Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Luminous Laurie Carlos and her Nourishing Pork Chop Wars

Last Friday, September 16th, I heard Laurie Carlos give the opening lecture of the Fourth Annual Performance as Public Practice Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Texas at Austin where I teach. Carlos is an Obie award-winning artist whose work has long influenced American theatre: she was the first woman to perform “The Lady in Blue” in Ntozake Shange’s foundational choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. She was a collaborating founder of Urban Bush Women, and performed with Jessica Hagedorn and Robbie McCauley as Thought Music in the 1980s. She received a Bessie award for White Chocolate for My Father in the 1990s, and continues her career as a writer, choreographer, performer, and all around inspiration. Introducing Carlos’s lecture, Prof. Omi Osun Olomo/Dr. Joni Jones said that when she’s around Laurie Carlos, she feels her “humanity is expanded.” Carlos’s lecture, “Walking the Edge with Instructions from Conversations with Robbie,” offered one of the most thoughtful, immediate, moving artist’s lectures I’ve heard in some time.

Carlos wove food metaphors throughout her talk, suggesting that the hybridity of the American palate stands for the diversity of our lives. She described growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, where life bombarded her with flavors, smells, and tastes of the neighborhood’s immigrant culture. This she juxtaposed with her current life in St. Paul, Minnesota, where putting mayonnaise, for example, on corn beef and rye might not be considered the culinary faux pas it would be in New York.

Food metaphors also ground her art-making. Carlos says that her ritual-like, improvisatory process of creating performance is like cooking and offering nourishment, a method both public and private. We often make food for others, but cooking can also be a singular, musing event. Likewise, her “performance novel” The Pork Chop Wars, a third of which was presented last weekend in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT, co-sponsored by the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS), is like a plate of food that she’s cooked up in the moment, some of which the audience might like, some of which they might have to develop a taste for, some of which they might not like at all. Her work, Carlos says, is intensely personal, but she hopes other people will accept and be nourished by parts of the repast she spreads.

The “performance novel” is an art form with which Austin-based playwright/poet Sharon Bridgforth first experimented in Love Conjure Blues (Redbone Press, 2004), premiered by CAAAS at UT last year. The novel, on the page, plays with typography, attempting to evoke in words, letters, type, and line what on stage becomes the nuances and idiosyncrasies of character and relationships. On the page, Bridgforth’s story jumps through space, teasing and seducing the eye; on the stage, the story jumps through space and time, conjuring overlapping stories through simultaneous histories and multiple voices and bodies presenting their versions of the same tales.

Both Bridgforth’s and Carlos’s work comprise what Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones calls a “jazz aesthetic,” a living, breathing, embodied narrative performance form that riffs in unexpected ways like music, and equally depends on the careful, collaborative ensemble work of each musician. Watching Love Conjure Blues last year and The Pork Chop Wars last week, I was struck by the importance of listening, as the performers, texts in hand, both performed their own pieces and paid vigilant attention, honoring each other’s words and presence. The performers in these pieces look like jazz bands, in how they compose their presences around each other, waiting to riff, to pick up a line like a melody and blend it, shout it, make it sing.

Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones heads The Austin Project, a local performance ensemble that has experimented with “performance in a jazz aesthetic” for the last several years. The Austin Project is a “collaboration of women of color artists, scholars, and activists” who “use art and art-making for social change,” performing autobiographical narrative choral pieces. Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones is writing a book that will theorize the jazz aesthetic’s roots and influences and will predict its future; performer/poets like Bridgforth, Carlos, and Daniel Alexander Jones have been part of the process of originating the form. As Carlos said in her lecture, “We don’t even know if it’s even a form except between seven of us, but here we are.”

The Pork Chop Wars finds ten women of various races assembled in a semi-circle on a stage adorned with flowers, pictures, the artifacts of a life of family and work. A musician sits at the end of their row, punctuating their speech with his tenor sax, occasionally walking behind the women to second their words with his voice and his presence. The women read, together and separately, stories of Carlos’s multilingual, international family, evoking in words, movement, and the depth of their feeling the complexities of a history both public and private.

While some of the stories resonated for me more than others, I found myself appreciating the tenor and texture of the experience, listening for rhythms and patterns in movement and speech as well as content. I took seriously Carlos’s injunction to experience what I want from the piece. She says her art serves her own purposes; she doesn’t feel obligated to her audience. She creates performance because, she says, “I’m good at what I do,” and so that audiences can “watch it happen this way” instead of another way. To that extent, watching The Pork Chop Wars became an exercise in meeting the artist halfway, and in letting myself create my own internal dialogue with the work.

Carlos spoke again at the performance’s end, in dialogue with director Deborah Artman, a longtime collaborator, Sharon Bridgforth, who served as dramaturg, and the ensemble cast. Her eloquence and generosity as an artist are offset by the clarity of the reasons she does her work. She feels no need to convince people of its value or validity; her refusal to kowtow to dominant cultural standards of meaning-making or aesthetic significance is admirable and inspirational. “What is it you want to do as an artist,” she asked her audience, enjoining us to cast out the institutional voices that inhibit or censor what we want to say (“The editor bitch has to die,” Carlos said, referring to the voice of the institution she hears in her head and constantly rejects). An artist is compelled, Carlos insists, to say what she has to say despite the possibility of censorship and danger.

Carlos’s own history exemplifies her credo. She sees her art in an arc, as a long-term conversation with a group of collaborators who’ve both challenged and sustained her for over 35 years. When she first started working in the 70s, Carlos said there was no where for people like her to be. Women of color were cast as maids, as mammies, as prostitutes in American theatre. To escape the constraints of convention and racism, Carlos worked in bars, jazz clubs, dance halls to express herself with other performers and musicians who were also resisting the dominant discourse of the time. Carlos, Shange, performance artist Robbie McCauley (the absent presence throughout Carlos’s talk, whom she credits as her “spirit guide”), and other women constantly created rituals that dressed their own experience in symbolism, action, costume, and smells. She said that her artistic foremothers are “piles of renegades” with no funding for what they wanted to say, but the urgency of their need to speak changed forever the contours of American performance.

Then, Carlos said, they “invaded” the Public Theatre in New York, and Joe Papp gave them a new artistic home. Papp nurtured For Colored Girls, even though Carlos said that eventually it became a tenth of what it was in the bars. The piece had developed through an interracial, organic process of creating work from ritual, in which looking at each other, touching each other, and loving each other in performance was as important as the words and the movement for which For Colored Girls is known. In current productions of the play, Carlos says she most misses that original impulse among the performers, and regrets that the piece is too often reduced to the tragic story about Bo Willy Brown.

Carlos insists that artists have to make their work. You have to “go into the house and make a mess, pour the cornmeal on the floor, and then we can talk.” She said these are slave strategies, subtle ways of resisting hegemony and ownership. Carlos dances in her seat when she speaks, punctuating her language with gestures and short responses to her own calls. “Hmm,” she’ll say after a phrase, or “yeah,” after another, the rhetorical flourishes of a woman who knows exactly what she wants to say and wants only to make sure you’re listening.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

From the Pre-Blog Archives . . . Thoughts on Hair After 9/11

Friends, someone who responded to a post recently asked if I would share some writing I did about a local (Austin) production of Hair at the Zachary Scott Theatre in 2002.

The writing was part of remarks I shared at a panel on arts advocacy at the 2002 Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in San Diego. As a result, the discussion is framed by thoughts about what the arts can do in the face of what was then the impending war in Iraq.

I haven't changed the writing for this post, so it remains an historical, "occasional" document. But the sentiments expressed are still relevant, now that the war with Iraq continues.

How, too, we might ask, can the arts respond to the recent devastation in New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama caused by Hurricane Katrina, in addition to the man-made devastations of war? I have links to helpful sites responding to the crisis through the arts that I hope to post shortly.

Meanwhile, here are my 2002 thoughts on

Thanks, as always, for your responses and feedback.

The Feminist Spectator

Remarks for “Arts Advocacy: Can the Arts Bind the Nation?”
A panel at the Association for Theatre in

Higher Education Convention
San Diego 2002

Since the tragedy of September 11th, I continue to believe that theatre and performance can help us reimagine a world now riven by hatred and suspicion, one in which our civil liberties have been curtailed under the auspices of protecting our now too permeable borders. I continue to believe that creating, consuming, and critiquing theatre and performance can help us toward a world that’s more just, more ethical, more equal in how it distributes its resources and its power. David Román, in his editor’s introduction to the “Tragedy” issue of Theatre Journal, says, “I’m interested here in spotlighting the critical role that the performing arts—theatre, music, and dance—might play in a contemporary culture infused with the tragic.” Describing his visit to see theatre in New York shortly after September 11th, which he made out of respect for the tragedy and as a kind of pilgrimage to honor the city, Román says, “Liveness was at the core of these events. The performing arts offered people the chance to be with other people and experience themselves together. In this sense, we were as much audiences for ourselves as we were for the performances” (14) [TJ, 54:1 (March 2002)]. For me, too, gathering at the theatre became a desire to be with, to see with, to share with others some of our suddenly common pain. I took comfort in theatre; I felt closer to strangers and wanted to experience the particular public intimacy that comes from being watchful together in a imaginative space.

But this question of whether art can “bind a nation” is troubling and complicated. As many progressive political commentators have pointed out, the so-called war against terrorism has been used as an excuse for Bush the 2nd’s administration to deprive people’s freedom in the name of protecting the nation. Urvashi Vaid, in a recent issue of The Advocate, suggests that the administration is exploiting people’s fear to install systems of intimidation and federal prejudice that discriminate against people who look “foreign” (particularly Middle Eastern); to authorize surveillance and infiltration of resistant political organizations; and to allow the doctrines of the Christian Right to influence and set public policy. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been given freedom to reign his own kind of terror over the nation, as the nation supposedly protects the world.

Current political practices, as well as our own emotional desires to belong, to be immune, to be safe from terror, cast “the nation” in a different light. I call myself an American, and want to do it proudly; but I can’t imagine myself bound to a blindly patriotic majority who sanction and cheer for a war machine in which I utterly disbelieve. The tragedy of September 11th’s events doesn’t allow me to forget that the United States has instituted a hierarchy of citizenship in which some genders, sexual practices, races, ethnicities, classes, and abilities are more enfranchised than others. I can’t forget that the IMF and the World Bank and corporate multinational capitalism promote socially exploitative practices in the world’s poorest countries, or that a progressive, even radical critique of American global involvement is urgent and necessary. I can’t let all the flags waved in my face hide my eyes from alternative interpretations of world events.

Theatre's Response to Politics

For theatre educators and theatre producers, current political history provides “teachable moments.” But it also urges progressive educators to look under the surface of politics, to seek alternatives to dogma spoken as “truth.” We might also encourage our students to use their learning toward social commentary, to think of themselves as artists- and critics-in-training who hold a stake in how nationalism is defined, and who can offer diverse political perspectives on America’s self-appointed role as global police patrol. How can we teach theatre history and literature, performance studies and theory, and mount university or college theatre productions, without taking into account how they speak into the current moment? As performance artist and activist Robbie McCauley says, “Art, no matter what, has a political and social point of view. . . . What is your particular view?” she asks. “How are people being educated about what’s wrong with this country? What are good things about this country that need to be practiced [?]” (10) [Theater]. And, I would add, how can art production stage a diversity of opinions and promote contentious public debate about national politics?

Most of the theatre and performance I’ve seen since September 11th has prompted me to question what it means, what it does, what use we might make of it in the current political climate to start more complex conversations about the relationship between world events and art. Early this month, I saw a production of Hair in Austin, directed by Dave Steakley at the Zach Scott Theatre, whose choices about how to address the musical’s historicity raised compelling questions about how performance might engage politics. Concerned about the musical’s status at this particular historical crossroad, Steakley chose to frame it as a “museum piece.” Before the show, the painted, psychedelic, dayglo front half of a school bus that provided the set’s key scenic images, was cordoned off with ropes and stanchions, watched over by a woman wearing a museum guard’s uniform. When the musical began, a couple of actors crawled through the bus’s windshield and enticed the guard away from the stage with a box of Krispy Kremes. This freed the “Tribe” from its containment in history, and soon, the rallying notes of “The Age of Aquarius” rang out from the stage.

But once the production broke through the museum, it seemed ambivalent about its own historical status. Steakley peppered the show with post-1969 references: for example, protestors waved posters with Keith Haring designs and Woof, the only self-proclaimed gay character, unfurled a rainbow flag during one of the songs. More poignantly, during the “Frank Mills” number, cast members walked solemnly around the lonely singer, carrying posters of people who disappeared in the World Trade Center tragedy. The lyrics, you’ll remember, say, “I met a boy named Frank Mills/On September 12th right here, in front of the Waverly/but unfortunately, I lost his address.” The haunting melody of the song was suddenly inflected with contemporary allusions to loss; the other cast members, holding their signs, seemed to signify that this woman had met Frank Mills perhaps the day before, looking for a loved one who went missing on September 11th, before he, too, became lost.

The moment was moving—but even this small gesture toward the politics of the present was quickly erased by the very next number: Sheila singing “Easy to be Hard,” her plaint against Berger’s abusive behavior in their relationship. The move from political back to personal, from public to private, happened too easily. Rather than infusing the production with contemporary resonance, the scene only waved at the present before it retreated securely to the past, back to the private emotional world of the play.

Potential Contemporary Analogies

The show’s protests against the war in Vietnam might have offered corollaries to the current war in Afghanistan and to the coming war with Iraq. None of these analogies were advanced in this production; protest remained the performance of protest, detached from any external reference to which it might be effectively connected. Seeing the flag treated irreverently in songs like “Crazy for the Red White and Blue” was productively jarring, given how the icon has been elevated to a symbol of virulent, unquestioned US patriotism. But rather than a full-throttle critique of knee-jerk nationalism, the moments of disrespecting the flag in this production chose instead to point up its post-September 11th corporate cooptation as a handy consumer commodity. During the song, a performer walked among the cast like a cigarette girl, selling flags and red, white, and blue souvenirs.

The war is only a holding place in Hair for the characters’ more private anger and angst; it gives them a common vocabulary, a point to focus their rallying cries, a public politic from which they can privately be different. The production’s last scene was moving and compelling: Claude, the boy who can’t burn his draft card, joins the Army and is killed, sacrificed as a martyr to the military industrial complex. The actor playing Claude is wheeled out with his hair newly shorn, standing in his uniform on a long, coffin-like box painted red, white, and blue. He can’t capture the attention of the Tribe, who don’t see him, but as we watch, “bullets” riddle his body and he falls in battle. He’s resurrected, Christ-like, to peel away his clothes and stand naked, with arms outstretched, illuminated by blinding white light as his coffin/box is wheeled back through the center stage curtain while the cast sings a very mournful and cynical “Let the Sun Shine.” The moment was dark and portentous; but at the curtain call that immediately followed, melancholy was erased, anger was forgotten, order was restored, and happiness ruled the night. Invited to come on down, many members of the audience eagerly joined the cast on stage for an encore of the title song, singing and dancing, nostalgic and carefree.

Instead of harnessing its abundant energy and rich visual imagery to engage directly with contemporary politics, this production of Hair rested safely in nostalgia. From a 21st century perspective, it’s easy not to see the show as a protest vehicle, but simply as an anthem of free love, and an undertheorized call to peace. Hair remained personal; I could see baby-boomers in the audience thrilling to songs they know, songs that have become part of public memory, detached from any context that might lend them new or even specifically historical significance. The personal won out over the political. The audience was encouraged toward memory, while the young cast clearly performed at a history of which they have no bodily knowledge. Janelle Reinelt, writing about the 1960s in the journal Theatre Survey, suggests, “[A]rtists and intellectuals have a responsibility to acknowledge their lived experiences of historical matters in the context of their artistic and academic work” (Theatre Survey 43:1 [May 2002], 38). Would the production have been different if the actors had been schooled in the saturated, complicated history of the moment they represented? Would they have valued the communal life they performed so casually, if they better understood how giving up nuclear families for group living and loving rocked and mocked American values in the late 60s?

Hair is in many ways a very open text. The characters are only schematic, its location is vague, and the number and kind of performers who might be cast is very flexible (which actually makes it a good choice for university and college productions). In a more conceptual version of the show, a director could virtually overwrite its generalities, place it in a more specific location, and take advantage of the opportunities it raises for contemporary analogy. A production could cross-gender and cross-race cast, to point up and critique, rather than simply parody, the book’s now rather racist and misogynist backbone. The show’s references to protest against the war in Vietnam might offer current corollaries to the war in Afghanistan and to the coming war with Iraq. A new production of Hair might reimagine the Tribe as a group of homeless teenagers or runaways; these are among the populations who live outside in today’s America. These days, groups of young people marauding through neighborhoods are often gangs—how might a production of Hair reimagine its youthful community through battles for power over urban space? How much more textured the production might have been, if it had stayed self-conscious of the complexities of the musical’s contemporary resonance, and if the resistance to war was analogized to our present political situation? Instead, it left the audience safe, in personally recalled, privately enjoyed remembrances of history.

Taking Risks in Performance

I’d like to suggest that university theatre departments, in their pedagogy and in their production, might take greater risks than this production chose to do. In “teaching the conflicts,” Gerald Graff’s evocative term, we might use historical theatre to interrogate the values of current politics. We might ask students to devise their own scripts, to work with community groups to develop theatre that acknowledges and questions the fear and intimidation, the discrimination and close surveillance, under which we’re being asked to live.

Molly Smith, the artistic director of the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, wrote in an issue of Theater Magazine devoted to September 11th, that “[t]he listening, the sense of pricking up our ears, and looking for answers, trying to find a way through the chaos into some time of order, is very clear in the theater right now” (15) [Theater 32:1 (2002)]. September 11th leaves a lasting, emotional, historical, and political memory that needs to be fueled, tended, kept alive so that no one forgets. To grieve, as a nation, is powerful and moving, perhaps even binding. Theatre and performance can help us explore affectively, as well as socially, what it means to be “bound,” can help us question the covenants we now seem bound to, can help us remember the power of grief but also remind us of the power of a conservative administration, taking advantage of tragedy to send punishing, civil liberties-destroying SWAT teams into our lives. Theatre must preserve our right to resistance, to analysis, to be and to feel differently, and offer alternative sources of pride and action. Performance must use that powerful sense of empathy it often inspires us to feel, which I think we all felt on September 11th, toward social activism, toward dissent, toward a multivocal conversation about what constitutes a nation and its local and global, ethical responsibilities.

July 16, 2002
San Diego, California

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Some Femme . . . Reflections on Blog Writing and Oedipus at Palm Springs

Someone wrote in to suggest that in my last posting, on the Five Lesbian Brothers' Oedipus at Palm Springs, I neglected to consider the status of the femme, Terri, at the play's end. While Prin, the quintessential butch, stands alone as the tragic figure, "some femme" (the responder) suggests that Terri is left even more alone, since she's been abandoned twice (by the same woman). "some femme" writes that my failure to consider Terri fully is typical of lesbian and feminist criticism that tends to privilege the butch.

"some femme" has a very good point. I wonder, in fact, how different the play might have been had Terri been the focus of the plot, instead of the vehicle by which Prin comes to her tragic realization. Why is it that the femme is so rarely the "tragic hero," a place typically reserved in lesbian (and some straight) theatre for the butch?

My initial posting on Oedipus at Palm Springs also raised questions from some readers about how blog writing enters public conversations differently than more conventional publication or information-sharing. I've found, in my very maiden adventures in blogging, that its immediacy lends it an aura of risk. That is, rather than running my ideas through an intermediary like an editor, I offer them here with much less outside manipulation and consideration. The freedom of such a venue in which to write appeals to me; at the same time, I worry that I've been intemperate, already, in my writing here.

Some readers, for instance, have remarked that I didn't "like" Oedipus at Palm Springs very much (and many of them say they liked it a great deal). On the contrary, I enjoyed the performance I saw quite a lot. I meant my critical engagements to offer ways of thinking about the production that might put it in a different light, not to suggest that it wasn't "good." I'm struck by how limited is our critical vocabulary for talking about performance, if we remain caught in that good/bad binary. I can enjoy a performance, feel supportive of its creators, and still want to talk about the range of things it made me think and feel, some of which might be polemical.

Yet I'm struck by how much I, too, worry that what I write will be read as condemnation or disparagement of an artistic project I admire very much. How can I (how can we) work to shift the limitations of such critical discourse?

Writing about any performance is a form of respect and even love, especially when you're someone who's not employed to pass judgment or to offer consumer advisor. I wouldn't (I won't) take the time to write about a performance (or a film, television show, novel, or any other form of cultural expression) unless it moves me in some way, enough to take the time and the care to craft a response.

For me, it's about the dialogue. Please do post responses. Those of us committed to the arts and social change have too few places in which to talk about our ideas, opinions, and impressions. Please use this blog as such a forum.

Best wishes,
The Feminist Spectator