Chatiera “Cookie” Ray is the CEO and Artistic Director of the Long Beach based CRayProject founded in 2014. Her friend and colleague, LaRonica “Ronnie” Southerland, is the company’s Co-Founder and Assistant Artistic Director. There are not many Black dance companies in Long Beach, so I wanted to learn more about CRayProject and to promote the company’s upcoming full-length production Looking Upon Venus/Black Phoenix appearing in the Studio Theater of the Long Beach Playhouse on January 18 & 19, 2019 at 8 PM.
We met at Long Beach’s Fox Café for the interview and they have allowed me to refer to them here as Cookie and Ronnie. They met and began working together at Kent State University in Ohio. Cookie graduated with a BS degree in Fashion Merchandising, with a minor in dance, while Ronnie earned a BFA Degree in Dance. The dance world being what it is, Cookie studied with dancer/choreographer Dianne McIntyre, who trained at the same time as I did at the Viola Farber Dance Studio in New York City. Ronnie grew up in Columbus, Ohio and studied with former Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina, China White, whose dancing I was also familiar with.
It was a job offer at Clothes the Deal in Downey that brought Cookie to California, and inspired to continue working with her, Ronnie soon followed. They chose Long Beach because it is close to Downey, better rent options and less stressful than living in Los Angeles. “I love Long Beach!” Cookie said. “In a way, it reminds me of home.” Her employer knew of her interests in dance and allowed Cookie to work from home. This freed up time so that she could accept a yearlong internship with Lula Washington in LA. “It was a wonderful experience.” Cookie said. “I got to see how things work behind the scenes and I was able to teach there as well.”
Ronnie arrived in the LA area in 2013 to work for Cirque du Soleil. She had worked for the company before in Columbus, Ohio and they gave her a temporary job here in the ticket office. After a year, Ronnie went back to personal training school and began working with children for local Recreation Centers. Per this experience, she discovered that she had a talent for working with kids and writing plays for children. Along with performing with CRayProject and creating dance works, Ronnie founded Smart Bodi3s, a company that helps train dancers to take better care of their bodies and extend their careers.
When asked about the company’s name, Cookie said that it was Ronnie who came up with the title. Cookie’s name is Chatiera Ray, so Ronnie used the “C” in Chatiera, and put it together with Ray. Cookie liked the title especially when she realized that in the entertainment business “cray” is used as a hip word to mean crazy, as in “Oh man! That’s cray!” The word “Project” was then attached to create the company’s full name, CRayProject.
While she remains interested in fashion, Cookie is an aspiring choreographer and visual artist who uses her talents to create works that focus on the Black experience. She originally began using visual arts as her medium of expression, but with Ronnie’s encouragement, began translating those emotions and experiences into movement.
When asked how they made the connection with the Long Beach Playhouse, Cookie explained how she wanted to present her own concert in Long Beach because there are not many Black artists in this city that have the pipeline to professional exposure. “My mission…” she said. “since I moved to Long Beach was to create that space.” While looking around for a venue, she discovered that the Long Beach Playhouse had studio collaborative grant opportunities for freelance artists. She filled out the grant application and to her surprise and delight, her proposal was accepted. Cookie smiled and said, “My anxiety is out the roof!” Something tells me, however, that she will be fine.
The mission statement for CRayProject reads “Educating artistic individuals through various genres of art. Keeping it BLACK and deeply rooted.” I asked them to explain. My concern was that because LA County is so racially diverse, that they might be excluding themselves from getting state or city funding. They assured me that not everyone in the cast is always black.
“The way we do our casting is through auditions.” Cookie said. “For this particular show, all of the cast are Black. For the film, however, there are Blacks and Latinos.”
Originally, Cookie was not dancing in this production, but when one of the dancers dropped out, she decided to join the cast. It all worked out because her mother and grandmother are flying out to see the concert and will be able to see Cookie perform. Ronnie said that she told Cookie that most choreographers start out dancing in their work. “That is why she needs me.” Ronnie said. “To encourage her. I am the Judith Jamison to her Alvin Ailey. Truly!”
The concert is titled Looking Upon Venus/Black Phoenix, and as Cookie explained, consists of several separate works. “Looking Upon Venus is literally about the Black female anatomy.” She said. “How it is over sexualized in society.” She described how the work looks at the Black woman’s hair and body and speaks to women accepting that body and celebrating it.
Another work titled Crowned is a choreopoem that first debuted in Los Angeles in 2015 and later in New York City. The work was very well received by audiences in both cities. Wikipedia defines choreopoem as “a form of dramatic expression that combines poetry, dance, music, and song. The term was first coined in 1975 by Ntozake Shange in a description of her work, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.” It was Dianne McIntyre who introduced Cookie to this form of dance. McIntyre is an African-American dancer, choreographer, teacher and dance historian who has collaborated with Ntozake Shange. Among McIntyre’s notable works are Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Dance Adventure in Southern Blues (A Choreodrama), an adaptation of Zora Neal Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Black Phoenix, which is a short film that shares the production’s title, was inspired by a conversation that Cookie had with her brother following a heated argument with their mother. Having lost his father at a young age, he was raised primarily by women and felt that while completely in touch with his feminine side, he needed to define who he was as a man. Cookie’s father is incarcerated, which has not allowed them to have a close relationship, but she is trying to rectify that. Black Phoenix focuses on both relationships and investigates what exactly is meant by masculinity. “Why, when we hear the word masculinity, do we hear strength; we hear leadership?” She asked. “Does that make a woman less of a leader or less strong?” Black Phoenix will debut on February 16, 2019; location to be announced in late January.
Cookie went on to explain how amazing the conversations were in rehearsals during the making of Black Phoenix. She described how the work looks at brotherhood, child molestation in the Black families and the emotional struggles that they go through. Ronnie told me that her brother died a month before his child was born and that to help herself and others heal, she created a blog called Letters to My Brother.
Both Cookie and Ronnie admit that this will be an emotionally heavy evening. “We wanted to put something out there that would raise awareness and start a conversation.” Cookie said. “Putting it out there as an artform is just the beginning of the discussion.”
Looking Upon Venus/Black Phoenix is an evening length work with one intermission and will include paintings by local artists. Like all companies, they hope to find their own space to call home and Cookie feels that this concert will be the beginning of helping to make that dream a reality.
CRayProject will present Looking Upon Venus/Black Phoenix on January 18 & 19 at the Long Beach Playhouse at 8 PM. The venue is located at 5021 E Anaheim St, Long Beach, CA 90804. Tickets are $15.
For information about the Long Beach Playhouse, click here.
Tickets may be purchased at the door or online, click here.