Markeith Wiley in City Arts Magazine Nov 14, 2016
In any social context, labeling is a convenient shorthand, a way to quickly convey a condensed idea to another person. It’s fast and easy, but it’s also lazy and limiting. Many artists are hybrids these days, but what happens when an artist expands the scope of their work past the point of hyphenating?
Markeith Wiley has long been known as a choreographer-dancer, and he is certainly that. He’s performed with Spectrum Dance Theater and Velocity Dance Center, worked with everyone from modern dance powerhouse KT Niehoff to drag/dance/burlesque geniuses Kitten and Lou, created daunting amounts of his own work and for a while ran his own company, The New Animals. But at 32, Wiley is bristling against the labels that box him in, both as an artist and as a person. In his new show It’s Not Too Late, Wiley’s aiming to erase them all, and he doesn’t really care if you like it or not.
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"There’s a joke in there,” Wiley says, and not for the first time. Folded into a chair in the Studio Theater at On the Boards in mid-October, I feel like I’ve been dropped into a sitcom writer’s room rather than a dance or theatre rehearsal. Ideas bounce back and forth between Wiley and It’s Not Too Late co-director/dramaturg HATLO as they edit a shared Google doc, their chit-chat full of would-be jokes—about David Alan Grier in Jumanji, Obama’s Spotify playlists versus Trump’s inability to listen, the Internet hordes bellowing that there aren’t enough white people in the new Netflix series Luke Cage.
Wiley’s longtime collaborator and sound designer Keith White chimes in with some good one-liners as he messes with his equipment, and half an hour later the writer’s room has a soundtrack. White stands over his Korg Electribe and the warm, popping thrum of an electronic beat fills the room, hypnotic and powerful. Dancer Chloe Albin slithers her way across the floor exquisitely slowly as Wiley watches, slumped at a small table upstage. Soon the dancers are moving through brand-new choreography in unison, communicating wordlessly and with a fluency baffling to anyone for whom movement is not a first language. A minute later, Wiley launches into the manic opening monologue of a late-night host.
On its surface, It’s Not Too Late is a talk show, hosted by Wiley’s alter ego Dushawn Brown, complete with a house band (White) and a different guest and musical guest each night, so no two shows will be the same. He’s assembled an incredible line-up of Black artists to appear as guest stars, to join him for an interview and a series of rapid-fire questions: activist Lara Davis, author Imani Sims, artist Natasha Marin and dancer/choreographers Dani Tirrell and Randy Ford. And every show will have a dancer in black—Dushawn Brown’s shadow.
“The premise of the show is that there are these higher-ups that Dushawn is working for, and he has to appease them,” Wiley says. “He’s the first Black talk show host in Seattle, and you don’t want to be the first Black anything. So I’m doing my best to keep it cool, but through these guests speaking their truths, and through these musicians speaking their truths with their music, and through a bunch of stuff that’s going to happen throughout, I’m going to eventually unravel.”
Dushawn Brown is a combination of Wiley’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name. “He’s this entity that I use to not be so cordial or nice, or to not beat around the bush about truth,” Wiley says, with a sort of half-laugh. “He’s not as sensitive as Markeith is in conversation. So if we’re talking about class and we come from different classes, Dushawn will talk about that very directly whereas Markeith is like, well I understand because I have friends from all walks of life…”
Dushawn first showed up on stage in 2014, but he was a long time in the making, born from a million and one infuriating experiences as a Black artist. Once, a local dance presenter asked him to perform a solo, after learning that he was the only dancer of color in his company. Another time, he made a thoughtful, site-specific work for an expensive donor dinner, only to overhear a man say later in the restroom that he loves Markeith, “but I thought he was gonna do some hip-hop.”
“Sometimes I have people of color telling me that I’m not ‘of color’ enough, and then I have these white folks say I thought this Black kid was gonna do some hip-hop dancing. And I’m like, what’s going on?” He laughs, a big easy laugh that slips out often. “So I started making a solo.”
Wiley presented his first exploratory solo at Velocity's "Showing Out" in 2013. In it, he used a hairbrush as a microphone, showed people his dental and police records and asked them questions. Later he did performances in a dress at Seattle International Dance Festival, brought people on stage to sit down with him and told them secrets about himself.
“I was just trying to figure out what I could do as an artist to get myself out of this box where you’re the audience, I’m the performer, and you don’t know anything about me personally,” he says. “Part of me is like, if we, as an art community, are going to dissect the perception of the artists, the people who are serving the community, [audiences] need to start having conversations with them. So how do I do that?”
Dushawn's talk show made its debut at OtB’s 2015 NW New Works in Wiley’s 31 and Counting, a 20-minute piece that was the seed of It’s Not Too Late. It was personal, funny and angry; a letter from his mom, then a phone call from his dad, pop up before the talk show finally starts. “So it’s my opening monologue and I’m telling terrible, terrible jokes—I’m so Black, when I get on a bus the oil light goes on—and people are laughing at these jokes, which is what I wanted,” he says. “So they’re laughing and I’m in this kind of Dave Chappelle loophole of, why is that funny to you? Why is that funny to you? I slowly start to dismantle and go off script, and my shadow takes off her mask and she’s like ‘Are you OK?’ And I just kind of storm out.”
Not long after, OtB artistic director Lane Czaplinski approached him and asked, essentially, what do you wanna do? “I think I wanna make this talk show,” Wiley remembers answering. “I don’t know what that means yet, but I think I wanna make it.”