THE MIX of dance, music, dialogue and humor that makes up "No Less Black" began simply, with a poem. But its subject wasn't simple at all.
"I had written a poem in response to assertions that I was not black enough," says Gesel Mason, who for the past three seasons has been a member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. She has cut back to part time this year, to allow for more of her own creations such as this one, developed with her partner, Cheles Rhynes. Performances will be held this weekend at Dance Place. With "No Less Black" the two aim to shed light on that most prickly of issues in the African American community: Who belongs, and who decides?
It's a question Mason is tackling with uncommon forthrightness. "In the desire to have solidarity we end up separating people out," she says. After being put on the defensive by a group of friends -- how much did she know about her history? How committed was she to the black community? -- she began looking at all sides of the issue of color and politics.
"I'm considered a light-skinned black person, and sometimes it's like you get more advantages because of that," Mason says. "Whereas Cheles is a 6-foot-2, brown-skinned man, and he fits half the descriptions by police on TV. He's the person you'd cross the street for. I don't get that."
The work is divided into segments exploring what it is to be black and female, black and gay, etc. Many of the points are made with cutting humor. In one of them, titled "Blacklist," Mason appears before a panel that grills her on whether she's black enough to deserve a race card.
But in the end, Mason says, she offers no answers.
" `No Less Black' is a conversation about, not an assertion about, blackness. I'm just looking at the questions," she says. "One of the things I do is lay it all out there. I try to give points of view that aren't necessarily mine. Ultimately, the audience is asked to draw their own conclusions."
NO LESS BLACK -- By Mason/Rhynes Productions, Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7 at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. Call 202/269-1600.