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Gesel Mason's "No Less Black" uses theater and dance to explore racial stereotypes within the African-American community.

Shades of Black

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What does it mean to be black? Are particular skin tones and behaviors not black enough? In "No Less Black," dancer, choreographer and poet Gesel Mason explores what it means to be "black enough" through stereotypes of race, color and social responsibility within the African-American community. Her evening-length work of dance and theater will be presented Oct. 21 at Virginia Commonwealth University's Grace Street Theater.

Using 14 dancers and five local performers, Mason employs humor, theatricality and modern dance to investigate why African-Americans stereotype and limit the potential of their own people. She is disappointed at those in her community who alienate light-skinned blacks and high achievers. "Aren't we just fighting each other?" she asks. "Who does it really help? We should be encouraging, not discouraging."

"No Less Black" started as a poem after a fellow African-American charged her with the claim that she wouldn't know what it means to be black because of her history, upbringing and light skin.

"I had a really strong reaction to that," she explains. "I don't want to be dictated to about how I participate in my community ... I don't want to be checked on or off the list because I didn't do it a certain way."

Mason questions who determines stereotypes. "Is it peers, society, yourself, the cultural group you associate with?" she asks. These questions play out during an initial scene of her performance where her character stands before a panel of her peers to apply for a race card. Clipboards and pencils in hand, these interrogators ask about her parents and her schooling. When they learn that she attended Catholic school, eyebrows rise. When they hear that she dances, they want to know if she does rhythmic dance or another type, a euphemism for ballet, dance considered white. In a later scene, a single gay man undergoes a similar inquiry when he is asked whether he's ever been arrested or participated in the Million Man March.

A native of Texas with a degree from the University of Utah, Mason has toured parts of Europe with the Minnesota Dance Exchange. Awarded the Bates Dance Festival's Emerging Choreographer Fellowship, she recalls how early on, someone offered her two options for a dance career: the Dance Theater of Harlem or Alvin Alley. Choosing neither option, Mason, a Washington resident for the past five years, is artistic director for Mason/Rhynes Productions, an organization that sponsors concerts and programs that bring the arts to at-risk youth.

As an exploration of identity and related hate crimes, "No Less Black" is Mason's attempt to "have a conversation, not an assertion of blackness." A community activist, she's keenly aware of the need for all people to act in a socially responsible way within their community, but not if the price is conforming to someone else's narrow notion. "I'm interested in forging my own path, finding my own way," she says confidently. That path has led to a distinctive hybrid of modern dance and

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