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Collection Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection


A dramatic ballet in two scenes, Southland had a scenario and choreography by Katherine Dunham, music by Dino di Stefano, and sets and costumes designed by John Pratt. The ballet was premiered in the Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile, in January 1951. In the program notes to the ballet, Dunham wrote: "This is the story of no actual lynching in the Southern states of America, and still it is the story of every one of them." She spoke a prologue on stage at the premiere: "Though I have not smelled the smell of burning flesh, and have never seen a black body swaying from a Southern tree, I have felt these things in spirit . . . Through the creative artist comes the need . . . to show this thing to the world, hoping that by exposing the ill, the conscience of the many will protest. . . . This is not all of America, it is not all of the South, but it is a living, present part."

The ballet featured Lucille Ellis and Ricardo Avalos (or Jon Lei) as black sweethearts, Lenwood Morris and Julie Robinson as a white couple, and Dunham's company of dancers, singers, and musicians. After an opening scene in which field hands sing and dance before an antebellum Southern mansion, the white couple make love under a towering magnolia tree. He attacks her and leaves her unconscious. When the field hands reenter, the white woman falsely accuses the black man of rape. The ballet climaxes at the end of the first scene with the staging of a lynching in which the black man, after being beaten and burned by an offstage mob, is swung onto the stage, hanging by his neck from a branch of the magnolia tree.

Dunham was informed the morning after the premiere that Southland would receive no reviews, as it had shocked the American embassy in Chile and was considered anti-American. The ballet was next performed in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot (9 January 1953), receiving mixed reviews. It was never performed in the United States or elsewhere.

Dunham's decision to protest the historical oppression of blacks in the United States in such a way, at such a time and in such a place, cost her dearly. Having presented a negative image of American society to a foreign audience at the height of the Cold War, she lost favor with the U.S. State Department. Her subsequent applications for financial support and subsidy from the U.S. government were denied, although many other dance companies were sent abroad as U.S. ambassadors of good will.

Related digital items: Browse "Southland"

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