How A Book Of Poetry Became An Original Ballet Written For A Black Ballerina

Kayla Rowser and Caroline Randall Williams in “Lucy Negro Redux.”

Nashville Ballet

Arts journalist Kelundra Smith wrote an essay in the Oxford American, “A Pointe Toward Blackness” earlier last month.

The essay is about Nashville Ballet’s original narrative ballet, “Lucy Negro, Redux,” which premiered earlier this year. The ballet stars Kayla Rowser, who is from Conyers, and has been called the first in history written for a black ballerina. The premise of the story is that Shakespeare’s “dark lady” sonnets are about his affair with a black brothel owner in central London. “City Lights” spoke with Smith about the performance and the origins of the story.

In her Sept. 3 article, she wrote that Shakespeare’s “art has been the basis of maintaining whiteness in so many art forms.” Smith elaborated by saying, “I do love my Shakespeare, I will say that, but I think because Shakespeare has been so much of the basis of theatrical norms in the Western world, it’s what’s taught in schools, it’s what informs many of the stories that we have adapted. The story line of the TV show ‘Empire’ is based on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear.’ ‘The Lion King’ is based on ‘Hamlet.’ It’s so ingrained in our culture and in our fine art. I think sometimes whether it’s dance or theater or what have you, producing organizations lean on producing Shakespeare as the low-hanging fruit for the dollars in order to guarantee ticket sales for their audiences. The issue is that when they’re casting these things, they’re usually doing it in what they think was done in that era, which is white actors and it’s not inviting other people in because they’re not seeing themselves on stage.”

Smith is a theater critic and an arts journalist who has written articles in the New York Times, Arts ATL, Atlanta Magazine, and many other publications. Music in this segment is from Nashville Public Radio’s “Live in Studio C.”