As Urban Bush Women celebrated their 30th anniversary last year, ensemble founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar seized on the occasion as an opportunity to look back.
One of the fruits of that reminiscence became “Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,” a piece combining dance, music and text to reflect on a mix of Zollar’s childhood in Kansas City, her parents’ experience as club owners and performers, and the greater history of the Great Migration that carried millions of African-Americans to the North from the South during the first half of the 20th century.
To realize such an ambitious project, Zollar called on Talvin Wilks, a playwright and director who helped give Zollar’s memories narrative form. “It was really about getting Jawole’s story on paper,” Wilks recalls. “She truly is the history of Kansas City in this piece.”
“Hep Hep Sweet Sweet” grew out of a previous production, “Naked City,” which examined the same period. “Hep Hep” was first staged last year with recorded music by the likes of Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Dinah Washington. It arrives in Philadelphia in a new form, featuring blues, jazz and boogie-woogie played by live musicians, with singer Pyeng Threadgill also serving as narrator.
The piece highlights a program that also features “30th Anniversary Mash Up,” composed of excerpts from throughout UBW’s history; and “Dark Swan,” choreographed by Nora Chipaumire.
“Hep Hep Sweet Sweet” exemplifies the broader mission of the troupe — to celebrate the history, culture and spiritual traditions of the African diaspora — while also making it personal, interweaving historical fact with subjective personal impressions from the choreographer’s youth.
“We’re trying to capture the memory of a thing infused with authentic ideas, but that wasn’t the ultimate goal,” Wilks says. “The real goal was thinking of the types or dynamics of women of this particular time as characters.
“It’s not trying to be a historic jazz show; it’s really trying to be a memory piece,” Wilks says. “There are echoes, with dancers torn between the call of the South and the past and the reach of the future. There are ghosts traveling through this piece.”