"Wake Up!" Dance Theatre by MK Abadoo

Performance: Wake Up! 

Conceived and co-directed by MK Abadoo and Vaughn Midder

MK Abadoo’s phenomenal restaging of Wake Up! on May 6th at Dance Place took the audience directly into the experiences of black students attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) right from the start, using a mix of dialogue, contemporary, jazz, step, twerk, and West African dance styles. As we entered the theater, we found ourselves on stage in the middle of a homecoming party, and were invited to join in on the dancing, flirting, and revelry.

The show did an excellent job of balancing joy with sorrow- showing us the sense of community and home that weathering daily racism and shared tragedy can amplify within a group, while also examining discrimination and biases. Based on the Spike Lee film School Daze, this performance honed in on the experience of the main character’s girlfriend, Rachel. In a rendition of Good or Bad Hair, a musical number from the movie, we saw two flamboyant men auditioning women for a school fashion show and encouraging them to berate each other over white beauty standards like hair and colorism. After a hair rating contest, MK Abadoo changes the dialogue by encouraging her fellow women to celebrate and lift each other up with joyous cries of “Black Girl Magic!,” no matter what they look like.

Similar themes were echoed in a football game, where two pairs faced each other like an opening kickoff. They performed a series of artful backbends and twists, attempting to take their opponents down. One dancer grabs her opponents ankle, causing them to trip and fall, while a sports announcer narrates the game: “they want us to fail, to tear each other apart, but we have to work twice as hard with no timeouts in order to prove our worth.” Affirmative “mmmmhms” were heard from the audience as they filled in the gaps of who “they” and “us” were.

As five spotlights hit the floor, we were invited to come walk amongst the “young, gifted, and black”- the best of the best at the school. Each dancer took a spot, assuming a pose: a hyper-sexualized woman, bending over with her hand on her backside; a fierce-looking man flexing his biceps intimidatingly; a shy, overly apologetic young man bowing and looking down; a strong young woman with her arms crossed, head proudly lifted high; and a polite young woman beaming a 100-watt smile. Once we took our seats, their eyes met and they let their masks fall, each performer dissolving into hysterical laughter that quickly turned into sobs. In the talkback after the show, a teenage black girl told us she felt like she was walking through an auction.

Wake Up! concluded by returning to the sense of community it opened with. During a mock juke night, a soloist began his talent show routine, scooping air up to his face and breathing in. As his movements sped up and his breathing became faster and harder, we were painfully reminded of Eric Garner repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” He was soon joined by another performer, and as she fell, he ran to help her up. Soon, all the performers were on stage, running to catch and lift each other up, joining in on the choreography until they were all moving as one.

The show was thought-provoking and moving. At times, I found myself filled with joy- laughing, dancing, and feeling connected with my neighbors, even giving them a hug. At other times, I was overcome by sadness, near tears while watching the performers run head first into a white brick wall over and over again, collapse into an exhausted heap, or stare off into the distance with a totally dead look behind their eyes. During the talkback after the show, it was clear other audience members were equally moved.

Dance Magazine rightly named MK Abadoo one of 2018’s 25 to Watch, a list of rising stars in the dance world, and I can’t wait to see her future work as she continues to be a force for social justice and human connection.

This review was written as part of the Dance Metro DC’s Dance Journalism Project. If you are interested in seeing more from MK Abadoo check out her website here.


Val Oliphant