She Ain’t No Diva: “Classy, Bougie, Ratchet” & Exhausted

Issue Five: The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes
Tariq O'Meally
February 20, 2024
Tariq O'Meally

Tariq Darrell O'Meally is an artist, producer, curator, and community organizer searching for the power within introspection and vulnerability in the African-American body. He has pursued the re-imagining of kinesthetic narratives as a means to resist and disrupt canonized stories that have perpetuated the dehumanization of marginalized groups, specifically black people. He seeks to synthesize those stories that will resonate in a way that is socially relevant, empathetic, and impactful.

O’Meally is the creator and lead curator of the BlackLight Summit. Blacklight is a think & move tank that re-envisions dance performance as a conduit to galvanize the social imaginations, resilience, and inventiveness of citizens, thinkers, activists, and artists. As a curator Tariq held the position as an Artistic Planning Coordinator at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, programming Dance, Theater, and Artists-In- Residence programming. He has also directed the International Association of Blacks in Dance Annual Conference & Festival in the position of Conference and Festival Producer.

As a choreographer, O'Meally has presented his work at the John F. Kennedy Center, the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival and Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building, By The People Festival, The Clarice Smith 34th & 35th Annual Choreographer's Showcase, Mid-Atlantic North Gala at the American College Dance Association, and Richmond Dance Festival. He is the Artistic Director of Tariq Darrell+theUNUM Dance Collective, a DMV-based collection of dance artists seeking to create doorways and windows leading to the seen and unseen, lived and living experiences of African Americans.

As an educator, O'Meally has been on faculty at Hollins University, the CityDance School & Conservatory Dance Institute of Washington, in addition to presenting as a guest lecturer at Coppin State University, Morgan State University, the National Gallery of Art, The Hirshhorn Museum, and the French Embassy. O'Meally is the Founder/Director of the Dimensions Contemporary Dance Festival, a platform to promote, amplify, and spread the various eclectic voices of DMV contemporary dance artists of color.

O’Meally has been chosen as a 2022-2023 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commission Project Awardee, 2022 NDP Advisor, 2021 Rubys Artist Grantee, 2020-2022Artist-In-Residence at Dance Place, and 2020 Site See Artists-in-Residence. In 2019 & 2021, O’Meally was an Art Omi Resident Artist and a 2018-2019 Halcyon Arts Lab Fellow. He also was a 2018-19 Joe’s Movement Emporium NextLOOK Artist and Dance Place’s 2017-18 New Releases Commissioned Artist. He currently holds a BFA in Dance & Choreography from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Author Brent Weeks wrote, “What we see is not determined solely by what’s in the world. But also by what’s in us. [Because] the lenses are as important as the light.” In this case, the lens through which I witnessed Woolly Mammoths’ world premiere of Vivian J.O. Barnes’ play The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes is a lens of a Black, queer, cis-gender male body who is a choreographer. This is to say that this play centers and claims space for 6 young Black women on an HBCU’s dance team. In many ways, my perspective is limited because my body and experience as a Black man in relation to Black women has held more power and value in the eyes of American culture. There are just certain experiences that I have not had that Black women face every day. Despite the nuances of our identities, the Sensational Mink-ettes and I both agree that Beyoncé is one of the greatest performers ever to do it! But the show asks, what is the price for this ​greatness with the most awarded Grammy winner as a symbol of excellence and exhaustion? As Mink-ette Kiera, played by Sabrina Lynne Sawyer, astutely ponders, “How do you think Beyoncé feels on any given day? Do you think she’s okay?”

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes interact with the image, career, and persona of Beyoncé — arguably (and I am often doing the argument) one of the greatest live commercial performers of all time — as a metaphor to consider the cost paid by Black women to maintain excellence. While also contending with doggedly sustaining excellence, the Minkettes suffer in silence to keep up appearances. Zora Neale Hurston’s perceptive observation that “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it” came to mind as I watched the play. Dance Captains Shantteé (current captain) and Maya (former captain), stressfully embodied by Billie Krishawn and Kimberly Dodson, habitually deny themselves the grace to acknowledge the crushing pressure that they are under. In many ways, excellence is the chief antagonist in this theater work, a work which prioritizes understanding the interiority of a group of young Black women seeking at all costs to adhere to their dance team’s 3 E’s (Elegance, Effortlessness, Excellence). These 3 E’s become the rhythm with which the Mink-ettes perform a corrosive perfectionism. Each one of the Mink-ettes reluctantly (really under deep internal duress) must choose if they will succumb to standards set by the invisible powers of their university. Shanteé asks her team to “Think about the crowd. Think about your family. Think about the alums coming back. Think about the president and the deans looking at us when we hit that pavement.”Some choose like Taraji P. Henson does in the role of Cookie Lyon in Empire, when she desperately says “I’ve got to put me first. I’VE GOT TO PUT ME FIRST!” (IYKYK). Others succumb to burnout and anxiety, but the show’s underlying counter-argument suggests that perhaps sometimes failing can be a powerful success.

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The notion of perfectionism is manifested in the set design, by Paige Hathaway, which creates a theater-sized replica of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella stage. The pyramid bleachers have become synonymous with one of Beyonce’s most important and successful career performances. The set is a constant looming reminder of the dance team’s pursuit of excellence, and their desire to be on top.

When speaking about perfection with D.C.-area performer, choreographer, and teaching artist Ashleigh King (the choreographer for this Woolly Mammoth production), she thoughtfully suggested that “I think the Beyoncé we knew from Destiny’s Child, we don’t know her anymore, because Beyoncé the idol, the ideal, is so present in our society, that she can't let Beyoncé, the human, be seen anymore.”

This struggle to keep a perfect tempo with society’s expectations is one half of the heartbreaking ultimatum for the dance team. They must do the callbacks (pre-set dance in counts of 8) without mistakes or complaints, or risk becoming invisible, forgotten, and erased. The Mink-ettes quite literally start to disappear. No one on campus outside of the dance team searches for the Black women. There is a Buffy the Vampire twist that is reminiscent of the series episode “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” (even though this genre hop is foreshadowed throughout the show, to me it felt like it came out of nowhere). In short, in this Buffy episode, a white teenage girl in high school is ignored so absolutely that she strongly believes that she is invisible and in turn she becomes invisible (I know, wild right? She lives on a Hellmouth, it was the 90s, but Sarah Michelle Gellar!!!). The point is Black women are consistently made to be and treated like they’re invisible.

King profoundly appreciates working on a show that centers around “elevat[ing] the Black woman’s experience.”

“Most Black women don’t get the chance to tell you what’s going on, because society has already told them that they’re not in pain, that they’re not tired, that they’re not hungry, because they’re not working hard enough, whatever,” she says.

Still, King finds it “both ironic and affirming” to work on a play that must use elements of horror to cause realizations for the audience.

“I know this will sound a little ‘woe is me,’ but I do think having the background of this piece — this unknown, this [thing] that people in the audience can say, ‘Well that’s not me, I’m not society, that thing in the piece that’s endangering them is some other-worldly thing, it’s not me’ — I think it helps people see how bad it is, and how scary it is, to tell a young woman that she’s not in pain,” she says. “...because it shouldn’t take a dark place to make us afraid for someone’s safety, you know?”  

In the face of this very dense subject matter, director Taylor Reynolds, along with King and the cast, emphasizes a private unshakable joy and humor that I have consistently witnessed in my personal life and in some of the most iconic Black acting. Put more simply, the cast, the writing, and the movement are funny! I mean, just look at this show’s dialogue: “Pussy pop, pussy pop, pussy POP POP POP! Pussy wop, pussy wop, pussy WOP WOP WOP! Pussy bop, pussy bop, pussy BOP BOP BOP! PUSSSS-AYYYYYYYYYYY!” (LOOOOL).

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The show is strong in the many moments when the full cast is able to play with each other. Their chemistry could seem effortless, as if these women are just naturally funny (which they are) but their comedic timing and physical comedy are demonstrations of how they have honed their craft. Kalen Robinson and Khalia Muhammad, as Raquel and Gabby, are hilarious. As performers, they are in the lineage of Gina (Tisha Campbell) and Pam (Tischna Arnold) from Martin or Niecey (Char Jackson) and Kim (Countess Vaughn) from Moesha. The full cast tackles an ambitious surrealist story, with a lot of charismatic authenticity. Their relationships as a cast are some of the best choreography in the show.

A large part of the sisterhood felt onstage can be attributed to the guidance of director Taylor Reynolds. Ashleigh King made sure to celebrate Reynolds’ work during the production process.

“Taylor made sure there was room every day for people to just say, ‘How are you doing?’ And not just ask the question honestly, but urge each other to answer honestly and listen, and then go about the day accordingly,” King says. “And then at the end of the day, also do like a quick little cooldown, just being like, ‘Okay, we're good. Let’s leave the story here and go out into the streets and be ourselves.’ So I think that helped a lot, just being able to put everything you have into the piece, and know that someone was leaving space to keep you, as a human, healthy.”

The show has a few growth opportunities. Actors handled the physical material well, considering not all of the cast were professional dancers. This is perhaps the reason that there weren’t more moments weaving in more dancing or the callbacks. The promise of a fictitious dynamic HBCU dance team was not fulfilled. The current cultural consciousness has become more aware of the HBCU dance team culture because of Beyoncé’s film Homecoming, and a reality TV show like Bring It. At times the dance team aspect felt like a backdrop instead of a fully realized character. For example, in the classic musical A Chorus Line, the audition is as important as the character’s auditioning; the same can’t be said for Mink-ettes. Like any art form coming from a diaspora, being embedded inside of the culture is essential. The dialogue exchanged between the cast of Sea Mink-ettes felt familiar to me as an African American. But the callbacks needed more confidence. More swagger. More “pussy POP POP POP!” Because the cast is so intimate, it makes it difficult to be knocked over by the movement. Dance teams can have anywhere from eight to eighteen people on the field. The space began to feel bigger than what the cast could fill up. Perhaps this could be a metaphor for pursuing unrealistic expectations, but it was not clear if these choices were intentionally made. The entire play could have happened in the Sea Mink-ettes locker room. Again, the community of young Black women is the heart of this work. When they are finally able to tell the truth of what is happening inside of each of their hearts a humorous and sobering story unfolded.  

The Sensational Sea Mink-ettes is at its best when the show sits in its Beyoncé Lemonade era; rageful, exhausted, personal, clever, Black, and above all else human. This play reminds me that we are usually taught to protect the most vulnerable, but maybe protecting and caring for those who must be invulnerable is necessary as well.

Join Our Mailing List

Thank you! More views are coming your way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
A Project of The Lillys
Web Design and Development by 
FAILSPACE Design Services