Some side-eye. A curt “gurrrl, please.” A sarcastically drawn-out “ohhh-kaay.” These are just a few manifestations of shade, that versatile conversational tool long used by African-American woman and gay men. Thanks in part to reality TV, shade has spread in the culture, and Rashaad Newsome has seen a disturbing outcome: White people who casually throw shade also stereotype black people who do the same as “ghetto.”
Newsome is an internationally credited multidisciplinary artist. His response, in 2005, was to inaugurate the project he calls “Shade Compositions,” to turn the words and gestures of shade into musical pieces performed by a chorus of performers with attitude.
“Basically the piece is an orchestra, but instead of people playing the French horn, the tuba, things like that, they’re sucking their teeth, snapping their fingers, huffing and puffing, things like that,” he says.
The results can be funny, even campily so, even as they valorize this form of communication as an art form. “What the piece is attempting to do is really reclaim this vernacular,” Newsome says. “Through technology, through narrative, through repetition, through the gesture of collage, we’re able to achieve a contemporary piece of music.”
There have been eight “Shade Compositions,” from the first, in Paris, to cities from New York to San Francisco, and even venues in Russia and Austria. The ninth iteration debuts with a free ticketed show Wednesday in Pittsburgh, courtesy of Newsome’s month-long residency with The Andy Warhol Museum. It's Newsome's Pittsburgh debut.
Newsome, born in New Orleans, follows in Warhol’s footsteps by working across genres and blending fine arts and commercial work. At Art Basel Miami, in 2015, he produced a pageant that incorporated voguing alongside motorcycle gangs. He’s also staged hip-hop MC battles, created collages and videos, and mashed up bling with classic coats-of-arms.
For each new “Shade Compositions,” he recruits a new troupe featuring local performers. In Pittsburgh, that meant a November casting call for black performers who identify as women. “What I’m really looking for in the casting process is a sense of rhythm,” he says. He also needs performers who can act out a sustained narrative even while functioning as part of a larger chorus, with lots of cues to hit: “The piece is sort of like watching 16 one-woman shows at once.”
The performers chosen ranged in age from 19 to 50, and included actors, artists and musicians. Recording artist and blogger Lolo Ree called her audition “fun.”
“He was like, ‘Let me see some sass. Let me see who you are when someone makes you mad. Or when you’re happy, or you’re trying to get your point across? What are your isms that make you you?’”
The ensemble (all of whom are being paid for their work) has been rehearsing nightly at the Warhol since late November. Newsome builds the performance from a recorded rhythm track that includes teeth-sucking sounds and finger-snaps, then layers on the live vocalizations and gestures. The performers stand three rows deep on the stage, like a choir, and Newsome acts as conductor, wielding a white remote-control unit in each hand to operate the pre-recorded sounds.
Variation within repetition is key: “Shades Compositions” is a great opportunity to hear many different ways someone can say, “uh-huh,” “bye, boy” and “OK.” Using just a handful of words and phrases, the piece builds to a polyrhythmic complexity.
Themes beyond pure shade do emerge in the 45-minute show, says Newsome. “We’re going to respond to sexual violence, which is really an epidemic facing all women today,” he says.
The show seems to have inspired the performers whom Newsome cast.
“A lot of the ‘mmm,’ ‘unh-huh’ -- black women’s signature expressions sometimes are deemed ghetto or not acceptable,” says Simone Jones, a sophomore studying musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University. “And here, Rashaad’s doing a really beautiful job, like right now we’re in a symphony. And that is exemplifying how beautiful and rhythmic and sweet sounding and taking back how we use our own language.”
Ree says the show’s strength lies partly in its simplicity.
“It’s literally just us being who we are as black women,” she says.
The Andy Warhol Museum is an underwriter of WESA.