~dedicated to Muhlaysia Booker~
In February, I was invited on a press trip to Dallas for the April premiere of composer Terence Blanchard’s multidisciplinary performance Caravan, which would then travel to New York, Miami, Austin, Detroit, and St. Paul. I had never been to Dallas. I had never been on a press trip before. I had also never ever felt like a professional writer, which is probably one of the things that keeps me going. The press event, similar to the office meeting, the after-work drinks, and the conference call, is a ritualized social mode of professionalization. How will you talk? How will you move on with your work once the event is over? Press events (previews, conferences, trips) can implicitly impose their own form and requirements. Perhaps this explains why so much writing today sounds the same. Perhaps amateurs refuse to confirm or conform to their roles as dutiful members of the press.
Commission after commission, it seems I have been smuggled into the role of an art critic without really knowing it, and so I went to Dallas, feeling like I should know myself as a critic, and left feeling even more alien to the genre of criticism. What follows is a kind of slip-up that happens when I assume the posture of the critic, which ultimately, I think, means refusing it.
“Dude, texas is so hawt,” I text a Canadian girl while waiting for my ride at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. My driver pulls up wearing a blue paisley shirt and maroon jeans. He seems happy, but then again so do I. From the back seat, I can see low-rise buildings, a Medieval Times, a golf course, homes that remind me of every single suburb, and more green than I’m used to, which is not much. U2’s “Sweetest Thing” starts playing on Texas State Highway 114 as we are about to cross the President George Bush Turnpike, and just for a moment I feel like I’m going to throw up. “Don’t be cavalier in work zones,” reads one sign on the highway. I don’t throw up.
My first stop is a hotel on Olive Street. I get called “ma’am,” but I also get called “ma’am” in New York, so I don’t think much of it. I have time to check my email and eat a salad before my scheduled interview. In the hotel café, I see people wearing lanyards for a conference on violence against women. Moments later, I see a man open-carrying, ordering a cappuccino. I mistake him for a cop at first, because I’m not used to seeing guns like that: sanctioned yet un-uniformed.
It’s time for my interview with trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, who is in town for the world premiere of Caravan: A Revolution on the Road, a production featuring Blanchard and his band the E-Collective (which includes pianist Fabian Almazan, bassist David Ginyard, guitarist Charles Altura, and drummer Oscar Seaton), Rennie Harris and his dance company, and artist Andrew F. Scott.
The other writer doing press calls Terence Blanchard “T,” and imbues him with a brotherly familiarity. I can’t crack it. They take it easy. (Meanwhile, I listened to most of Blanchard’s discography as research. I watched BlacKkKlansman, for god’s sake.) When asked about the creative multimedia elements of Caravan, Blanchard replies, “It’s a multimedia age we’re living in, bro. Gone are the days where singers just stand in front of a mic and sing.”
We make it across the street from dinner at Musume in the Dallas Arts District to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center (designed by recently passed Louvre Pyramid architect I. M. Pei) to watch members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra perform some work. I take videos of the inside of the concert hall. When violinists perform American composer and Sagittarius Julia Wolfe’s With a blue dress on, I feel the inside of my body shake.
Everyone stands around for the reception in the lobby. All the attention gyrates around the champagne, the snacks. No one from Texas seems to know what yeehaw culture is. But all the art people have heard of The Shed.
The streets are washed with blue light emanating from the office buildings.
I take the elevator down to the gym. It’s speed workout day. On my training app, Coach Bennett tells me to think of the word “strong” while I run. My preferred word is “skinny.” Nothing makes it feel any better. Do I hate running?
I get to a barbecue place called Pecan Lodge, where everyone says to go. It turns out everyone is already there. There’s a line of 40 people and the place opened literally two minutes ago. In New York I can’t be bothered to stand in lines, but we’re in Deep Ellum, Dallas, baby, and I have nothing better to do. I order brisket, fried okra, and macaroni and cheese. Finally. In the sun, high from the food, I forget how cold New York is. I can’t finish the food. I want to disappear.
SOLUNA, the arts and music festival that’s ongoing all month, has organized a panel discussion about activism and the arts at the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. I see that the Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s slogan is “relentless excellence,” which is like “black excellence” on a hundred. On the panel, Blanchard talks about going to the school where Philando Castile worked. “I do know great cops,” he says later. Questions about “healing” are asked. I wonder where the bathroom is.
I nap for the first time in months. There’s usually way too much to think about and not enough time to stop thinking.
I don’t want to get up, but I head to the Dallas Museum of Art, where I become enthralled by the wild-ass work of Jonas Wood, who has his first major solo museum exhibition up. He paints kind of like how my Instagram feed looks: plant dad x basketball superfandom x creeping dread.
Have you ever seen a bluebonnet flower? It’s the state flower of Texas, and named after the hats that American settler women wore in the hot sun. They’re a little erotic, like all flowers.
I arrive at the Majestic Theatre on Elm Street, a Dallas landmark and old vaudeville house. I take some pictures of the old blackface pamphlets in the basement. Is this what we call cultural heritage?
Thematically, Caravan follows Blanchard’s albums Live and Breathless, projects that are perhaps summed up by the line Kwame Ture (b. Stokely Carmichael) repeats in BlacKkKlansman: “We are being shot down like dogs in the streets by white racist cops.”
During the show, I write notes on my lap. It’s too dark. Caravan ends up being an uncanny mix of neophilia (multidisciplinary fetishization) and nostalgia (LSD aesthetics, peace signs, tie-dye). There are so many places to put your eyes, and yet not much to see. Even the term “hip-hop modern,” which is the only way to describe this dance, seems to be a little old-school, animated by a forlorn desire for hip-hop’s political potential.
I get back to my hotel room and head straight to the bathroom to put on (more) makeup. I listen to a playlist I made before my flight from New York. It’s called “late night is all we have,” which I borrowed from lyrics from a Three 6 Mafia song called “Late Nite Tip.”
I’m waiting outside the hotel to go gay line dancing on Cedar Springs Road in Oak Lawn, the Dallas Gay Scene™ bustling since the mid-2000s. Did I say I’m waiting alone? Like all women alone, I get spoken to.
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Sort of,” I say, slowly. “A car.”
I turn around more properly now and see that it’s the black men who work the valet who are trying to chat me up.
“I will,” I reply. But then I decide to say more, because I’m on my Dallas shit (i.e. slightly heartened). I give my favorite line when I get carded at bodegas, “I’m older than I look. How old are you?”
“How old do I look?” I ask, because I love this game.
“More like his age,” he says, pointing to his younger coworker.
“Well,” I demand, “how old are you?”
He’s 20. WOW. I LOVE THIS GAME.
“I’m a whole decade older than that,” I say, laughing quickly. (I’m 29 but in this house we don’t fact-check if the lies sound better.)
“Well that don’t meant you don’t have to be careful. Don’t get into the wrong car. You’re a woman,” he claps back. Ugh, how fucking boring. I decide the conversation is over.
Moments later, I get in the “right” car, which to me only means the car that has been paid for. We take the highway east to the bar—I mean, saloon—where I take far too many videos of the drag competition. Those good old days, I feel them when I’m alone in the present.
In a smaller karaoke room, I sing Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” while dropping to my knees.
Some boys I just met love my performance. In a flash, they decide it’s time to go and, do I want to come with? They don’t need to hear my answer. There’s no room for restraint tonight.
The Mining Company has stripper poles and a huge patio. I get offered a cigarette and some poppers, and notice M. is going around collecting smokes from strangers like they’re Pogs.
I hear men’s voices louder and louder. Another performance??? Oh, it’s the police. They are kicking people out. “Let’s gooooo. Let’s goooo.” Everyone acts like it’s a normal disturbance. I guess it is. I’m terrified.
We stand on the street trying to figure out our next move. But the police don’t give us any time. To be young, idle, and black. My adopted crew slink their way into a cab. I peek in, wondering where they’re going. “No girls allowed,” I’m told. “It’s okay . . . it’s okay,” I shrug, while turning left.
Tonight I am part of a scattered militia of girls who go out alone and go home alone. I feel like the only girl in the world and yet, still, I’m surrounded.