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Brown sounds

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A 1960s ode to Black bodies is reborn as a riveting modern opera

brown sound chocolate
memories
like the first time
you saw grapes
and tasted them
and learned the color
blue
– from the poem ‘Brown Sounds’
by Henry Dumas (1934-68)

The Harlem-centred Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s – described by the Black scholar Larry Neal as the ‘aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept’ – sought to establish and celebrate Black identity in the United States as distinct from the white dominant Western culture. Among the movement’s ranks were luminaries who helped to recontextualise the Black experience, including the musician Sun Ra, the visual artist Betye Saar, and the writers James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Henry Dumas. If Dumas is the least-known of these figures, it is in part because he was killed by a New York City police officer in 1968, in what is believed to be a case of mistaken identity. He was just 33. ‘Before that happened,’ wrote Toni Morrison, an ardent promoter of his work, ‘he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.’

But as the film Brown Sounds shows, Dumas’s words have endured long after his life ended tragically early. This digital short from LA Opera revives a stage performance by the US opera singer Raehann Bryce-Davis, transforming the words of Dumas’s eponymous poem into an enthralling blend of music, dance, fashion and filmmaking. In the poem, Dumas taps into sensations of taste, sound and touch to exalt all that is brown in a manner that poets often reserve for other colours. Reimagined by an all-Black creative team, the film features Bryce-Davis singing in her forceful mezzo-soprano as the dancer Lateef Williams performs a cascading, rhythmic modern ballet in conversation with the poetry, music and scene. The English musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson provides the score, which, combined with Bryce-Davis’s powerful vocals, imbues the words with renewed poise and resonance.

Via direction from the French filmmaker Jérémy Adonis, the performance is staged as a dreamy reimagining of the Garden of Eden. In an instant, Williams and Bryce-Davis are torn from this utopia and forced to recover and rebuild their identities – an evocative allegory for the ‘original sin’ of slavery and the ensuing African diaspora experience. ‘Brown Sounds is a love song to Black bodies, Black people, Black history – and a declaration of independence from [the] colonial mindset,’ says Bryce-Davis. More than just a social statement, it’s a riveting piece of artistry in its own right – and one that finds an even deeper meaning through the story of its writer, his enduring legacy, and the decades-long journey of his words to inspiring a new generation of artists.

Written by Adam D’Arpino

Director: Jérémy Adonis

Singer and Executive producer: Raehann Bryce-Davis

Writer: Henry Dumas

Composer: Ayanna Witter-Johnson

Dancer: Lateef Williams

Costume designer: Allan Virgo

Website: LA Opera

22 December 2021