“I said to my mom, ‘You said there are no women!’ ”
“She said, ‘That’s a man!’ ”
“I thought my mom was wrong. I thought, ‘No way that’s a man!’ ”
Years later, while Brown worked on her master of fine arts at Yale University, she began researching Kabuki. “And obsessing,” she said. “It was one of the things that always was on my mind. It is a deep art form that is beautiful and moving. I’ve gone to Kabuki plays and I wept openly.”
In 2001 and in 2005, Brown traveled to Japan. There she saw the ganguro phenomenon, in which Japanese teenagers enamored by hip-hop darkened their skin: “One girl with black face. She had an attitude. I thought, ‘You took all of it. You have the hair, the clothes.’ ”
Brown realized the teens were only expressing themselves. “People say Japan is homogenous,” she said. “I understood why it was important to them to make people know their affiliation.”
Brown started making wood-block print images, incorporating references to hip-hop into the symbolic Japanese images. “I found a lot of similarities in the way rap is viewed today, which is this over-the-top spending of money, pouring champagne on floor, the fabulous lifestyle and late Edo,” a period in Japanese history characterized by wealth and isolationism.
A few years ago, she began examining how the images in her prints related to dance. She realized that if one were to freeze the poses in Kabuki, they would resemble the characters painted in prints, she said. The same thing could be said for vogueing, where dancers strike a pose. “The first memory I have of seeing vogue was at Tracks,” once a popular nightclub in Southeast Washington. “When I think about that time when I saw these two men vogueing . . . it was more like the first time I saw ganguro or the first time I saw a geisha.”
“I lose my mind when I watch Kabuki. I get hyped,” Brown said. “The movement is so subtle, the simple placement of a thumb. I love teeny movements. I love the transitions from one position to the final position.”
Brown hopes people walk away from the performance “wanting to know more about hip-hop, more about vogueing, more about Kabuki.”
The performance of “changeling tree: the forest lies about you” begins Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Tidal Basin (in the paddle-boat parking area).