Ballet Afrique’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite is a celebration of Black strength, Black resilience and Black joy.
By Cy White. Photos by Sam Lewis. Styling by Violet Crown Costume Company. Makeup by Janay Hardy (JanayThaMUA). Shot on location at Huston-Tillotson University.
There’s something divine about being surrounded by Black women: shea butter embraces; sticky red lipstick kisses on foreheads; sugar, spice and…gingersnaps. It’s a veritable healing circle of kindred spirits, with generations of strength, grace, poise, tenacity and love (always love).
This is the energy surrounding Ballet Afrique’s interpretation of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic The Nutcracker. Based on Duke Ellington’s masterful jazz reimagining of the ballet, The Nutcracker Suite, the Ballet Afrique production began its journey in 2008. Fifteen years later, the jazz-soaked dance celebration continues to enthrall and entice Austin audiences.
A particular poignancy ripples through Black and Brown communities when experiencing the show for the first time. “[There are] two very important things,” China Smith, founding artistic director of Ballet Afrique and former Austin Woman cover woman, begins. “Number one, if we don’t create productions like this, then artists do not get a chance to work. There’s so much talent here in Austin that we just don’t see because they’re gigging, they’re working. So having a steady gig like The Nutcracker for professional dancers is very rewarding.
“Number two, going to The Nutcracker is a tradition for AISD schools to provide [children]this diverse perspective. The ballet opens, and there’s a big mansion and people are walking in these dresses and it’s a whole fantasy world. To be able to imagine yourself…” Smith pauses, gathering her words as if plucking from a memory of her childhood experiences with The Nutcracker ballet as a Black child growing up in Austin. “[You think,] ‘Do I fit in as a person of color in the world of fantasy and sugar and sweets and make believe? Is there a place for me?’ Just that visual of this party scene. There’s no mansion, but it’s full of love. That first scene that you see when it opens up is about family, and it’s an opportunity for people to see Black families loving each other.”
Central to the messaging of strength, loyalty, joy and love is the role of Mother Ginger. Historically, the physicality of the costume design meant that men often took the role out of necessity. However, as is the case with the passage of time, advances in technology, fashion and theater opened the role to woman-identified folx who proudly wore the title.
The role itself goes through a code switch when in the hands of Smith and her iconic dance company. “In this universe where Duke Ellington is the composer, I’ve turned everything upside down,” Smith reveals, her voice dripping with mirth and a charming bit of sass. The words morph into a smile that reaches her eyes. “It’s through the lens of Black people. So, Mother Ginger is Mother Ginger Snaps.”
This year, Mother Ginger Snaps will be represented by Adisa Communications founder and president, Austin Woman’s own Shuronda Robinson. “It’s such an iconic part, at first, I thought, ‘Wow!’ I mean, what do you do? What do you think?” Robinson says, awe coloring her tone in the stardust and magic that make up the iconic character. “I’m honored by it, and I’m actually looking forward to having some fun with it.”
As with Robinson, every woman who’s played Mother Ginger Snaps has very vivid memories of when they received the call from Smith. “Honestly, I felt honored,” says multi Emmy award–winning Spectrum News anchor and 2021’s Mother Ginger Snaps Dr. Nicole Cross. “The trend had been to choose someone who’s made significant impact in the community. So just the invitation was like…I was awed by that.”
That awe manifests as a wistful smile that stays on her face as she speaks about her experience as the ruler of the Land of Amusement. “I love people, and I desire to help them live their best lives. So to be a part of a production that would allow families in my community to get dressed and get together and go out and sit together and create a moment together, that’s magical for me.”
For Terry Mitchell, a mother (whose then 2-year-old daughter joined her onstage as one of the Bonbons), multi-hyphenate entrepreneur, co-founder and owner of Black Leader’s Collective, co-chair of The Black Fund, Austin Woman magazine board member and last year’s Mother Ginger Snaps, the imagery of a Black mother caring for her community hits close to home. “Black women are the backbone of our community, of our demographic of the nation,” she says. “For Austin specifically, I think about those doing the work and on the front line, overwhelmed and doing it from behind the scenes.
“The Mother Gingers that have literally taken the role [in the ballet]are the Mother Gingers of Austin,” Mitchell continues. “I’m honored to be in the sphere of these brilliant women and do this work on behalf of my community. We are the matriarchal figures of our community. It tells our little girls and little boys to love and honor and respect our mothers and the Black women in our community. We were your original protectors, and at some point it will be your responsibility to protect us.”
We are the matriarchal figures of our community. It tells our little girls and little boys to love and honor and respect our mothers and the Black women in our community. We were your original protectors, and at some point it will be your responsibility to protect us.Terry P. Mitchell, Mother Ginger 2022
Natasha Harper-Madison, Austin’s sitting council member of District 1 and 2019’s Mother Ginger Snaps, expresses the same gratitude. “I just found that China’s interpretation, this Duke Ellington presentation of this classic that we made our own, that [Smith] made ours, it was an honor to be able to participate and an honor to look at an audience and see…” She trails off with a chuckle, pure joy dancing across her gaze. “I bet people’s cheeks hurt,” she says, laugh now full and open. “You know, I bet if there was room for people to dance, they would have, which I think is probably what Miss China was hoping to achieve.”
The richness and complexity of being a Black woman in this country lends itself to the true significance of the role of Mother Ginger Snaps. “I think it represents an opportunity for the audience, the larger Austin audience in particular, to see that we have a lot of talents,” the venerable Ora Houston, first Austin City Council representative for Austin’s District 1 and 2018’s Mother Ginger, muses. “Minority communities have a lot of talents, and they’ve just never been invited into productions or spaces where they could demonstrate those talents. Like all children, they have to be taught; somebody has to see something in them and say, ‘I can make that better.’
“As I looked out in the audience, the audience was very mixed,” she continues. “I thought, ‘That’s what this is about.’ The Nutcracker can be about all kinds of people, but you have to be able to have a vision to see that this can be done.”
It’s the ebullience and joy that’s so missing in mainstream media telling Black and Brown stories. We are a multifaceted, multi-tiered people whose contributions to culture continue to propel it forward, continue to inspire, strike with awe and profoundly transform any space we enter. It’s no wonder, then, that Smith’s vision was to bring together all of these women at different moments in their respective journeys to portray a woman who epitomizes the unyielding, soul-stirring joy that has a unique fervor when gifted by a Black mother.
What China Smith has created is 15 years of relentless representation, unapologetic joy and, yes, a space of infinite Black Girl Excellence. Through her vision, Duke Ellington’s The Nutcracker Suite inspires young Black and Brown dreamers to stand eight feet tall and continue to elevate the legacy of Black excellence. Her contributions to Austin’s community seem never-ending, and the women who she’s selected to represent her Mother Ginger Snaps sing her praises and continue to lay flowers at her feet.
“[China] gives children who look like me and you an opportunity to see that there’s something else and that they can be things they’ve never even thought,” Cross proclaims. “They have an opportunity to see kids who look like them and adults who look like them. Middle schoolers who look like them, doing something they’ve not seen anywhere broadly in their lives.”
Experience Ballet Afrique’s The Nutcracker Suite on Jan. 6, 2024 at the Paramount Theatre. Get your tickets at tickets.austintheatre.org.
The Gift of Black Girl Magic
This year, Ballet Afrique has launched a very special Gift of Black Girl Magic Campaign. Through a partnership with Carrying Hope, a nonprofit that supports Austin-area children living in the foster care system, donors will be able to give the magical experience of Ballet Afrique’s Nutcracker to children who need it most. The first 100 tickets donated through the Gift of Black Girl Magic Campaign will be directed toward children who will spend their holidays in group homes and their caregivers.