By Sharon M. Chin
Within a jail or prison, tap dance shoes are “dangerous contraband,” prohibited for their potential use as weapons. Kerri Edge, a dance-maker and “artivist” from Jamaica, Queens, weaponizes tap shoes but in a different manner. In her latest dance work, “Reform,” commissioned by the Queen Council on the Arts and 14 other community organizations, Kerri combines individual stories of incarceration and tap-dance rhythms (“tap dance monologues”) to galvanize our attention to the urgency of criminal justice reform. Premiering September 20, 2019 at the Black Spectrum Theater, “Reform” is a 60-minute visual and performing arts theater piece tracing the plight of African American males in the criminal justice system, making stops at incarceration stages endured within “the system,” including: central booking, an interrogation room, Rikers Island, and other state and federal correctional facilities. Layering vignettes based on the lives of the presently and formerly incarcerated with tap dance, urban political music, poetry, and provocative film footage, “Reform” fuses inspired dance, emotionally gripping speech, and thought-provoking moments, compelling us to pay attention to racial disparities and the need for reform in the American criminal justice system.
While Kerri may not have been born a social justice activist, she was born into dancing. Dancing since the age of three, Kerri Edge likes to say “I was born into dancing. My grandmother was a dancer, my mother was a dancer, and I am a dancer.” Kerri trained in African American dances, specifically tap, jazz, and modern, as well as ballet- beginning at the Bernice Johnson Dance Studio of Jamaica, Queens and continued to NYC’s own fame school, La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, SUNY Purchase, the Martha Graham school, Alvin Ailey, and more. As Kerri moved from a dancer into a dance-maker, Kerri became “an ‘artivist’- which basically means that I create work which intersects art with my social justice interests. I seek to make statements with my artistic work versus making political statements.” While Kerri identifies as a dancer, as well as a professor of dance at Medgar Evers College and the founder of the Edge School of the Arts, for the past twenty-four years, Kerri has rarely performed as a dancer. Kerri has instead focused her energy as a choreographer and director- particularly with the mission to help black children understand the importance of their history and to believe in the beauty of being black.
Kerri’s dance work has long focused on the civil rights and racial issues affecting the African American community. Kerri recalls attending elementary school at P.S. 195 in Rosedale, Queens in the 1980s, as one of only 4 other black students, and experiencing being boycotted among other racial incidents. Recognizing the trauma of this experience, “I learned to work through that via my art and I recognized how important it was to discuss issues that black people face… to help other cultures understand who we are.” Kerri’s primary project for the past few years is a dance film entitled “4 Little Girls: Moving Portraits of the American Civil Rights Movement.” The film tells the “story of the 4 little girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing” and began after Kerri recognized that black history was often neglected within public school education. One film scene focused on the letter, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wrote while in a Birmingham jail, and came to have tap dancers dancing in a prison cell. The tap dancers included former cast members of “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” a 1996 Broadway musical, and proved to be spellbinding. York College administrators, upon seeing the footage and impact, declared “You have to bring this story to the stage. It will be powerful to experience live.” And in January 2019, when Kerri Edge received a Commissioned Work grant from the Queens Council of the Arts, Kerri began to work toward a live stage version.
If Kerri’s original vision for a stage production focused on the historical civil rights movement, that spring, Kerri had a conversation with a recently released incarcerated friend that catalyzed the production’s evolution. “The stories I was told with with respect to the punitive and cyclical nature of the penal system, in particular for the black community, shocked me, outraged me- and I felt that my dance piece needed to evolve to incorporate our contemporary realities.“ And thus “Reform,” which focuses on the racial disparities in the American criminal justice system and the lasting effects on both the African American family and the community at large was birthed. Kerri notes “We started to research individual stories- from the start of the penal system in the Angola state prison to the experience of solitary confinement in New York today. People don’t recognize that a large percentage of our men [black men] are impacted. They don’t understand what happens inside and how many black individuals return so quickly into the system.” And Kerri knew that tap dance, a dance form with deep African-American roots, would be an incredible vehicle for furthering attention to this topic, noting “I’ve often felt that dancers are supreme beings. They can get their message across visually and be less offensive. By communicating in a more universal way- a way without words- they communicate without offending. It creates room for dialogue where otherwise there might be none.”
There’s the adage “It takes a village” and if “Reform” were a baby, there’s a host of community support and collaborators behind it. Politically, the project is loosely aligned with Reform Alliance, an advocacy organization inspired by rapper Meek Mill’s own incarceration experiences that seeks to “dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole.” The project has the support of local politicians, including Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman and New York State Senator Leroy Comrie and 14 arts organizations, from Cultural Collaborative Jamaica and Rehabilitation Through the Arts. Artistically, acclaimed tappers include Jason Samuel Smith, Abron Glover, Baakari Wilder, and Omar Edwards. “These individuals are masters at their craft and if tap dance is an inherently improvisational dance of self-expression, I trust so much in the individual choices of these performers- whether Jason is subtle and Omar is boisterous.” Audience members can expect musicians BayoFaymei, joined by Charles Bartlett, Dougie Baldeo, from Kinky Boots, providing two monologues, and the MARSHALL PROJECT, providing us with Yusef’s Salaam’s The Exonerated 5 “We are Witnesses”
With 6.6 million individuals in the U.S. penal system and approximately a 30% national recidivism rate that disproportionately affects people of color, the impacts of the current U.S. penal system are widespread and deeply felt. And with this topic being discussed more prominently in recent days, including at the September 2019 democratic primary debate, momentum on this conversation has perhaps never been stronger. Brendez Wineglass, a former Edge School of the Arts alum and Jamaica QCA Arts Commissioner describes how Kerri’s voice is contributing to the conversation: “Kerri’s eclectic, methodical, and somewhat anal in her methodology- but it all pays off because you see a final masterpiece. From conception to now- I have been blown away at the artistry that is committed to executing the project- blown away by ability & use of community ties. The project has a life past September 20th and will continue to give voice to the under-served. Trust me, this work is timely, inspiring, and audiences are not going to be disappointed.” And for Kerri, when asked on her ambitions for the impact of this piece, hopefully declares “I want people to be moved to take this issue seriously. I hope there is increased empathy. If this inspires one person to write a letter to their congressperson, hire an ex-convict, or send money to a relative in jail, then “Reform” will have catalyzed the criminal justice reform our society needs.”
More from Kerri Edge
Where Can we See You Next: ””Reform” will premiere September 20 and 21, 2019 at the Black Spectrum Theater and November 23 and 24 in Washington, D.C. Follow us at https://www.reformlive.nyc/ for more.”
Who Are You Watching: “Dule Hill- He is a noise funk university alumni who has taken dance super far and who also remains down to earth and is truthful. He’s also passionate about bail reform. Edgar Godineaux - he is from Jamaica Queens and has been a music video performer since 15. He was recently the assistant choreographer for Temptations: The Musical. Omar Edwards- one of my tap dancers, is also growing rapidly as a dancer and artist- using it for healing himself and others. David Sincere Aiken creates music videos & is an ESOTA alum who I follow as a choreographer, dancer, and rapper.”
Who Inspires You: “I am inspired by the legacy of those who came before me. For the African American community, when writing and other forms of education were denied to us, the arts and being creative were one of the sole vehicles to pass down traditions. I am inspired to carry on the legacy of Bernice Johnson, who broke color lines as a Cotton Club dancer, and influenced so many artists, from Ashanti to Ben Vereen to Michael Peters.”
One Fun Fact: “I love Michael Jackson. Michael Peters was my teacher and the choreographer behind Thriller- so I learned Thriller and Beat it before Michael Jackson did.”
Published on 9/19/19