Article feature in Trinidad Express (Sept. 2004)

Meida: She’s bringing cultures together

By Erline Andrews
Sunday, September 19th 2004
Trinidad Express

MAGWoman_Meida

Meida McNeal Photo: STEPHEN DOOBAY

It’s an experiment of sorts. If it works it could herald a new era of collaboration between artistic groups inside and those outside the Caribbean.

This Saturday, the Noble Douglas Dance Company and the Chicago-based ThickRoutes Performance Collage will preview Race Travels: Care Packages from Trinidad to Chicago and Back Again at the School of Continuing Studies in St Augustine.

Race Travels has multiple purposes.

It seeks to flesh out personal and social issues of race and ethnicity among groups in Trinidad and Tobago and groups in Chicago, while examining differences in how these issues are internalised and dealt with in the two places.

The dancers of Noble Douglas will also challenge themselves by adapting to unique presentation style of ThickRoutes.

In addition to dancing, Race Travels will involve video, spoken word and prerecorded sound presentations. Probably the most significant aspect of Race Travels is that it’s almost solely the result of under two years of indirect communication-letters, photos, dance moves on video tape, and conversations on audio tape-between the Noble Douglas company and ThickRoutes. The method solved the problem of a lack of means to interact face to face.

The woman who acted as the link between the two groups and the instigator of the ambitious project is 29-year-old Chicago native Meida Villafana-McNeal. She is the artistic director of ThickRoutes. For the past two years she’s been resident in Trinidad, researching her doctoral dissertation, which involves examining Trinidadian dance culture.

“In the States, everything is black and white,” says Villafana-McNeal in an interview at her home in Santa Margarita, St Augustine. When she first came here in 1996, she thought she saw “a model for how to get along in a plural society.

“But then as I’ve been coming here over the years I’ve realised how Trinidad has its own issues and so I’m more interested in juxtaposing those two landscapes against each other-how race/ethnicity is being reworked in both societies”.

Growing up in Chicago as the child of a white mother and black father, Villafana-McNeal had no choice but to confront the problem of stark racial divisions in the US.

“My mother and father always taught me to embrace being of both worlds,” says Villafana-McNeal. “But that’s not saying that I didn’t go through a lot-because race is such a significant issue in the States. My identity was thrown in my face. You either have to chose being black or white. I was trying to find ways to resist that.”

Performance helped.

“I’m really interested with how the body communicates knowledge and I think dancers do that in interesting ways. They figure out the world but through their bodies. They pay attention to non-verbal communication styles, which is really important. It tells you a lot more. What we say out of our mouths is not the complete story.”

Villafana-McNeal took ballet classes at her district’s community centre, then took up modern dancing. She studied at the Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre in Chicago before delving into the more academic side of things, studying theatre, dance and cultural anthropology at Kenyon College.

She became fascinated by flamenco and gypsy culture and was preparing to go to Spain when a professor gave her another idea.

“She and her husband had come here for Carnival,” says Villafana-McNeal, “and she said, ‘You need to go here.’ She gave me a little bit of material and I looked at it and said, ‘Okay, I’ll check it out.’ I’m prone to do things on a whim.”

Villafana-McNeal signed up for a semester at UWI. During the time she met and interviewed members of the local dancing fraternity, including

Noble Douglas.

While Villafana-McNeal pursued her MFA at Ohio State University, she spent two summer vacation periods working with the Noble Douglas company and learning more about Trinidad dance. She observed the Malick Folk Performers, the Shiv Shakti dancers and Nrityangali.

What was it that so fascinated her about Trinidad and Tobago?

“The mix,” she says simply. “It’s an amazing mix of culture.”

Villafana-McNeal, in a personal way, found herself even more entangled in Trinidad and Tobago’s “mix”. During one of her summers here she met Trinidadian Anselm Villafana. He made her laugh and she liked his spontaneity. The couple were married in 2000. There have a one-year-old son, Jaden Imani.

ThickRoutes was founded in 2001. It was a collaboration between Villafana-McNeal and four women friends. They bring different artistic skills and heritages to the table.

ThickRoutes has performed a number of original works using movement, spoken word and images.

The performance collage allows its members to explore things “outside our comfort zones”, says Villafana-McNeal.

“If I was trained in dance I want to figure out how I can try out visual art or spoken word or whatever. So we started to play with that.

“In a lot of our performances we explore different ways of transmitting information. There’ll be spoken word juxtaposed against video segments juxtaposed against live movement and soundscapes.”

Race Travels is the result of Villafana-McNeal bringing her two worlds together. She conducted a series of workshops to pull from the Noble Douglas dancers their feelings about and experiences with race/ethnicity.

Even the way Trinidadian and Americans speak about race is different.

“On the US side we’re much more outspoken. There are much more vivid experiences off the bat. You could light up a conversation very quickly. Here the initial thing was that there is not a race problem, that is not an issue for us, but then as we would talk about things it would start to come out–differences and culture.”

Villafana-McNeal’s time in Trinidad-partly funded by a Fulbright scholarship-is almost up. She has to return to Chicago to write her dissertation (she’s attached to Northwestern University).

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t be back,” she says. She and Anselm “would like to split our time between here and Chicago”.

Saturday’s staging of Race Travels is being presented as a “work in progress”.

The full performance will debut on the weekend November 5 to 7.

Performances will take place simultaneously in Trinidad (at UWI’s School of Education Theatre) and Chicago (at Northwestern University’s Wallis Theatre). Video-conferencing technology will allow the audience at one location to see what is happening in the other.

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