Bright lights beam down on the stage as dancers glide and sway, demanding the audience’s attention for two hours as they tell stories of sexual harassment, toxic masculinity and the harm inflicted upon individuals with feminine energy.
The audience is captivated, watching the filmed performance at a viewing which is ready to be distributed so that the conversation unfolding on stage can travel to places beyond California.
This is James Mahkween’s “Cat Call,” and if all goes to plan, that is how it will debut next year.
Mahkween, a Long Beach dancer and choreographer, explained that the feminine being is a form of energy that people can choose to express on the day-to-day basis, and that regardless of how that individual chooses to identify, they can still engage with the energy and be vulnerable to people wanting to harm them because of it.
“If I choose to have my feminine being shown today, and you’re that toxic man who chooses to disrespect who I am and as a feminine being, then you’re part of the toxic train and you need to get off of that,” Mahkween said. “[The performance] is a conversation that will display women, but it is a conversation that is discussing feminine beings and masculine beings.”
Mahkween is not unfamiliar with the experience of being catcalled. It was a moment muddled with disgust and discomfort, but never fear—a privilege born out of his confidence in knowing he could easily defend himself should it escalate.
One year ago, Mahkween decided to take this concept and write it down, fueled further by the conversations he had with his close friends, all women, that often delved into their honest experiences with harassment.
It frustrated Mahkween, who was raised by women, whose childhood teachers were women and whose mentors in the industry are women.
“I am a feminist, a womanist. I don’t believe in slut shaming or anything like that. You live you,” Mahkween said. “I just really wanna show my appreciation and know that they know they got a strong person, a man who has their back, though I do have my days where I have feminine energy, so also I’m speaking for myself.”
Mahkween choreographed a section for “Cat Call” that debuted at the Long Beach Black Dance Festival, founded by The CRay Project.
Ajah Muhammad, a dancer who has worked with Mahkween for years, told the visual story of Jasmine Gardiner’s experience with sexual assualt.
“Even though it was someone else’s story, I still connected to it [in] some type of way just because it’s something that I was able to observe ever since … I was maybe 11 or 12, that young,” Muhammad said. “Sadly, it’s just one of those things that a lot of women, especially women of color, deal with in this country on a regular basis.”
Mahkween choreographed the section in his living room, unable to access a studio space or concert stage. Although the two were able to make it work, Muhammad had to adjust to the small space that threatened to confine her ability to expand her movements and her energy.
But when Gardiner watched the performance, she said it was eye-opening.
“I definitely felt a lot more of my victimhood that I had before because of the way that everything transpired in the situation,” Gardiner said. “He went about it so verbally nicely that it was hard for me in my mind to process that the action behind it wasn’t okay, and so, listening to the recording where I’m speaking about it, and I’m so calm and it’s so matter-of-fact, but then watching it physically played out moved me in a different way. I realized how aggressive the situation was even though his words were soft.”
Gardiner met Mahkween 10 years ago. She feels that Mahkween is able to see the struggle women go through to be respected by men, and a culture that does little to stop that behavior.
She knows that change is long overdue, as does Muhammad.
“The interesting part about it is that a lot of times these types of incidents happen among people that we know and they happen among people that we think are cool or that we are okay with, that we know because of mutual friends or they’re family members or friends of family members,” Muhammad said. “So as a result of that, it’s very easy to fall victim to that situation.”
Mahkween’s responsibilities are growing as the project continues to evolve.
He is looking for more dancers to work with, and said he needs a space to rehearse, perform and film, which means he’ll need a cameraman too. By next year, Mahkween will also need venues for “Cat Call” to premiere at for public showings, and he also wants to pay every artist involved in the project so that they know they, and their work, are valued.
“To whomever is involved in the project must lead with their life,” Mahkween said. “Nothing but positive vibes, because there’s a lot of weight that will be involved, mostly in regards to the topic itself.”
If you would like to learn more about “Cat Call,” visit James Mahkween’s Instagram for updates on the project.