Choreographer, educator, dancer, entrepreneur and visionary Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s my pleasure to be one of Kansas City’s own.”
She is part of the 2021 class of MacArthur Fellows, one of 25 selected from across the United States for this prestigious award.
Zollar is the founder of the Urban Bush Women (UBW), a performance group that uses dance, text and music to share untold or underappreciated stories. “It’s always been an open, inclusive idea, rooted in this lens that I bring as a Black woman, growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, during segregation,” said Zollar. Though she has turned the responsibilities of day-to-day operations over to new artistic directors, she still retains her ties to the group as chief visioning partner.
She started the organization in 1984, in New York City. “I knew I had a vision of something, and I didn’t know if it was particularly powerful, so I had a lot of struggle with it,” said Zollar. “Do I need to create a company? Maybe I don’t need to create a company?”
During this time, she started to learn about visionary artists, folk artists. “I realized they are not asking that question. They are doing work they need to do because there is a need to do it. I had to ask myself, ‘Do I need to do this?’ Not ‘Do I want to do this?’ . . .
‘Do I need to do this?’
“And for me the answer was: ‘yes.’”
Zollar graduated from Central High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree at UMKC Conservatory and a master’s degree from Florida State University. Along with founding UBW, she’s also taught at FSU for the last 25 years.
She added “Jawole” to her name around 1979, a Yoruba name which means “she enters the house” (or, depending on the tone, “she burst into the house.”) “I wasn’t throwing off the old, but I was adding, adding to my history,” she explained.
The MacArthur Fellowship, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is given to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievements in their field. The unrestricted grant of $625,000 is dispersed in quarterly installments over five years. There is no application process; the awardees are nominated and selected confidentially. When they are selected, they find out simply through a call or email.
“Jawole Willa Jo Zollar . . . has forged a style of dance-making and artistic leadership that tethers dance to cultural identity, civic engagement, community organizing, and imperatives of social justice,” read the MacArthur Foundation announcement.
Zollar’s work, through Urban Bush Women and otherwise, is evolving, influenced by her attention to social issues.
“I’ve been able to be around amazing thinkers . . . that have continually challenged my thinking about how I fit in the world. What am I doing, what practices am I putting forth and am I upholding? What am I questioning or challenging?” said Zollar. “And that’s what I think of when I’m making a work.”
UBW tours the world, including performances at the Lied Center and Johnson County Community College, as well as a workshop performance for the 2011 “America: Now and Here” exhibition in Kansas City.
She describes UBW as “bodacious.” “I think it’s daring,” said Zollar. “To dare to be who you are against a society that is saying to you, ‘how dare you do that, that’s not your place. You don’t have the right body type, you don’t have the right look, how dare you think you can do that?’ and being bodacious and saying, ‘Oh yes I can, and I will.’
“What I like to offer people is that, as an artist, you want to focus on the vision and values of your work,” she said. “You are going to get no in your face more than you are going to get yes . . .
Whenever I would get ‘no,’ I would say, ‘ok, do I really want to do this?’ If yes, I do, what do I need to make my argument stronger, what do I need to get clearer about, what do I need to strengthen?”
“You have to accept that discomfort is part of how you are going to grow in this profession,” Zollar said. “And if you truly believe in your vision — and you are going to question it time and time again — when you come back to the core, that’s what drives you forward.”
Zollar has a variety of projects on the horizon. UWB is planning for its 40th anniversary. Zollar is developing a piece called “Scat,” based on her family’s history in Kansas City during and after the Great Migration. She’s also working on an opera with composer Jake Heggie, called “Intelligence,” about women spies during the Civil War, which will premiere at Houston Grand Opera.
“I’m looking to tell these stories that were not being told, originally, from Black women and our communities. What drove me was the importance of the whole story . . . If I keep remembering that, then I will keep doing the work.”
Learn more about Jawole Willa Jo Zollar at urbanbushwomen.org.