It’s written on his face. It moves through his chest, his arms, his legs. It speaks through the tap shoes on his feet — the power, voice and nuance of the African-American experience, informed by the generations who have come before him.
For Omar Edwards, it’s the legacy of hoofers who shaped his future — the legendary Gregory Hines and his own cousin, Savion Glover, who exposed him to other strong black men leading by example.
“They really were very powerful, and they had lived and breathed and survived during the ’40s, the ’50s, and the ’60s,” said the Broadway tap dancer, catching his breath after rehearsal in Queens. “So by the time I came along, it’s definitely an easier life. They took a lot of shots for me. So just in remembering that, while I’m dancing and in my presentation, the audience can get a sense of history.”
Revisiting the past is precisely what Kerri Edge has asked of both Edwards and her dance students for the upcoming production of “4 Little Girls: Moving Portraits of the American Civil Rights Movement,” a performance featuring tap, ballet, contemporary and African dance set against the backdrop of an experimental narrative film that recants the tragic story of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls.
“The arts for me, any kind of art, has this power that is unique,” said Edge, director of the Edge School of the Arts in Queens. “It gains people’s attention, keeps their attention, brings clarity to things and makes you question, without offending you. I’m not saying that art can’t be offensive — we don’t do offensive art — but it’s a way to bring difficult conversations about complicated issues and set it right on the table and speak about it very clearly, without saying a word.”
On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan exploded a bomb in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church just before Sunday morning services. And the four black girls they murdered — 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair — were not unlike many of the 30 dancers who will perform on Saturday afternoon at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, none older than age 16.
“We have selected the ‘4 Little Girls’ story because that’s who we work with,” Edge said. “They cannot grasp the concept of why these things would happen. And I don’t think they ever do. But that’s the biggest question: ‘Why?’ They just don’t understand why.”
Choreographed to 1960s protest songs and spoken word readings, the 45-minute production addresses the trials and tribulations endured by African-American communities, with references up to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement. Its intent is to promote cross-cultural and cross-generational dialogue, while empowering the dancers seen on stage and in the film, Edge said.
“I think the clarity that they gain is an awareness of who they are and where they come from, and the strength and endurance and power that lives in their DNA. And it gives them a sense of appreciation for the things that they have,” she said. “They stand taller and they become more confident in being who they are, instead of feeling like they have to mesh into something else in order to be accepted.”
In part, Edwards discovered his own identity through tap, finding success on Broadway in “Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” and on the international tour of “Black and Blue.” But 32 years of dance experience add up to more than a résumé and list of accolades, he said. It is his purest mode of expression.
“Tap dancing is an interesting dance form because when you’re at a certain level, you can use it as a voice,” he said. “Tap dancing is so powerful because it’s like drumming, it’s like dancing, it’s like singing, it’s like a lot of different things in one. So it can be used as a characterization. And this is a very powerful dance form, so when done right, tap dancing can strike the nerve of the people.”
That is precisely what he intends to do during his appearances in “4 Little Girls,” from channeling Martin Luther King Jr. in one section to avant-garde tapping in another — reacting to the recorded words of Maya Angelou as she recites her poem, “Caged Bird.”
“I’m a 44-year-old African-American, and I still sing,” he said. “I’ve lived here, I was born here and with all the ups and downs in America, I sing. My mom died when I was 10 years old, my dad was taken away from me when I was 2, and I still sing.
“I still live a life — a happy, wonderful life — throughout all of the ups and downs that life has thrown me,” he continued. “And I think that’s why ‘Caged Bird’ resonates with me so well, because it’s part of my story. It’s part of all of our stories.”
A screening of “4 Little Girls: Moving Portraits of the American Civil Rights Movement,” accompanied by a live dance performance by 30 members of the Edge School of the Arts alongside Omar Edwards, will be held on Saturday, February 22, at 2 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. Tickets are $12 and free for members, children and students. For more information, call 631-283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.