In any social context, labeling is a convenient shorthand, a way to quickly convey a condensed idea to another person. It’s fast and easy, but it’s also lazy and limiting. Many artists are hybrids these days, but what happens when an artist expands the scope of their work past the point of hyphenating?
Markeith Wiley has long been known as a choreographer-dancer, and he is certainly that. He’s performed with Spectrum Dance Theater and Velocity Dance Center, worked with everyone from modern dance powerhouse KT Niehoff to drag/dance/burlesque geniuses Kitten and Lou, created daunting amounts of his own work and for a while ran his own company, The New Animals. But at 32, Wiley is bristling against the labels that box him in, both as an artist and as a person. In his new show It’s Not Too Late, Wiley’s aiming to erase them all, and he doesn’t really care if you like it or not.
+ + + +
“There’s a joke in there,” Wiley says, and not for the first time. Folded into a chair in the Studio Theater at On the Boards in mid-October, I feel like I’ve been dropped into a sitcom writer’s room rather than a dance or theatre rehearsal. Ideas bounce back and forth between Wiley and It’s Not Too Late co-director/dramaturg HATLO as they edit a shared Google doc, their chit-chat full of would-be jokes—about David Alan Grier in Jumanji, Obama’s Spotify playlists versus Trump’s inability to listen, the Internet hordes bellowing that there aren’t enough white people in the new Netflix series Luke Cage.
Wiley’s longtime collaborator and sound designer Keith White chimes in with some good one-liners as he messes with his equipment, and half an hour later the writer’s room has a soundtrack. White stands over his Korg Electribe and the warm, popping thrum of an electronic beat fills the room, hypnotic and powerful. Dancer Chloe Albin slithers her way across the floor exquisitely slowly as Wiley watches, slumped at a small table upstage. Soon the dancers are moving through brand-new choreography in unison, communicating wordlessly and with a fluency baffling to anyone for whom movement is not a first language. A minute later, Wiley launches into the manic opening monologue of a late-night host.
On its surface, It’s Not Too Late is a talk show, hosted by Wiley’s alter ego Dushawn Brown, complete with a house band (White) and a different guest and musical guest each night, so no two shows will be the same. He’s assembled an incredible line-up of Black artists to appear as guest stars, to join him for an interview and a series of rapid-fire questions: activist Lara Davis, author Imani Sims, artist Natasha Marin and dancer/choreographers Dani Tirrell and Randy Ford. And every show will have a dancer in black—Dushawn Brown’s shadow.
“The premise of the show is that there are these higher-ups that Dushawn is working for, and he has to appease them,” Wiley says. “He’s the first Black talk show host in Seattle, and you don’t want to be the first Black anything. So I’m doing my best to keep it cool, but through these guests speaking their truths, and through these musicians speaking their truths with their music, and through a bunch of stuff that’s going to happen throughout, I’m going to eventually unravel.”
Dushawn Brown is a combination of Wiley’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name. “He’s this entity that I use to not be so cordial or nice, or to not beat around the bush about truth,” Wiley says, with a sort of half-laugh. “He’s not as sensitive as Markeith is in conversation. So if we’re talking about class and we come from different classes, Dushawn will talk about that very directly whereas Markeith is like, well I understand because I have friends from all walks of life…”
Dushawn first showed up on stage in 2014, but he was a long time in the making, born from a million and one infuriating experiences as a Black artist. Once, a local dance presenter asked him to perform a solo, after learning that he was the only dancer of color in his company. Another time, he made a thoughtful, site-specific work for an expensive donor dinner, only to overhear a man say later in the restroom that he loves Markeith, “but I thought he was gonna do some hip-hop.”
“Sometimes I have people of color telling me that I’m not ‘of color’ enough, and then I have these white folks say I thought this Black kid was gonna do some hip-hop dancing. And I’m like, what’s going on?” He laughs, a big easy laugh that slips out often. “So I started making a solo.”
Wiley presented his first exploratory solo at Velocity’s “Showing Out” in 2013. In it, he used a hairbrush as a microphone, showed people his dental and police records and asked them questions. Later he did performances in a dress at Seattle International Dance Festival, brought people on stage to sit down with him and told them secrets about himself.
“I was just trying to figure out what I could do as an artist to get myself out of this box where you’re the audience, I’m the performer, and you don’t know anything about me personally,” he says. “Part of me is like, if we, as an art community, are going to dissect the perception of the artists, the people who are serving the community, [audiences] need to start having conversations with them. So how do I do that?”
Dushawn’s talk show made its debut at OtB’s 2015 NW New Works in Wiley’s 31 and Counting, a 20-minute piece that was the seed of It’s Not Too Late. It was personal, funny and angry; a letter from his mom, then a phone call from his dad, pop up before the talk show finally starts. “So it’s my opening monologue and I’m telling terrible, terrible jokes—I’m so Black, when I get on a bus the oil light goes on—and people are laughing at these jokes, which is what I wanted,” he says. “So they’re laughing and I’m in this kind of Dave Chappelle loophole of, why is that funny to you? Why is that funny to you? I slowly start to dismantle and go off script, and my shadow takes off her mask and she’s like ‘Are you OK?’ And I just kind of storm out.”
Not long after, OtB artistic director Lane Czaplinski approached him and asked, essentially, what do you wanna do? “I think I wanna make this talk show,” Wiley remembers answering. “I don’t know what that means yet, but I think I wanna make it.”
Three years ago, Wiley and I met for the first time at a coffee shop on Lower Queen Anne; I was interviewing him for our 2014 Future List. We ran through the usual biographical and resume details—his early years in Long Beach, Calif., the journey from childhood breakdancing to teen musical theatre to modern dance and ballet as an adult. His move to Seattle in 2006 to study dance at Cornish College of the Arts, and projects choreographing for theatre groups Washington Ensemble Theatre, Saint Genet and the Satori Group. At the time, Wiley was teaching dance and keeping really busy with The New Animals, a dance company formed largely from his Cornish cohort.
He was busy and energetic, his name was popping up on projects all over town, thanks to his broad movement vocabulary and easygoing, intensely collaborative nature. Now at that same table in that same coffee shop in early October, Wiley seems more subdued. He’s not spreading himself quite so thin, he promises me, even though, if anything, his name appears on even more current projects.
“I believe in manifestation or however you want to word it, but I remember on my birthday I was like, this is gonna be my last year!” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I knew it was gonna be my year.”
What it meant, Wiley learned, was working with Erik Blood a lot, starting at City Arts’ Genre Bender in March of this year. It meant creating a physical adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with longtime collaborator Amy Johnson and visual artist Charlie Spitzack, both Cornish classmates. Working with textile artist and costume designer Mark Mitchell for the first time (at our interview he’s wearing a soft, black onesie Mitchell made), doing lighting design for Courtney Meaker’s play That’swhatshesaid and sound design for dancer/choreographer Elby Brosch and Laura Aschoff’s dance group, The Grief Girls. He’s ready to keep going with whatever presents itself. “I’m still such a five-year-old in that sense, you put a kalimba in my hand and I’m gonna sit with it and try to make a song,” he says.
This year has been a time of expansion and contraction, adding new artistic skills and sloughing off what no longer serves a purpose. The New Animals was dissolved this spring. “It just needed to break apart,” Wiley says, even though everyone involved still loves each other. The group’s last big evening-length work was Tre, named for Wiley’s friend and Cornish classmate Joe Sodd III, who was murdered in Minneapolis during college, before the two could start the dance company they planned together. “After [that show] I was like, I’m done mourning your loss,” Wiley says. “I’m not done celebrating your life, but I’m done mourning.”
In the place of the New Animals, Wiley is working on what he calls a pickup group called the NoGoodDoers, which isn’t “monogamous at all, because we’re not monogamous in art, anyway.” The idea: Assemble the team you need to make the art you need to make. When it’s over, you break up. “I want to make myself available to do what I’m capable of, which is a whole bunch of stuff—but not at the same time.”
+ + + +
Preparing for It’s Not Too Late has made Wiley a bit of a loner, in a way that his previous work has not. For one thing, he’s working with more text than ever before. In the past, rehearsals for dance pieces left him hungry to dissect and discuss what happened in the room, but rehearsals for It’s Not Too Late make him crave solitude. Realizing that the show is essentially a microcosm of his life has only compounded the feeling.
“I’m making a show with a bunch of collaborators who happen to be white, in a city that’s predominantly white, as a Black person,” he says. “And this show is a Black talk show host that’s working for an organization run by white people that’s being asked to be as PC as possible. So I need to be alone.”
He’s been watching lots of Black comedians—Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Redd Foxx, Trevor Noah, Jessica Williams—and reading, reading, reading. “The current top shelf of my library is all books by Black authors,” he says. He’s going to be ready, with the help of his impressive guest stars, to excavate what it’s like to be a Black artist in Seattle.
The snippet of the show he performed at Velocity’s annual fall kick-off event garnered a tepid response. At the post-show schmooze-fest, no one was saying anything to him, though they were complimenting the artist sitting next to him. “My ego got in the way, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the work was doing its function. People weren’t able to immediately give gratification because they were too busy thinking.”
The audience at OtB seems to be more diverse than at many Seattle arts venues, but not by much. He’s not sure how audience response will go. You might love it; you might hate it. He’s cool either way. “There’s a chance that 50 percent of the room will leave thinking that I, like, hate all white people,” he says, laughing. “I might not even say the word ‘white,’ or the word ‘person,’ or say them together, but that could still happen. There’s also a chance that people might think I’m confused. There’s also a chance that people might love the hell out of it. So I’m just open to that. Bottom line: It’s all art, it’s good and bad.”
Part of Wiley’s artistic maturity is realizing that he doesn’t need approval or input in the way he once did, whether from critics who’d try and say he’s no longer a “real” dancer or white colleagues who insist that he’s not telling them anything “new” about the Black experience. He’s making what’s important to him.
“You might see me just dance again.” Wiley says, “You might, or you might not. That’s the biggest thing. I used to think that hip-hop and dance and theatre—that’s what I make. Now it’s like, what else does it need? My dream show is a show in a very special place where my name is on everything, where all the elements of the show are coming from all the facets of me.”