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What’s Going On? D.C. choreographer finds inspiration in words and music of Marvin Gaye

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
What’s Going On? D.C. choreographer finds inspiration in words and music of Marvin Gaye
Ronya Lee Anderson and cast members. PHOTO: JONATHAN HSU PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

Choreographer Vincent Thomas grew up listening to Marvin Gaye. When he returned to the United States from a European tour in 2014, he found his home country torn apart by repeated instances of police brutality, and immediately thought of Gaye’s famous anthem, “What’s Going On?” From there sprang his social justice dance performance of the same name. On April 27 and 28, the show makes its Boston premiere at the Roxbury Community College Mainstage.

Jessica Mncube. PHOTO: JONATHAN HSU PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

Jessica Mncube. PHOTO: JONATHAN HSU PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

Thomas choreographed the show with Ralph Glenmore and Sylvia Soumah to incorporate a blend of styles important to the African American tradition. “The physical work of the project is a beautiful mix of West African, Jazz, Modern, Contemporary Movement and social dancing,” says Thomas. “All these things are happening now, and this music is still speaking loud and clear. It’s like Gaye was writing the music of the times right now.” Thomas also wanted to pay homage to the fact that Gaye was born and grew up in Washington, D.C.

The show is intended to spark conversations, and space is left during the performance for discussion and audience participation. “Audiences move, they dance, they sing, they remember, they reminisce, they cry,” says Thomas. “There are so many emotions that happen within the performance experience for the audiences. And everyone takes them on this journey to look at their lives, their loves, their social actions.” The choreographer says he’s enjoyed working with Boston artists and he’s already planning how the troupe can return to the Hub for another run later in the year.

Cast members in “What’s Going On?” PHOTO: JONATHAN HSU PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

Cast members in “What’s Going On?” PHOTO: JONATHAN HSU PHOTOGRAPHY & VIDEO

The April performances in Boston will incorporate six local dancers in several group numbers. The dancers were selected from auditions and master classes with Urbanity Dance, OrigiNations and Dance Complex. Anmol Mehra, board chair of Urbanity Dance, who was instrumental in bringing the production to Boston, says it was important to bring the local community in on the project. “It was also important to us to pay the dancers. In some cities I believe this is just a free opportunity, but I feel adamant that artists should be paid for their work,” he says. He similarly selected Roxbury Community College to highlight a high-quality, underutilized art space.

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Though “What’s Going On?” addresses the racial challenges at play in the contemporary world, Thomas says it is ultimately a joyful and uplifting message. He says, “I hope the Boston audience walks away and find action to help turn the concerns that they have in their community into celebrations.”

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