As a hip-hop beat fades, dancer Chanon Judson jumps on a table she's covered with playing cards. While standing on them and holding up another card, she talks about "nappy" hair and "smooth and silky" hair and their relations not just to the perception of racial difference but power.
"We've got that wild card," says Chanon, referring to the combination of racial prejudice and power.
Hair & Other Stories is grounded in physical things like hair and the private spaces of kitchens and churches, and it sees them in broader perspective, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women.
"It is looking at hair through the lens of race and this country's history as well as the stories of our bodies and our ownership of our hair and our bodies," she says.
The vibrant dance theater piece kicks off a national tour with a series of shows and community events, including a dance party after Friday's performance at the Contemporary Arts Center Jan. 24-28.
With dialogue, singing, props and moments eliciting responses from the audience, the show seems as much theater as dance. Zollar has always emphasized storytelling in her work, and she has a visceral style.
"When you're expressing story and emotion, for it to be authentic, it couldn't only be pretty," she says.
Zollar's work includes Shelter, a piece about homelessness. Walking with Pearl ... Southern Diaries was based on observations of the South by choreographer and anthropologist Pearl Primus. Zollar's 2001 piece HairStories also was about hair and black women's bodies.
Zollar moved to New York in the early 1980s to pursue dancing and studied with Dianne McIntyre. In 1984, she created Urban Bush Women to perform her works.
"I thought I had something to say," she says.
Early works, including Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah and Praise House, were well-received. Zollar's first commissioned work was for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which also performed Shelter. She has won numerous honors, including a 2017 lifetime achievement award at The Bessies, the New York Dance & Performance Awards, which honor independent dance artists.
Hair & Other Stories is choreographed by Judson and Samantha Speis in collaboration with the rest of the company. Zollar is officially the piece's dramaturg. Stage direction is by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who is a former performing arts curator for the CAC.
The productions and events at the CAC continue a longstanding relationship. Urban Bush Women did a three-month residency at the CAC in 1991 and has returned to perform several times, most recently in 2015 with Urban Bush Women and Voices from the Bush.
Urban Bush Women's ties to the CAC were forged by John O'Neal, co-founder of Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions, which is a partner in presenting Hair & Other Stories to mark the 30th anniversary of the relationship between the two groups.
In college and graduate school, Zollar was inspired by black ensemble theater companies, including Free Southern Theater.
"Alvin Ailey tells stories, there are so many choreographers that do that, but I was inspired by ensemble theaters," Zollar says. "There were a lot of ensemble theaters in the country, particularly in the '70s and '80s: Free Southern Theater, Open Theater, Provisional Theater (Company) in Los Angeles. I was interested in those companies and the ways they were working together to make theater."