Written By: Helena Alonso Paisley
Originally published by: Artburst Miami
Haint blue, the color of a cloudless sky, was traditionally used to paint porch ceilings from Key West, Fla., to Charleston, S.C.. The Gullah Geechee people of the islands off the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida believed that “haunts,” malignant spirits, could not cross water, and could thus be tricked to turn back when confronted with an expanse of blue paint at a home’s entry.
Urban Bush Women co-artistic directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis with Mikaela Ware in their new site-specific work “Haint Blu” at Brownsville’s Historic Hampton House. (Photo courtesy of Woosler Delisfort)
You won’t find a blue ceiling when you enter Brownsville’s Historic Hampton House, where the Urban Bush Women will be performing its newest choreographic work, “Haint Blu.” You might, however, sense the presence of the many Black luminaries who stayed there in the motel’s heyday. Martin Luther King, for one, was a frequent guest at the Hampton House, and even gave an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech there in 1960. Entertainers such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin all performed there. And the meeting between Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown depicted in the film “One Night in Miami” took place at this Green Book motel nearly sixty years ago.
MDC Live Arts Miami presents “Haint Blu” by the Urban Bush Women, a site-specific new work at Historic Hampton House, 4240 NW 27th Ave., Miami, from Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12.
In a city not known for valuing its history, it is a miracle that we can visit the Hampton House at all. The midcentury modern structure was clearly overdue for its date with the wrecking ball when, in 2008, Brownsville preservationist and elemental force of nature Enid Pinkney, now 91, spearheaded the fight to save and restore the building. It now houses a small museum and hosts art exhibitions, classes, film screenings, and live performances like this one. In developing the site-specific performance piece “Haint Blu,” New York’s Urban Bush Women, together with a host of local collaborators, take a deep dive into the meaning of this formidable landmark for the past—and future—of Black Miami.
Founded by cultural icon, MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Florida State University professor Jawole Willa Jo Zollar in 1984, UBW has been creating engaging, fierce, socially responsive work since its inception. They were recently among 20 national arts organizations named by the Ford Foundation as one of “America’s Cultural Treasures.” In 2021, the group received a multimillion-dollar grant from MacKenzie Scott (formerly Bezos) for its extraordinary work in “Empowering Voices the World Needs to Hear.” For almost 40 years, the company has used dance, music and spoken word to seek out and bring forward seldom-heard voices and stories we need to hear.
“We’re amplifying and we’re lifting up an overall charge,” says co-artistic director Mame Diarra Speis, “an overall fight for liberation.”
UBW’s relationship with Live Arts Miami, the presenting arm of Miami Dade College, is decades long. Both organizations share common core values, says Live Arts director Kathryn Garcia, including their mutual interest in the intersection of the arts, civic engagement and social justice. When Garcia was approached with the opportunity to be a part of activating the Hampton House with work by this globally acclaimed dance company, she was immediately on board.
“Let’s do a major event in Brownsville,” she recalls thinking. “You know, that doesn’t happen, and it should be happening more, right? I was just like, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, let’s figure this out.”
“With site-responsive work, you’re in collaboration with the space, you’re in collaboration with the land, you’re in collaboration with the people, the community,” says Speis.
The collaboration has involved multiple visits to Miami over the past three years by Speis, co-artistic director Chanon Judson, and assistant artistic director Courtney J. Cook. Speis explains that, aside from the performances themselves, UBW’s goal is “to really amplify what communities are already doing—what they’re doing to rejuvenate, regenerate and to heal collectively—and to create and to be a part of organizing.”
“For me, what I’ve realized,” says Cook, “is that you’ve got to go beneath the surface of what is presented in the history, specifically with regards to Black people.”
The choreographers have forged new ties with local preservationists such as Pinkney and historians like Marvin Dunn and Nadege Green, who also will be appearing in “Haint Blu.” They have deepened long-held bonds with dancers such as Miami Dade College professor Michelle Grant-Murray, whom Cook calls a member of the “UBW diaspora.” Grant-Murray, who will be performing in the piece, points to the need for this kind of work in Miami.
Mikaila Ware of Urban Bush Women. (Photo courtesy of Woosler Delisfort)
“Miami would not be a city without Black Miami,” she says. “There is a level of creativity that exists inside of Miami, particularly for the African diaspora . . .that’s going to push the narrative of where innovation and creativity really lives inside of the city.”
Just as the Hampton House isn’t your ordinary dance venue, “Haint Blu” isn’t your traditional dance concert. Cook calls the work “a ritual performance” in which audiences are guided by dancers to different areas of the motel where they won’t merely be witnesses, but also participants in the piece. Only 60 tickets will be sold for each evening, and audiences will be divided into two smaller groups for the performance experience. Garcia explains that the various spaces “are all activated in different ways, you know, from the historic lobby to the cafe to the courtyard, to completely unfinished space on the second floor.”
“You will experience the journey,” says Cook, an odyssey that relies heavily on both live and recorded music to tell its stories—stories “building off of the blues, building off of folk music, ring shout, those kinds of ideas that are cultural markers,” she says. “Sound as a way of conjuring, and sound also as a medicinal heirloom being passed down.”
Grant-Murray says that “the audience will be asked to definitely sing, and they will be asked to dance . . . to have some fun and—find your joy. They’ll be asked to be free. They’ll be given permission to be free but also with their permission to be free, they’ll leave with a liberated understanding of what it is to live here. To actually live.”
WHAT: MDC Live Arts Miami presents “Haint Blu” by the Urban Bush Women
WHERE: Historic Hampton House, 4240 NW 27th Avenue, Miami
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9, Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11; 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 12
INFORMATION: 305-237-3010 or liveartsmiami.org