Byron Easley’s heart may as well be a drum—that’s how ingrained rhythm is in his body. As a child growing up in the projects in Brooklyn, that beat, beat, beat, thrummed through him. Whenever he heard music, he’d just start to move. His parents filled the house with African tunes, jazz, gospel, and the common pulse between genres began to connect in Easley’s brain.
When he was 11 years old, Dance Theatre of Harlem performed on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. “I had never seen Black men dancing like that. I flipped out and thought to myself, ‘Okay, I want to do that,” he says. Easley snuck onto the train to Harlem soon after, and every Saturday after that to take class.
And then, his parents found out. “In my head, I just heard: BOOM, okay, it's over,” says Easley. “And [my dad] actually said, ‘Good. This will be your ticket out of here.’” Easley proved him right.
After scholarships at midtown dance studios, Dance Theatre Harlem, and the Ailey School, Easley went to work straight out of high school with companies like Dance Brazil, made it to Broadway (a debut in The Tap Dance Kid), eventually performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and has now made a name for himself as a choreographer.
“I love [choreography] in theatre because it's collaborative. And it's all about telling story; it's not just about choreography in and of itself,” he says.
To this day, his style and the way he tells story emanates from that drum. “I like stuff that's explosive and eclectic. I like energy. I like to grab people,” he says. But he never favors dramatics over story, as in his most recent musical project, Gun & Powder, which world-premiered at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.
The 1890s-set musical by Angelica Chéri and Ross Baum follows Mary and Martha Clarke, two young biracial women who pass for white in an effort to better the life of their sharecropping mother. Emotions and identities twist when each sister falls for a man of a different race, and they deal with their own split worlds in very different ways.
Easley takes advantage of this dichotomy in his movement. The white folk carry themselves “more pulled up and guided by ‘Eurocentric movement,’ whereby the Black kinfolk, they're sharecroppers, they're a step away from slavery, really, so the work is in their body,” he explains.
And, Easley reveals the complication of those two identities in one person: “There was a moment where Mary… there's a part of her that celebrates wanting to be what's held up as this sophisticated white woman, but then there's another part of her that knows sharecropping, that knows that gospel church, that knows that drum from there,” and that interior battle manifests in the pairing of heightened upward and grounded downward choreography for Mary.
At every turn, Easley leans on the rhythm of Baum’s music. “It sounds contemporary. It sounds period. It has a Southern twang at times. Then it has a feel for what pop music has come to.” The choreographer also plays with a dichotomy within the show’s anachronism; the kinfolk serve as a contemporary Greek chorus telling the lore of the Clarke sisters and are also the sharecroppers of the time.
To help distinguish, Easley shifts between social dances from the late 1800s and the Texas region for the moments in the story and more pedestrian and circular movements—as if gathering around a campfire—for the chorus moments.
As he layers symbolism and shape, Easley clings to the heartbeat of the story and the truth in it. “I have an aunt who has a son who's older than the others, and I never really thought about it until I became an adult. I said, ‘Why is he so lighter than the others?’” Easley confesses. “And then we later found out that she was working as a domestic at some place, and she had a white baby. You always hear these things in everyone's family.
“It's part of the American story that's not often talked about,” he adds, pausing for a beat before he says: “I don't mean to sound corny, but I'm honored to be able to help tell this story.”