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Los Angeles Festival : Urban Bush Women At Center

September 21, 1987|DONNA PERLMUTTER

When almost everything being delivered by the Los Angeles Festival comes under the banner dernier cri , it's more than a little surprising to encounter Urban Bush Women, the New York-based dance-theater company that opened a three-performance run Friday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Touted in the program book for its "contemporary idioms," not to mention "the driving immediacy of the drama and wit of the spoken word," the three-year-old troupe all but defies such descriptions.

Instead, founder/director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar seems content to portray her black sisterhood in generally primitive terms, without benefit of today's liberation code or the protest that has grown up in its name; without the poetic sensibility of such authors as Alice Walker.

In "Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah," a 90-minute montage of sorority gospel, Zollar is still celebrating black roots. But not with any particular insight or artistic revelation, as an Alvin Ailey might. Just when one expects a leap up from the plantation into an urban experience, the song-and-dance woman gives her mostly appreciative, clap-along audience some rhythm and high spirits.

It's as though "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf" never had been written. It's as though a black show must be improvisatory and must exalt the physical feats of street-corner competitions or indulge time-worn notions of feminine hysteria.

What resulted was a multi-disciplinary revue, one that turned verbal only when guest artist Laurie Carlos expounded on Aunt Dinah, a heroic Red Hot Mama, and told her tales of discrimination at the hands of New York cab drivers. Otherwise, the word Urban could be removed from Bush Women.

Not that the a cappella vocals were unremarkable or that the zest and virtuosity of drummer/singer Edwina Lee Tyler failed to hit their mark. As for the actual choreography, much of it consisted of expressive gesture and ethnic exhibition dancing derived from Caribbean shimmying and shaking.

But, for some, the theatricalization of a squat-birth ritual goes beyond general interest--especially when the other elements Zollar has combined here limit her portraits to women who are childlike, simplistic and impulsive or who, in an attempt to assert authority, merely imitate masculine wrath.

Where is Billie Holliday when we need her?

Several blacks in the audience sat stony-faced throughout the evening, never applauding. Perhaps they were offended by numbers like "Wild Women Ain't Got No Behavior" in which company members rolled around the stage slopping food--which included cantaloupe--from Kentucky Colonel boxes. For whatever the satisfaction, Zollar claims the freedom, in 1987, to extol what is commonly branded as racial caricature.

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