American Realness

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: NIC Kay’s lil BLK

By J. Soto


Friends. Some new some old, some distant and some close. I saw the end of Jumatatu M. Poe & Donte Beacham’s Let i’m Move You four times and the full performance once. The J-Sette dance party ending was the anchor for me in the festival. I could join the audience as it spilled out of the theater or text a friend to meet me a bit early to join me in the crowd. I listened to Erykah Badu’s Trill Friends for two-weeks-straight afterwards. The mathematics of production and space at the festival, the performances joining endings to beginnings, offered an embodied way to hold queer space for relationships to self and each other.

“You just met me / how can you know me?”

“You just met me / how can you know me?”

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: NIC Kay’s lil BLK

NIC Kay slid down the cement banister on their stomach, legs in the air behind them for balance, into the theater, head first as a newborn does. Their entrance was youthful and determined and at the same time, not like a first entrance, but a practiced approach at getting somewhere familiar. A strong sense of anticipation, amplified by the high-low slope of the entrance to stage filled the theater. NIC Kay entered from up there [my upper left, past.] and came down to another level [stage, dance floor, bedroom, street, public park] to perform. This level-change, moved beyond architectural detail and, later, book-ended the work—subtly commenting on Black queer imagination expanding and pushing up against the brutalist architecture of the Underground Theater at Abrons Arts Center where the performance took place.

One thing I want to remember, to hold onto, is that NIC Kay’s tennis shoes were bright white and new, but their knee pads were soiled from use. I loved this poetic dissonance in presentation, the grey of the kneepads, the gleaming white of tennis shoes, each confusing the starting points of where new begins underneath the skin and old still remains. It also reminded me of dressing up to go somewhere special and the function of footwear in conveying pride in poc communities. The both hardness and the vulnerability of human knees, their function in making angles in posing and articulating a body posture of suggestiveness in leaning this or that way in cruising, in prayer, and in sex. Also figuring largely into the sparse staging for the work was an industrial sized fan, a white indoor lamp, a glowing rainbow-colored stick, and an off-white crochet blanket—remade again to serve warmth, coverage, suggesting an aged body, and, a spirit.

The first half of lil BLK moved clearly through moments of personal discovery, sometimes full of excitement or or full of tenderness. Early in the journey, there is a prideful and unwitting performance of a little Black girl, embodied by NIC Kay unashamedly performing Adina Howard’s Freak Like Me at a family gathering with spot-on choreography only to be reprimanded for the confident embodied display of sexuality.

I am thinking about the power of shame here, and of the supremely magical certainty in this moment on stage followed by an aching sharp reality of dismissal, or rejection for a young person, for a little Black girl, or “little Black spirit” as NIC Kay says later. In my case, a little Brown tomboy-girl. I am thinking personally of being in some-way misshapen to the values and attitudes of those expected to be central to a family or community, particularly for women and femmes of color. I recall coming out to myself as gay (queer was still out of my reach) at fourteen and then later as a transgender person, and the sharp questioning and slip-away of many of the expectations taught to me which were meant to frame the rest of my life, my relationship to my own body, and the bodies of others. At fifteen, this chasm began to be filled almost immediately with a queer cosmology. I didn’t know it then, but this began out of a need to survive and continued very slowly at first, and forevermore.

A fundamental part of my process of self-awareness and restoration was dancing at any bar with a dancefloor that I could sneak into as an underaged brown baby-dyke in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mostly house music of the 1990’s, some Pop. The bouncers were brotherly and more generous then, understanding that my well-being depended on getting through the door and onto the dancefloor.

I asked NIC Kay in a follow up conversation about these early moments of rejection and growth and they reflected on the way their young and closely-knit queer community in Chicago, where the work was primarily developed, moved through coming-of-age moments together, “Did that happen to you or me? The truth is, it was happening to all of us.” As the performance moved further, the beginnings and endings of each of these recollections became less clearly articulated, flowing into one another, combining para-fictional personal narrative and explosive reclamational dance, into becoming, into growth.

/ Shift /

Sweaty and exhilarated, more than halfway into the performance, NIC Kay is describing a night at the club as if they are talking to a friend who is a little Black girl on their way to being, or themselves, or a close relative, with a kind of indestructible queer Black gender nonconforming sentience capable of creating that kind of multiplicity in narrative. Moving through this recollection of exhilaration, speaking and smiling at the same, time NIC Kay says, “I took my shirt off. You know I love the fan!” removing their white top. Then there is a dramatic shift in tone and a return back to the past, as they say earnestly, “I missed you. I missed you. I missed you.” Speaking with a kind of responsibility to and affection for those who are missed, who perhaps are not there: little Black girls trying to find some release in music right now and genderqueer kids coming of age and learning about themselves through the music. There are so many expectations put upon children, upon queer bodies. I think most queer Black and Brown dancefloors have benevolent ghosts on them.

I consider the dancefloor a kind of school and church for poc queer folks. It is a place where sex and desire are performed in multitudes of subtle and public cues taught to younger generations of queers of color in a language of movement that is infinite and full of possibility. It can be the dead of winter outside and, with enough bodies moving together, the room needs an industrial-sized fan for the duration of a solid DJ set. In these moments, a fifth season is created as they generate their own magnetic fields between each other and their own temporary microclimate.

The title, lil BLK, is purposefully open, creating space for the gender journey and struggles to be, within. Toward the conclusion, NIC Kay begins addressing the audience, dancing around the stage repeating, “I know the rainbow’s been rough! I know the glitter’s been tough!” and, “Little Black girl you can do anything!” The language play begins to move here into possibilities, to summon the the lil BLK femme, femme boi, tomboy, and little Black sissy, or “those of us who had no idea.” Little Black spirit?…yes. NIC Kay is speaking with vitality in the the present, from some other place, for them directly, with power, tenderness, and affect– this performance is for them.

In a bookending fashion of evolution of growth, in one side, out the other, NIC Kay exits the stage [my upper right, future] wrapped up in the crochet costume, covered, but hyper-visible both ghostly and conspicuous to the surrounding environment, strangely-shaped, a timeless spirit moving slowly up the stairs.

Notes and acknowledgements:
Introductory quoted text from Jumatatu M. Poe & Donte Beacham’s Let i’m Move You

Thank you to NIC Kay
& Magali Duzant

Photo By Ian Douglas