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Strange Fruit at Cafe Society, Once Again: The Dances of Pearl Primus

The dance performance of “Strange Fruit” portrays the emotional journey of a white woman as she reacts in horror to the sight of lynching she witnessed and participated in. This dance interpretation of the poem by Abe Meeropol was performed by trailblazing dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Pearl Primus at Cafe Society in April 1943, only four years after Billie Holiday’s famed blues rendition of the same poem. Pearl Primus would go on to become a titan in the field of modern African American dance and introduce African dance to American audiences. However, in 1943, she was simply a 24 year old dancer, embarking on her first nightclub engagement. Little did she know that this performance would serve as a pivotal moment, granting her the breakthrough she needed and setting the stage for her groundbreaking career of activism, anthropology, and dance.

Pearl Primus dancing, likely at Cafe Society Downtown. October 25, 1945. Courtesy of the NYPL.

“Strange Fruit” the dance is as eerie and somber as the song that inspired it. But the choreography doesn’t rely on Holiday’s music as a soundtrack. Instead, the dancer performs to a reading of the original poem, using the haunting silence to amplify the impact of their anguished movements. Notably, the dance takes a unique and challenging stance by sympathizing with a participant in a lynch mob. Views diverge on its meaning: some see it as a portrayal of potential transformation and change, while others perceive it as a confrontation of the hypocrisy of racists who remain ignorant of the extent and brutality of their actions until directly faced with them.

Pearl Primus, born on November 29th, 1919 in Trinidad and Tobago, immigrated to New York City at the age of two. Initially pursuing a pre-med track at Hunter College, she encountered intense discrimination while seeking employment as a laboratory technician, causing her to reconsider her career path. She took on odd jobs and eventually landed a position as a dance understudy for a play by the National Youth Association. Within a year, she secured a scholarship with New Dance Group, a left-wing dance school and performance company located on the Lower East Side, becoming its first black student.

There, she not only learned the fundamentals of dance, but also absorbed the group’s philosophy of artist activism. New Dance Group embraced the belief that dance is a weapon of class struggle, a notion that deeply influenced Primus throughout her career. Recognized as one of the most talented students, Primus had the opportunity to study with renowned modern dance masters such as Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Ismay Andrews, and Asadata Dafora. She was quickly noticed by dance critics for her remarkable energy and superb physicality, which included awe-inspiring leaps, reaching heights of up to five feet in the air. Only two years after she started dancing, Pearl Primus gave her first professional performance at the 92nd Street YMHA, where she received a rave review in the Times. Harnessing the buzz surrounding her debut, Primus secured a coveted engagement at Cafe Society, further establishing her burgeoning career.

Pearl Primus, 1951. Courtesy of Hulton Archive.

Pearl Primus’s choreography skillfully blended elements of modern dance with African and Caribbean traditional movements. Through meticulous research, she explored the technical intricacies of African dance, documenting and educating herself on its function and significance. This attention to detail allowed her to authentically integrate African dance into her choreography, creating a powerful and meaningful artistic expression. Her dances served as poignant expressions of the injustices and inequalities faced by the black community. Her notable works, besides “Strange Fruit”, include her interpretation of Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1944) and a dance to the the sharecropper spiritual, “Hard Time Blues” (1945).

Pearl Primus in African Ceremonial, ca. 1945. Courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow.

In 1948, Pearl Primus was awarded a grant to embark on an extensive 18-month research journey focused on African dance. Her travels took her to various countries in Central and West Africa. Prior to her departure, Primus concluded a successful return engagement at Cafe Society, the very club that had launched her career years earlier. This final stint at Cafe Society marked a significant transition in Primus’s artistic trajectory. After completing her research, she shifted her focus from being primarily a dancer and performer to becoming an artist/educator and dance anthropologist.

In 1978, Primus earned a Ph.D. from New York University, solidifying her expertise in African dance. From 1984 to 1990, she served as a professor of ethnic studies and artist in residence at the Five Colleges consortium in Massachusetts, leaving a lasting impact on dance and ethnic studies. She passed away at the age of 74 in New Rochelle, New York, on October 29, 1994.

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