Jeremy McQueen, the man behind the dance collective Black Iris Project, has been wanting to bring his work back to his hometown, but it hasn’t been easy
San Diego has a reputation for being a welcoming city known for its mild, sunny climate, a thriving arts scene and a laid-back, diverse culture.
One might be lulled into thinking that it would be easy for a Black artist and Broadway veteran who was born here to present his Emmy Award-winning production in his hometown.
In fact, it became nearly impossible.
“This is something I have wanted to do for years, and I’ve been plotting and trying to navigate a way to make it happen,” said choreographer Jeremy McQueen, founder of the New York-based Black Iris Project.
“I’ve been presenting events in theaters for over a decade, having done collaborations with The Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. No city has been more challenging.”
There is a happy ending to this story.
But if there is one sound bite that played repeatedly in McQueen’s mind while attempting to stage his show locally, it’s this:
It shouldn’t be this hard.
Sadly, that ugly truth is one that reverberates throughout the San Diego arts community.
Exorbitant venue rental costs, cultural ignorance, a dismissive response to concerns of racial inequalities and funding models that make artistic careers a bleak option for survival have become a common occurrence in America’s finest city.
The training ground
In the 1970s, McQueen’s parents — mom was a schoolteacher, dad was a businessman — moved from Alabama to San Diego in search of the California Dream. They wanted their only son to thrive.
McQueen grew up in southeastern San Diego and benefited from parent sacrifices, the mentoring of skilled professionals and the support of family and friends.
Before earning a bachelor’s of fine arts in dance from the Ailey School at Fordham University at Lincoln Center, he graduated with honors in 2004 from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Additionally, McQueen trained as a scholarship recipient in the schools of American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.
McQueen’s dreams of a career in the arts became a reality.
He scored roles in the Broadway touring productions of “Wicked” and “The Color Purple” and danced as a guest artist with California Ballet Company and multiple Metropolitan Opera productions.
In 2016, McQueen launched the Black Iris Project, a collective that presents original ballets and cross-disciplinary works about social justice and the Black experience.
As founder and artistic director, McQueen, now 36, has responsibilities beyond choreographing dance works. Presenting a show requires him to fundraise, hire dancers, secure rental space, negotiate contracts and implement a marketing plan. Black Iris Project also provides educational programs to youth in underserved communities.
Big impact ballets
During the pandemic, McQueen collaborated with the filmmaker Colton Williams and converted two of his ballets into films that have been licensed to arts organizations, television stations in New York City, nonprofits and film festivals nationwide.
“A Mother’s Rite,” about a mother whose son is killed by a White police officer, is accompanied by a piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
It’s been featured in four states.
Primarily, “A Mother’s Rite” is a solo work, nuanced in a way that resonates with anyone who has had to struggle against surrendering to overwhelming grief.
In one movement phrase, for instance, there’s a delicate, insightful balance between slow-motion acceptance and rage. Dancer Fana Tesfagiorgis picks up her son’s sweatshirt and tentatively buries her face in its folds, breathing in the scent of her son. Then, she wraps it around her body before casting it away, as if it burns her flesh.
“WILD” is a provocative, four-part project that illuminates the tragedies in the juvenile justice system through dance, journal entries, visual art, poetry and a soundtrack that includes music by morgxn, former Hamilton cast member Phillip Johnson-Richardson aka Phil, and R&B singer Brittany Campbell.
It was inspired by Maurice Sendak’s award-winning children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” and a poignant Richard Ross photograph that depicts a young Black boy standing before the graffiti-marked walls of his concrete cell.
The stage version includes the segment “Wild: These Walls Can Talk!,” which won an Emmy Award this year from the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Three months ago, at an informal presentation staged at the Light Box in Liberty Station, McQueen connected with community leaders, patrons of the arts, family and friends. He brought a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater soloist to dance a brief excerpt from “A Mother’s Rite” to provide a visual example of his process.
“It was an opportunity for people to get to know me on a more intimate, casual level and provide support, whether it be financially or through introductions to people who might be able to bring this idea to life,” McQueen explained.
“There were still many unanswered questions about how to navigate this and where to get funding.”
Xavier Hicks, McQueen’s former teacher and a Black principal dancer for California Ballet from 1999 to 2004, attended the presentation. Anjanette Maraya-Ramey was there, too. She’s the artistic director and founder of Maraya Performing Arts, a collective based in the South Bay with a mission to uplift marginalized voices through education and performance.
Hicks, now in his 40s, teaches at two San Diego locations and remembered McQueen.
“I had not seen him since he left town,” Hicks said. “I heard he won an Emmy, and I was impressed. After the presentation, I was overwhelmed the rest of the night. He did a great job — the details, the artistry and the emotion behind it.
“Jeremy left San Diego and made his mark. I don’t think he would have gone as far here as he did there. San Diego has a lot of diversity, but it’s not very cultured. Part of it is that we don’t have a lot of ethnic artists in town who are willing to fight for that exposure. We don’t have the same backing or the same connections as others do.”
Maraya-Ramey also was impressed.
“I think that Jeremy’s work is what San Diego needs,” she said.
“It’s fresh, provocative and the dancer is star quality. I think with the Black Lives Matter movement, people in the dance community are starting to see the value and relevance of BIPOC dancers and our stories, our talents and our contributions.”
Challenges and stipulations
A show like McQueen’s could cost between $10,000 and $20,000 to present, so getting an affordable venue and funding support is a necessity.
In San Diego, that effort is particularly difficult, not just for McQueen, but for every local dance operation.
McQueen approached the largest presenting organizations in San Diego first, noting that the same Black performers visit San Diego every year, programming that he believes is more about profits than a reflection of diversity.
“I think that by bringing in artists of color who aren’t going to make their White patrons uncomfortable — that’s where they would prefer to stay,” McQueen reasoned.
“That’s not going to be a platform for education; rather it’s a platform for tokenism.”
Undeterred, he remained hopeful.
But contract negotiations were prohibitive, with clauses that forbid sponsor acknowledgments on marketing materials, or language that allowed using an artist’s marketing videos in perpetuity.
McQueen researched stage rentals at multiple locations, from well-known professional venues to high school performing arts centers. Even securing an affordable rehearsal studio was a challenge. He considered bringing a condensed version of his show to a library (which charged $500 per hour for nonprofits) but at his level of achievement, that effort could have negative consequences.
“Presentation and documentation can play a significant role in future grant and individual funding,” McQueen said. “What does that look like to say you’ve primarily presented work in a middle school auditorium?”
McQueen also learned that the majority of arts funding is generally allocated to the organizations that already bring in the most money.
“Even if an emerging artist receives a $5,000 grant, they are responsible for supplying receipts totaling that amount in expenses to then be later reimbursed,” he said.
“There is the assumption that artists can front the $5,000 themselves to put on the performance. These types of policies can keep some folks from even being able to walk through the door. In New York City, we have arts councils based on the geographic community, and it offers funding (city and state) with an emphasis on individual artists and organizations with annual budgets below $100,000. The process is more streamlined and funds are not given retroactively on a reimbursement basis. I am currently independently funding this work but it’s not enough to bring this full project to life.”
Maraya-Ramey has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and leadership, and she understands from a local perspective.
“It is so hard to get ahead,” Maraya-Ramey stressed. “Even when you secure a grant, there are parameters. Everything has to line up with the venue and the availability of the dancers. Venues are super expensive, and it’s very hard for emerging artists.
“There is not enough radical philanthropy or urgent effort being made to change the system because people in San Diego are leaving the arts world. It’s just too damn hard.”
Earlier this month, McQueen succeeded in collaborating with San Diego Theatres to produce the Black Iris Project in February (on his late father’s birthday) at the Balboa Theatre.
The show includes “A Mother’s Rite” in its entirety and the stage adaptation of “WILD.”
Roughly 500 seats will be donated to San Diego high schools and a free master class will be made available for intermediate to advanced high school dancers.
“I’m just so thankful,” McQueen said. “San Diego Theatres sees the problems at large and is actively working to support under-supported communities and artists.”
Success is meant to be shared.
Through perseverance, McQueen will see his goal of presenting the Black Iris Project program realized in his hometown. He also wanted to give back to his community by using his work to uplift others in the same way that he was inspired to establish a career in the arts.
“I’ve been away for 18 years,” McQueen said.
“I’ve gone on and done incredible things and seen my wildest dreams come true. I would not be here if it were not for the people from San Diego who went on to do bigger things outside of San Diego — those who came back, talked of their experiences and let me know, if you want to do this, you can. It’s possible.”
Jeremy McQueen and San Diego Theatres present ‘The Black Iris Project’
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8
Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., San Diego
A free master class is scheduled for Feb. 7. Check blackirisproject.org for details.
Luttrell is a freelance writer.
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