf actor who identifies as she/her/them play a male character while relating deeply to the spirit of Tilden is rewarding. “People think they can get more from a hearing actor, but no, they don’t realize with Cook, there’s more expression, more ways of using the body’s language. Taking my script and going beyond it is wow, just amazing. For a white person to be an ally in this script, it’s a blessing. Some people talk about Black art or POC art, but just don’t get it. So I’m very grateful.”

About Young Bear, Hunter mentions generosity. “We had rehearsals on Zoom. Like one time Young Bear was on the way to the White House and was invited by the President and was in the car, rehearsing with me. I was grateful she was making the time. That showed investment. She said she does a lot of activism, but (is) open to acting and art. Some of my work is about stopping racism, but sometimes, I just want to dance. With Young Bear, she just wanted to act.”

Despite a project steeped in history, Hunter and the entire cast and crew are explicitly not nostalgic, emphatically not seeking backwards movement. “I’m an advocate fighting for change. I don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ with my community being invisible. I want us to be seen and heard. I want to be in safe places for us to create and enjoy art. To be who we are.”

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