NASHVILLE — This is an arts town, and artistic miracles happen here with some regularity, but last weekend’s miracle was not the usual kind. Watching John Prine, at the age of 72,dance onstage after a three-hour performance at the legendary Ryman Auditorium — that’s a truly Nashville kind of miracle. Watching “Lucy Negro, Redux,” a poetry collection by an African-American woman, come to life as a ballet — a ballet scored by an African-American woman and danced by an African-American woman? That’s the kind of miracle Nashville has never seen before.
The project started with Caroline Randall Williams, who became fascinated as a graduate student with a theory advanced by Duncan Salkeld, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of Chichester, that the mysterious Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets wasn’t a white woman with a dark complexion at all — she was a black woman called “Black Luce,” or “Lucy Negro,” who owned a brothel in Shakespearean London. When Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 132, “Then will I swear beauty herself is black,” he meant, actually, black.
There are different theories about the identity of the sonnets’ Dark Lady — just as there is much speculation about the identity of the “fair youth” to whom so many of the earlier sonnets are addressed — but this one ignited the young poet’s imagination. Ms. Randall Williams descends from Nashville literary royalty: Her mother is the novelist and songwriter Alice Randall; her paternal grandfather was the civil-rights activist Avon Williams; a great-grandfather was the Harlem Renaissance poet (and later Fisk University writer-in-residence) Arna Bontemps. But Caroline Randall Williams also descends from white men who raped her black ancestors. She carries in her very DNA the conflict at the heart of “Lucy Negro, Redux”: What does it mean for a woman to be both desired and reviled for the color of her skin?
A university research grant allowed Ms. Randall Williams to join Dr. Salkeld’s search through primary documents for definitive proof that Lucy Negro was indeed Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Proof was not forthcoming, but poetry was.
The poems in “Lucy Negro, Redux” — first published in 2015 and reissued last week in an expanded edition by Third Man Books — defy genre. Or rather, they wander with intense prepossession through many genres. Part lyrical narrative, part bluesy riff, part schoolyard chant and part holy incantation, the book is an unflinching investigation of otherness and a dead-sexy exploration of the intersection of identity and desire. Above all it is a witty and audacious rejoinder to literary history and its systematic suppression of female voices. Especially black female voices.
It’s a powerful collection, but it is not the kind of book that you might naturally think of as source material for an original ballet. Unless, that is, you’re Paul Vasterling, the visionary artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, where a transcendent dancer named Kayla Rowser — a fierce intensity of muscle and bone and spirit, untroubled by gravity — was perfectly positioned to play Lucy as Caroline Randall Williams imagined her.
Before long, Mr. Vasterling had persuaded Rhiannon Giddens — a conservatory-trained MacArthur fellow, though she may be better known as a co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and as a recurring character on the drama “Nashville” — to write the score. Working in collaboration with the jazz composer Francesco Turrisi, Ms. Giddens also performed the music onstage while Ms. Randall Williams herself entered the performance space as both narrator and muse and, at times, the still center to a swirling human kaleidoscope of dancing bodies.
I am still pondering the artistic miracle that unfolded before me last weekend in a sold-out series before the most diverse audience I have ever seen at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater. “Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux” was a beautifully choreographed ballet, but it was more than a ballet: It was also a spoken-word incantation and a showcase for the musical genius of Rhiannon Giddens. It was a love story, but it was more than a love story: It was also a forceful and pointed claiming of female desire — for authority, for sovereignty, for sexual self-determination.
The Nashville literary world is small enough that most writers know, or at least have met, the other writers who live here. I first met Caroline Randall Williams when she was 4 years old, the year I met her mother. As part of my job as editor of a literary publication here, I celebrated the arrival of “Lucy Negro, Redux” when it was published the first time, in a tiny print run from a tiny press.
But I was not at all prepared for “Lucy Negro Redux,” the ballet. There is nothing tiny about it, or about the scope of its artistic ambitions. It is a full-throated, full-bodied exploration of love and desire, exultation and loss, belonging and expulsion, ownership and autonomy. A mixed-media, multigenre embodiment of a scholarly theory about an arcane point of literary history might not seem like fertile ground for enchantment, but it was absolutely transformative.
Who is Lucy Negro? We may never know whether she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, but we know that she is Kayla Rowser, who has spent her entire professional life in a field that rarely elevates a dancer with brown skin. We know that she is Rhiannon Giddens, who moves fluidly between African diaspora music and American symphony halls. We know that she is Caroline Randall Williams, an African-American woman with depraved white ancestors who grew up in a literary household and learned to love Shakespeare when she was still a child.
And now Lucy Negro is Nashville, too, for she has taught us something about who we are. Flawed and impossible as this city may be on so many scores, it is also a place where a choreographer and a poet and a composer can come together with an entire ballet company to make something wildly original, something so unlike anything else that all description falls short of its otherworldly reality. A place where, when the curtain drops, the very city cries out: “Brava! Brava! Oh, brava!”
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Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” @MargaretRenkl
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