“To this school . . . we bring our history, our culture. Our pain, our suffering as a people, is all in here. The army says, ‘Be the best that you can be.’ We try to be the best artists that we can be,” says Lawrence Donley in Robert Wyrod’s 2002 documentary South Side Warriors. Describing his practice at the Tornado School of Martial Arts, a karate school on the south side of Chicago, he says, “It exhilarates me. It makes me become actually who I am. I’m a warrior and spirit, a fighter for my people. . . . I will let no one come upon me to try to take that away.”
Founded by Gregory Jaco after he returned from military service in Vietnam, the Tornado School was one of several inner-city schools that led the wave of America’s fascination with Asian martial arts in the 1970s and ’80s. Raised in the Robert Taylor Homes in Bronzeville, Jaco began studying martial arts as a boy. “Living in a housing project, if you were going to be anything other than what the project was manipulated to turn people into, it took a strong will and a lot of discipline,” recalls Jaco in the same film. “A lot of young men found that discipline in gangs. Those of us who didn’t want to go into the illegal trades . . . found that [the martial arts] provided us with military strength . . . [and] gave us family.” Though Jaco trained in judo for the 1980 Olympics (which the U.S. ultimately boycotted), he is especially remembered as a teacher and community leader who brought the discipline, respect, and physical practice of martial arts to countless youths over decades on the south and west sides of Chicago.
“Black Samurai is an ode to my father’s martial arts legacy,” says dancer and choreographer Ayesha Jaco, referring to the late summer segment of her yearlong residency at the Rebuild Foundation. With additional support from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Jaco is investigating the migration history of her own and other Chicago families, as well as the ways they have transformed Chicago into a home. “I am a Chicago native, born and raised in the East Garfield Park community, where there were high rates of violence in the 90s. My mother and father made sure we were always engaged in activities, that we had an artistic component. Martial arts was a must. All my siblings and I got our black belts,” she says. “Right next door to the Stony Island Arts Bank was one of my father’s dojos. It’s an empty lot now, but it was an oasis for youth and families in the 1980s. And you can’t talk about the Tornado School of Martial Arts and not talk about Shonuff Dance Studio”—a school of West African dance that served as a training ground for many dancers and leaders in Chicago dance, including Najwa I, founder of African dance company Najwa Dance Corps, and Andrea Vinson, its current associate artistic director, as well as Muntu Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Amaniyea Payne.
Just as these schools on the south side formed a vibrant crossroads of martial artists, dancers, and musicians (perhaps best characterized by how Gregory Jaco, who was also a percussionist, bagpiper, and saxophonist, would cross the hall from dojo to dance studio to drum for classes), Ayesha Jaco’s project combines a whirlwind of oral history talk circles; documentary making in partnership with her brother, Grammy-winning rapper Lupe Fiasco; and workshops, philanthropic projects, and performances at the Stony Island Arts Bank, the Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, and the MCA—including The Chississippi Mixtape, a 35-minute montage of dance and oral history performed by dancers ages 11 to 39 to a soundscape by sound and visual artist Damon Locks, inspired by the migration of Jaco’s mother’s family as sharecroppers from Mississippi to Chicago. “The dancers had homework—they were charged with bringing their family history into the piece,” she says.
Teaching forms a central component of Jaco’s work. “I had seen my father’s model of building character, discipline, cultural awareness in young people. I wanted to do the same with dance,” she says, speaking of her work with After School Matters and in her home community. “The arts were a platform of expression for me, and I wanted to give that back to young people. I attribute it to the Ghanaian tradition of Sankofa: in order to move forward, you have to look back. You have to honor what came before you. From my family’s migration story, and the legacy my dad and Shonuff Dance Studio left behind, it’s my duty to tell those stories and take things to the next level.” v