An Empty Room A Burning Stage.

The Shipment
A racial comedy in three acts. 

The Shipment is Young Jean Lee’s brilliant take on a comedy of racial commentary. It begins with an empty stage, a completely black background against which the actor’s bodies are framed - all white elements in costuming pop out dramatically, particularly during the first dance sequence. Two actors dance around the stage, shifting between dance styles reminiscent of blackface performance, funk, rock, and blues. The soundtrack accompanying them tracks a musical evolution beginning with blues and ending in rock. The dance piece serves as a chronology of dance associated with black culture in america, despite (and quite interestingly) being overlaid with instances of music more traditionally tied to white popular culture. The dance is extremely gestural, the faces playing a central role as detached masks more than holistic elements of the body.

The actors leave the stage, and are replaced by a black comedian, cued in by a gangster rap track (Lil John and Pitbull) - “Seattle motherfucking Washington!” It’s somewhat of an uncomfortable moment, as this second act clearly marks and defines a series of performances of culture particularly catered to a white audience. The standup is traumatic, shocking in its delivery, and yet extremely funny. It touches on a huge range of uncomfortable topics, everything from white and black lesbian girlfriends to pedophilia. In a very calculated manner, the comedian enter’s the audience’s psyche through a series of “ugly feelings” - the beginning of this act is then followed by an auto-analysis of black comedy: “Why do black comedians still do white people like this, black people like that, jokes?”, “White folks be evil. White people are stupid.”, “Do you think its comfortable to talk about race?”, “We got to talk about race, white color blind people.” The standup act is also filled with concepts that allude to larger racial topics; particular words jump out, words that then tie to specific moments in black history and culture - the poop face, railroad tracks, beastin’, lynching, playing stereotypes. 

The audience diverts this commentary. The uncomfortable silence is at times palpable, and at other times, the clapping seems like a clear defense mechanism of detachment. The comedian acknowledges a strain of systematic racism in american culture, pointing at the fallacy that is the assumption of background by reading performativity. At times reading like a political speech, the poignant commentary is applauded by the attendants. 

Following the comedian’s act, the performance undergoes a 180 degree shift. Black stereotypes are brilliantly and blatantly portrayed in an extremely Brechtian fashion by an all-black cast. Interestingly, the result is extremely hilarious (without necessarily trying to be so), despite the pervasiveness of these stereotypes in popular culture. A young black teenager’s narrative is portrayed through detachment and temporal shifts, tracking his experience of wanting to become a rapper, and slowly sinking into the implications of this desire in a black community. What would normally be read as a tragic and violent narrative instead becomes a comedy of thought through a very calculated style of acting, in which the body is extremely controlled, and yet the voice is allowed to run free in terms of volume, while kept monotone. The physicality of the characters is brilliantly calculated to enact these very stereotypes - a black woman sways excessively from the hips, a black man crosses his arms in a “hood” gesture (it’s ridiculous to put quotes around these terms) every time he mentions drugs. Every once in a while, a line of dialogue that speaks for itself jumps out, grounding the comedy for a fraction of a second, enough to pierce deeply into moral mechanisms - “If you don’t shoot people, they don’t respect you”, “I don’t remember which one of us is talking anymore”, “you’re a pussy who doesn’t want to sell drugs”. 

Finally, The Shipment enters the reenactment of white physicality with black bodies. A simple scenario is laid out - a man invites friends over, threatening to kill himself due to his solitude. A morbid topic, it again falls into comedy as a white audience begins to recognize themselves in a highly stereotyped portrayal. The question asked is, who performs white and who performs black? It’s probably the most effective use of Brechtian acting I’ve ever experienced. I’m still fascinated by the small “plants” of highly impactful text disguised behind what seems to be a comedy of thought. 
The end shocked me, profoundly - I’m still in the process of digesting it. “The negro believes, just that”. And finally, the revelation is served to the audience, a revelation that was always palpable but perhaps never acknowledged. No one in the room is white. 

The Shipment

A racial comedy in three acts. 

The Shipment is Young Jean Lee’s brilliant take on a comedy of racial commentary. It begins with an empty stage, a completely black background against which the actor’s bodies are framed - all white elements in costuming pop out dramatically, particularly during the first dance sequence. Two actors dance around the stage, shifting between dance styles reminiscent of blackface performance, funk, rock, and blues. The soundtrack accompanying them tracks a musical evolution beginning with blues and ending in rock. The dance piece serves as a chronology of dance associated with black culture in america, despite (and quite interestingly) being overlaid with instances of music more traditionally tied to white popular culture. The dance is extremely gestural, the faces playing a central role as detached masks more than holistic elements of the body.

The actors leave the stage, and are replaced by a black comedian, cued in by a gangster rap track (Lil John and Pitbull) - “Seattle motherfucking Washington!” It’s somewhat of an uncomfortable moment, as this second act clearly marks and defines a series of performances of culture particularly catered to a white audience. The standup is traumatic, shocking in its delivery, and yet extremely funny. It touches on a huge range of uncomfortable topics, everything from white and black lesbian girlfriends to pedophilia. In a very calculated manner, the comedian enter’s the audience’s psyche through a series of “ugly feelings” - the beginning of this act is then followed by an auto-analysis of black comedy: “Why do black comedians still do white people like this, black people like that, jokes?”, “White folks be evil. White people are stupid.”, “Do you think its comfortable to talk about race?”, “We got to talk about race, white color blind people.” The standup act is also filled with concepts that allude to larger racial topics; particular words jump out, words that then tie to specific moments in black history and culture - the poop face, railroad tracks, beastin’, lynching, playing stereotypes. 

The audience diverts this commentary. The uncomfortable silence is at times palpable, and at other times, the clapping seems like a clear defense mechanism of detachment. The comedian acknowledges a strain of systematic racism in american culture, pointing at the fallacy that is the assumption of background by reading performativity. At times reading like a political speech, the poignant commentary is applauded by the attendants. 

Following the comedian’s act, the performance undergoes a 180 degree shift. Black stereotypes are brilliantly and blatantly portrayed in an extremely Brechtian fashion by an all-black cast. Interestingly, the result is extremely hilarious (without necessarily trying to be so), despite the pervasiveness of these stereotypes in popular culture. A young black teenager’s narrative is portrayed through detachment and temporal shifts, tracking his experience of wanting to become a rapper, and slowly sinking into the implications of this desire in a black community. What would normally be read as a tragic and violent narrative instead becomes a comedy of thought through a very calculated style of acting, in which the body is extremely controlled, and yet the voice is allowed to run free in terms of volume, while kept monotone. The physicality of the characters is brilliantly calculated to enact these very stereotypes - a black woman sways excessively from the hips, a black man crosses his arms in a “hood” gesture (it’s ridiculous to put quotes around these terms) every time he mentions drugs. Every once in a while, a line of dialogue that speaks for itself jumps out, grounding the comedy for a fraction of a second, enough to pierce deeply into moral mechanisms - “If you don’t shoot people, they don’t respect you”, “I don’t remember which one of us is talking anymore”, “you’re a pussy who doesn’t want to sell drugs”. 

Finally, The Shipment enters the reenactment of white physicality with black bodies. A simple scenario is laid out - a man invites friends over, threatening to kill himself due to his solitude. A morbid topic, it again falls into comedy as a white audience begins to recognize themselves in a highly stereotyped portrayal. The question asked is, who performs white and who performs black? It’s probably the most effective use of Brechtian acting I’ve ever experienced. I’m still fascinated by the small “plants” of highly impactful text disguised behind what seems to be a comedy of thought.

The end shocked me, profoundly - I’m still in the process of digesting it. “The negro believes, just that”. And finally, the revelation is served to the audience, a revelation that was always palpable but perhaps never acknowledged. No one in the room is white. 

Narcissister, Riveiere, and Butler - Gender Performativity
“…gender is in no way a stable identity of locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time - an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts… then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Butler’s arguments reaffirm therefore that performance is a fundamental part of gender, and vice-versa. Necessarily, this performativity of gender exists in what she calls the “sedimentation” of gender-defining actions; it exists in an extremely specific and time-sensitive historical context. This performance exists in a safe harbor while on-stage. In other words, performativity alongside theatricality provides a safe space where consequences are not as immediate as real life, where reflection arises from the space between the performer and the viewer, thus providing a buffer of safety for the performer. Nonetheless, when gender performativity/action is transposed or enacted in a non-theatrical context, the consequences are immediate and subject to the full weight of historical sedimentation. Thus, and quite often, we conform with reperforming what is correct according to our historical contexts and chronologies, in an incessant process of paradigm-reaffirmation.

But what occurs between the boundaries of theatre and real life? Is there a middle ground? Performance artists claim to live in this grey area - where the body of the performer is intricately linked with the performance itself, and thus straddles the boundary between life and theatre with an irreplaceable physical presence. The Narcissister (stage name), a Brooklyn-based performance artist, studies this very concept in relation to gender. Her performance suggests a hyper-theatricalization of gender, one where fantasies are recognized, identified, and re-performed in a way that allows the object of desire to control its own influx of pleasure. By exploring the reverse-strip-tease, Narcissister creates the most blatant metaphor regarding the control of her own gender, and the creation of her own gendered boundaries (in pulling clothes from her orifices, the biological markers of gender in its most conventional form). In this way, Narcissister’s performance is extremely insurrectionary - it bares the conventions of gender and objectification in a social context that doesn’t allow for the object’s emancipation, while re-claiming the intrinsic sexual rights of the performer and the gender being performed. Perhaps this hyper-theatricalization allows for the bending of paradigms in real life; i.e. when the theatrical is extreme, then life can be somewhat more extreme as well, without necessarily drawing the consequences that would accompany performativity without parallel extreme performances. 

And yet one has to wonder whether the Narcissister’s performances actually have an impact. The audience is as important as the performer; so showcasing what is extremely insurrectionary theatre in contexts that are already prepared for it and welcoming of it is akin to claiming that fish are revolutionary beings precisely because they live in water. One must also ask where the boundary between theatre and life is drawn (if there is one), and how to bring gender performativity into life in a way that is more effective and insurrectionary without being dismissed as merely performance (in the vein of Luis Valdez’s questions regarding revolutionary theatre). And if so, when does gender stop being performative, and begin digging into the sedimentary layers of historical gender paradigms - layers that exist beyond the boundaries of theatre and are intricately linked with the re-performance of gender on a daily basis?

Narcissister, Riveiere, and Butler - Gender Performativity

“…gender is in no way a stable identity of locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time - an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts… then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.” Butler’s arguments reaffirm therefore that performance is a fundamental part of gender, and vice-versa. Necessarily, this performativity of gender exists in what she calls the “sedimentation” of gender-defining actions; it exists in an extremely specific and time-sensitive historical context. This performance exists in a safe harbor while on-stage. In other words, performativity alongside theatricality provides a safe space where consequences are not as immediate as real life, where reflection arises from the space between the performer and the viewer, thus providing a buffer of safety for the performer. Nonetheless, when gender performativity/action is transposed or enacted in a non-theatrical context, the consequences are immediate and subject to the full weight of historical sedimentation. Thus, and quite often, we conform with reperforming what is correct according to our historical contexts and chronologies, in an incessant process of paradigm-reaffirmation.

But what occurs between the boundaries of theatre and real life? Is there a middle ground? Performance artists claim to live in this grey area - where the body of the performer is intricately linked with the performance itself, and thus straddles the boundary between life and theatre with an irreplaceable physical presence. The Narcissister (stage name), a Brooklyn-based performance artist, studies this very concept in relation to gender. Her performance suggests a hyper-theatricalization of gender, one where fantasies are recognized, identified, and re-performed in a way that allows the object of desire to control its own influx of pleasure. By exploring the reverse-strip-tease, Narcissister creates the most blatant metaphor regarding the control of her own gender, and the creation of her own gendered boundaries (in pulling clothes from her orifices, the biological markers of gender in its most conventional form). In this way, Narcissister’s performance is extremely insurrectionary - it bares the conventions of gender and objectification in a social context that doesn’t allow for the object’s emancipation, while re-claiming the intrinsic sexual rights of the performer and the gender being performed. Perhaps this hyper-theatricalization allows for the bending of paradigms in real life; i.e. when the theatrical is extreme, then life can be somewhat more extreme as well, without necessarily drawing the consequences that would accompany performativity without parallel extreme performances. 

And yet one has to wonder whether the Narcissister’s performances actually have an impact. The audience is as important as the performer; so showcasing what is extremely insurrectionary theatre in contexts that are already prepared for it and welcoming of it is akin to claiming that fish are revolutionary beings precisely because they live in water. One must also ask where the boundary between theatre and life is drawn (if there is one), and how to bring gender performativity into life in a way that is more effective and insurrectionary without being dismissed as merely performance (in the vein of Luis Valdez’s questions regarding revolutionary theatre). And if so, when does gender stop being performative, and begin digging into the sedimentary layers of historical gender paradigms - layers that exist beyond the boundaries of theatre and are intricately linked with the re-performance of gender on a daily basis?

Our Town - Thornton WilderOur Town, set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, is Thornton Wilder’s dissection of American small-town life in the early 20th century. Written in 1938, the play posits a significant break in American theatrical paradigms - Our Town is performed on a bare stage, with characters miming their actions without the aid of props. It also incorporates markedly Brechtian techniques in the form of a stage manager who refers directly to the audience and discusses the passage of time in the town. 

Donald Margulies, in his foreword to the play, defends a text that at times might seem uneventful, and quite lacking of a narrative arch of any consequence. “The simultaneity of life and death, past, present, and future pervades Our Town… With the specter of mortality hovering, the quotidian business of the people of Grover’s Corners attains a kind of grandeur.” In many ways, Wilder’s text becomes a sort of Waiting for Godot a la Americana, a text that while reaffirming the almost absurd circularity and futility in life, also manages to incorporate established notions of Americanness in the mid-early 20th century. Yet where it fails (and perhaps it’s a failure to transmit the irony inherent to the text), is in its portrayal of a completely homogenous community - one devoid of any real issues pervading American society at the time of its writing. In this sense, Our Town becomes both escapist and conformist, despite its brilliant attempt to redefine theatrical convention in the United States. Fair enough, it deals with the human condition, but not the social condition - how much merit this holds is unclear.

And yet Our Town continues to be revived and re-performed despite all these elements. The Wooster Group’s production directly calls them out by staging actors in blackface, and incorporating black popular music. We’re at a point where simply speaking of the human condition is not enough to merit a strong text - if anything, it makes the American experience seem naive and unenlightening if viewed from the outside. While pushing boundaries theatrically, Our Town profiles itself as a conceptual paradigm to be broken contemporarily, as in its representation of Americana it chooses to exclude what is actually, and uncomfortably, American. 

Our Town - Thornton Wilder

Our Town, set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, is Thornton Wilder’s dissection of American small-town life in the early 20th century. Written in 1938, the play posits a significant break in American theatrical paradigms - Our Town is performed on a bare stage, with characters miming their actions without the aid of props. It also incorporates markedly Brechtian techniques in the form of a stage manager who refers directly to the audience and discusses the passage of time in the town. 

Donald Margulies, in his foreword to the play, defends a text that at times might seem uneventful, and quite lacking of a narrative arch of any consequence. “The simultaneity of life and death, past, present, and future pervades Our Town… With the specter of mortality hovering, the quotidian business of the people of Grover’s Corners attains a kind of grandeur.” In many ways, Wilder’s text becomes a sort of Waiting for Godot a la Americana, a text that while reaffirming the almost absurd circularity and futility in life, also manages to incorporate established notions of Americanness in the mid-early 20th century. Yet where it fails (and perhaps it’s a failure to transmit the irony inherent to the text), is in its portrayal of a completely homogenous community - one devoid of any real issues pervading American society at the time of its writing. In this sense, Our Town becomes both escapist and conformist, despite its brilliant attempt to redefine theatrical convention in the United States. Fair enough, it deals with the human condition, but not the social condition - how much merit this holds is unclear.

And yet Our Town continues to be revived and re-performed despite all these elements. The Wooster Group’s production directly calls them out by staging actors in blackface, and incorporating black popular music. We’re at a point where simply speaking of the human condition is not enough to merit a strong text - if anything, it makes the American experience seem naive and unenlightening if viewed from the outside. While pushing boundaries theatrically, Our Town profiles itself as a conceptual paradigm to be broken contemporarily, as in its representation of Americana it chooses to exclude what is actually, and uncomfortably, American. 

Waiting for Godot & Godot in a Political Context
 
Waiting for Godot, at times subtitled as “Tragicomedy in two acts”, is Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece - written in the 40’s and first performed in the early 50’s. Becket, a poet, novelist, and dramaturge - disciple of James Joyce - is considered along Ionesco, Genet and Adamov, as one of absurd theatre’s most representative figures. The proponents of absurd theatre posit the nonexistence of God, the pointlessness of human life, and the failure of language as an effective communicative tool. Faced with the failure of conceptual thought to understand the essential truths, they reaffirm that the absurdity of existence cannot be explained; rather, it must be lived. From this theoretical pillar is born Waiting for Godot, a harrowing text in which two characters - Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) - wait in vain for the apparition of “Godot”. 

Waiting for Godot has a tendency of falling into fatalist textual interpretations. The endless wait for an entity that never arrives, as well as the evident circularity (and thus futility) of a flat narrative in which everything threatens to whither away brings about connotations of abjection and depression. Nonetheless, if we assume that Godot is not simply a figment of Vladimir and Estragon’s imagination and therefore symbolizes the hope for a project of liberation and emancipation of man, the question of whether or not to wait passively for Godot becomes central. In many ways, Beckett’s text can be considered revolutionary in that the absurd becomes not a tool for incessant ponderation and inaction, but rather prompts political and social action. The ambiguity of Godot and the centrality of a narrative so thoroughly common to all humanity, particularly to oppressed peoples, makes Waiting for Godot a text ripe with possibilities for politically-driven staging (theatre of protest). 

This is the basis for Bradby’s analysis of political stagings of Waiting for Godot in Godot in a political context. Bradby recollects a series of these performances in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Cape Town, Haifa, and Naneterre. They all share similar social contexts, in that the productions were all staged to articulate or wrestle with minoritarian oppression and conflict. Bradby’s dissection points at an interesting phenomenon - namely that the more specific the production, the weaker its impact. This is particularly evident in Ilan Ronen’s production in Haifa, where all the ambiguity’s in Beckett’s text were filled in with direct allusions to the immediate Palestinean-Israeli conflict. Godot’s power seems to dissolve with specificity. The problem is also that Waiting of Godot is also an extremely easy text to stage in any context where struggle or helplessness is rampant. Lacking a revolutionary reading of the text, the production simply turns into the staging of pointless self-reflection rather than productive social and political action.

While I believe Waiting for Godot to be an extremely powerful text in relation to larger issues of the human condition, it also holds tremendous introspective value at the level of the individual. Indeed, playing Vladimir taught me more about myself than any other character or text I’ve ever experienced. The simple recitation of lines and repetition of physicality destroyed me, burnt me to ashes, and then propped me back up. To me it’s a testament to a text that, conceptually, is extremely powerful, and holds such tremendous emotional value in such barren language. 

Waiting for Godot & Godot in a Political Context

 

Waiting for Godot, at times subtitled as “Tragicomedy in two acts”, is Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece - written in the 40’s and first performed in the early 50’s. Becket, a poet, novelist, and dramaturge - disciple of James Joyce - is considered along Ionesco, Genet and Adamov, as one of absurd theatre’s most representative figures. The proponents of absurd theatre posit the nonexistence of God, the pointlessness of human life, and the failure of language as an effective communicative tool. Faced with the failure of conceptual thought to understand the essential truths, they reaffirm that the absurdity of existence cannot be explained; rather, it must be lived. From this theoretical pillar is born Waiting for Godot, a harrowing text in which two characters - Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) - wait in vain for the apparition of “Godot”. 

Waiting for Godot has a tendency of falling into fatalist textual interpretations. The endless wait for an entity that never arrives, as well as the evident circularity (and thus futility) of a flat narrative in which everything threatens to whither away brings about connotations of abjection and depression. Nonetheless, if we assume that Godot is not simply a figment of Vladimir and Estragon’s imagination and therefore symbolizes the hope for a project of liberation and emancipation of man, the question of whether or not to wait passively for Godot becomes central. In many ways, Beckett’s text can be considered revolutionary in that the absurd becomes not a tool for incessant ponderation and inaction, but rather prompts political and social action. The ambiguity of Godot and the centrality of a narrative so thoroughly common to all humanity, particularly to oppressed peoples, makes Waiting for Godot a text ripe with possibilities for politically-driven staging (theatre of protest). 

This is the basis for Bradby’s analysis of political stagings of Waiting for Godot in Godot in a political context. Bradby recollects a series of these performances in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Cape Town, Haifa, and Naneterre. They all share similar social contexts, in that the productions were all staged to articulate or wrestle with minoritarian oppression and conflict. Bradby’s dissection points at an interesting phenomenon - namely that the more specific the production, the weaker its impact. This is particularly evident in Ilan Ronen’s production in Haifa, where all the ambiguity’s in Beckett’s text were filled in with direct allusions to the immediate Palestinean-Israeli conflict. Godot’s power seems to dissolve with specificity. The problem is also that Waiting of Godot is also an extremely easy text to stage in any context where struggle or helplessness is rampant. Lacking a revolutionary reading of the text, the production simply turns into the staging of pointless self-reflection rather than productive social and political action.

While I believe Waiting for Godot to be an extremely powerful text in relation to larger issues of the human condition, it also holds tremendous introspective value at the level of the individual. Indeed, playing Vladimir taught me more about myself than any other character or text I’ve ever experienced. The simple recitation of lines and repetition of physicality destroyed me, burnt me to ashes, and then propped me back up. To me it’s a testament to a text that, conceptually, is extremely powerful, and holds such tremendous emotional value in such barren language. 

William Pope L. - eRacism
William Pope L. is a North American visual artist whose work in performance art and interventionist art forms explore the concepts of political dissent and social intervention. His series, eRacism, began during the late 1970’s, and comprises a series of 40 “crawls” - endurance based performances in which he drags himself along the streets of New York City. In one example, the Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), Pope L. drags himself through the gutter of Tompkins Square Park dressed in a suit and holding a potted flower. Perhaps his most considerable performance, The Great White Way, entailed dragging himself along a stretch of 22 miles wearing a Superman outfit sans cape. The Great White Way took a total of five years to complete, stirring controversy along the way (particularly his encounter with police in front of Ground Zero). It’s important to note that this performance took place soon after the events of 9/11 in Manhattan. 
In his eRacism series, Pope L. posits an exploration of horizontality as a direct break with what he perceives to be a markedly vertical and phallocentric society, symptomatic of a rampant capitalistic and consumerist society. His performance of horizontality in a public space where this bodily choreography is not the paradigm infuses his performance with breaks in the standard hierarchical organization and behavior of bodies as related to efficiency, as well as calling to mind images of disability, poverty, and disease. His performance is decidedly violent - by the end of the crawls, his clothes are ripped apart, his knees and hands scabbed over with dry blood, and his face dirty with particulate matter picked up from the gutters and streets. In his crawls, Pope L. evidences the existence of normative walls of hierarchical/bodily organization and choreography that are perhaps even stronger (or aid) the more visible divisions of class, gender, and race. 

What’s most interesting to me in Pope L.’s performance is the moment witnesses and spectators shift their preconceived notions and re-evaluate their relationship to the performance. This moment is best exemplified by his encounter with a police officer in front of Ground Zero - he’s asked by the police officer to stand up (and thus enter a realm of oppressive verticality, proprietary to the force structure the officer embodies); upon doing so, he negotiates with the police officer, who allows Pope to continue crawling. It’s at this moment that the audience shifts emotionally. They begin cheering Pope on, ceasing to insult and harass him. Perhaps the realm of artists then is only made clear in the presence of a concrete symbol representative of oppressive power. While the state can don a tremendous amount of force, if this force is not catalyzed into one easily recognizable - and by extension visible - symbol, then resistance is diffused and impossible. The question then becomes - can the artist create this symbol to then work against it? Is it possible to manufacture symbols of power as a tool to make artistic empathy even stronger, and thus further insurrectionary and revolutionary goals? 

William Pope L. - eRacism


William Pope L. is a North American visual artist whose work in performance art and interventionist art forms explore the concepts of political dissent and social intervention. His series, eRacism, began during the late 1970’s, and comprises a series of 40 “crawls” - endurance based performances in which he drags himself along the streets of New York City. In one example, the Tompkins Square Crawl (1991), Pope L. drags himself through the gutter of Tompkins Square Park dressed in a suit and holding a potted flower. Perhaps his most considerable performance, The Great White Way, entailed dragging himself along a stretch of 22 miles wearing a Superman outfit sans cape. The Great White Way took a total of five years to complete, stirring controversy along the way (particularly his encounter with police in front of Ground Zero). It’s important to note that this performance took place soon after the events of 9/11 in Manhattan.

In his eRacism series, Pope L. posits an exploration of horizontality as a direct break with what he perceives to be a markedly vertical and phallocentric society, symptomatic of a rampant capitalistic and consumerist society. His performance of horizontality in a public space where this bodily choreography is not the paradigm infuses his performance with breaks in the standard hierarchical organization and behavior of bodies as related to efficiency, as well as calling to mind images of disability, poverty, and disease. His performance is decidedly violent - by the end of the crawls, his clothes are ripped apart, his knees and hands scabbed over with dry blood, and his face dirty with particulate matter picked up from the gutters and streets. In his crawls, Pope L. evidences the existence of normative walls of hierarchical/bodily organization and choreography that are perhaps even stronger (or aid) the more visible divisions of class, gender, and race. 

What’s most interesting to me in Pope L.’s performance is the moment witnesses and spectators shift their preconceived notions and re-evaluate their relationship to the performance. This moment is best exemplified by his encounter with a police officer in front of Ground Zero - he’s asked by the police officer to stand up (and thus enter a realm of oppressive verticality, proprietary to the force structure the officer embodies); upon doing so, he negotiates with the police officer, who allows Pope to continue crawling. It’s at this moment that the audience shifts emotionally. They begin cheering Pope on, ceasing to insult and harass him. Perhaps the realm of artists then is only made clear in the presence of a concrete symbol representative of oppressive power. While the state can don a tremendous amount of force, if this force is not catalyzed into one easily recognizable - and by extension visible - symbol, then resistance is diffused and impossible. The question then becomes - can the artist create this symbol to then work against it? Is it possible to manufacture symbols of power as a tool to make artistic empathy even stronger, and thus further insurrectionary and revolutionary goals? 

(Source: catacumbadeletras)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o - Oral Power and Europhone Glory“The war between art and the state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state - in short, enactments of power”. Wa Thiong’o recounts how, upon being commissioned to create a performance piece for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. Representing Kenya, Wa Thiong’o suggested to the appropriate authorities that The Trial of Dedan Kimathi be performed first in Nairobi, open to the audience it would eventually represent internationally. The trials around performing at the National Theatre are used by Wa Thiongo to exemplify the constructs of political power that regiment performance both geographically and socially. He posits what I think is his most important point in response to Brook’s empty space. “…the real magic and power of performance. It incorporates the architectural space of material and immaterial walls into itself and becomes a magic sphere made still by its own motion - but it is potentially explosive, or rather, it is poised to explode”.  Wa Tiong’o builds on this theory by arguing that there are several ways to look at performance. We reveal the first layer when we discover that “the performance space is also constituted by the totality of its external relations to these other centers and fields… The real politics of the performance space may well lie in the field of its external relations”. “…the performance space, in its entirety of internal and external factors, may be seen in relationship to time; in terms, that is, of what has gone before - history - and what could follow - the future”. It is clear then that “the performance space is never empty. Bare, yes, open, yes, but never empty. It is always the site of physical, social, and psychic forces in society.” Thus Wa Tiong’o adds a significant amount of complexity to Brook’s argument by incorporating elements external to the theatrical space itself. These elements have the power to dictate everything - from content to impact. His theory becomes interesting when applied to institutions of power that diverge from the traditional democratic spectrum; it explains the traditional saying that dictatorships either love their artists or kill them. The conflict over performance spaces are in reality “also [struggles] over which cultural symbols and activities [to] represent…” We’ve moved past purely colonial struggles, and nonetheless the same issues resurge in postcolonial situations, where “performances [are] to be contained in controllable enclosures: in licensed theatre buildings, in schools, especially - but they were not to take place in open spaces where the people resided”. The artist becomes a criminal by default - it is therefore necessary to create an abstract prison in which he must reside and work; any alternative might poses a threat to the power of government structures. The paradox is the more repression the artist faces, the more the risk of insurrection grows (or is cultivated), as evidenced by artistic rebirth and re-saturation in every post-dictatorship period around the world.

Applied to the UAE, Ngugi’s theories point out extremely grim realities. The closure of the central Cultural Center no longer is an issue of mismanaged infrastructure. There is a deliberate attempt at relocation of culture - ironically, the new “fertile” soil where this culture will grow is the currently deserted and rather abstracted island of Saadiyat. The relocation is deliberate; after all, it is the only sensible way to deal with a governmental policy that increasingly demands a growth in the arts and by extension expression, while also stringently enforcing regulations of appropriateness in the eyes of the state. Art and performance become stratified, unreachable to the masses. Thus the power of performance is not eliminated wholly, rather it is relocated to a class that will do little to nothing without it. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o - Oral Power and Europhone Glory

“The war between art and the state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state - in short, enactments of power”. Wa Thiong’o recounts how, upon being commissioned to create a performance piece for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. Representing Kenya, Wa Thiong’o suggested to the appropriate authorities that The Trial of Dedan Kimathi be performed first in Nairobi, open to the audience it would eventually represent internationally. The trials around performing at the National Theatre are used by Wa Thiongo to exemplify the constructs of political power that regiment performance both geographically and socially. He posits what I think is his most important point in response to Brook’s empty space. “…the real magic and power of performance. It incorporates the architectural space of material and immaterial walls into itself and becomes a magic sphere made still by its own motion - but it is potentially explosive, or rather, it is poised to explode”.

Wa Tiong’o builds on this theory by arguing that there are several ways to look at performance. We reveal the first layer when we discover that “the performance space is also constituted by the totality of its external relations to these other centers and fields… The real politics of the performance space may well lie in the field of its external relations”. “…the performance space, in its entirety of internal and external factors, may be seen in relationship to time; in terms, that is, of what has gone before - history - and what could follow - the future”. It is clear then that “the performance space is never empty. Bare, yes, open, yes, but never empty. It is always the site of physical, social, and psychic forces in society.” Thus Wa Tiong’o adds a significant amount of complexity to Brook’s argument by incorporating elements external to the theatrical space itself. These elements have the power to dictate everything - from content to impact. His theory becomes interesting when applied to institutions of power that diverge from the traditional democratic spectrum; it explains the traditional saying that dictatorships either love their artists or kill them. The conflict over performance spaces are in reality “also [struggles] over which cultural symbols and activities [to] represent…” We’ve moved past purely colonial struggles, and nonetheless the same issues resurge in postcolonial situations, where “performances [are] to be contained in controllable enclosures: in licensed theatre buildings, in schools, especially - but they were not to take place in open spaces where the people resided”. The artist becomes a criminal by default - it is therefore necessary to create an abstract prison in which he must reside and work; any alternative might poses a threat to the power of government structures. The paradox is the more repression the artist faces, the more the risk of insurrection grows (or is cultivated), as evidenced by artistic rebirth and re-saturation in every post-dictatorship period around the world.

Applied to the UAE, Ngugi’s theories point out extremely grim realities. The closure of the central Cultural Center no longer is an issue of mismanaged infrastructure. There is a deliberate attempt at relocation of culture - ironically, the new “fertile” soil where this culture will grow is the currently deserted and rather abstracted island of Saadiyat. The relocation is deliberate; after all, it is the only sensible way to deal with a governmental policy that increasingly demands a growth in the arts and by extension expression, while also stringently enforcing regulations of appropriateness in the eyes of the state. Art and performance become stratified, unreachable to the masses. Thus the power of performance is not eliminated wholly, rather it is relocated to a class that will do little to nothing without it. 

Griselda Gambaro - Information for ForeignersAbout a year ago I found, on a small piece of parched paper, the following phrase: “Nada era cierto. La muerte de Carlos ocurrió un verano como este. Mientras algunos disfrutaban del sol y el mar un grupo de jóvenes eran detenidos y torturados”. This excerpt, part of a longer letter written by the mother of one of the victims, speaks of a segmented reality - one where disparate paradigms are bounded by invisible walls of hypocrisy and torture. And then I found Gambaro’s Crónica en 20 Escenas. Somehow I want to group all these texts together, these horrendous experiences. I want to label them as one; segment them, partition them neatly and tuck them in a drawer somewhere far down a mental corridor. Gambaro’s work diligently set fire to these drawers, bursting them open with an insatiable brutality. Crónica en 20 Escenas is an exploration, a recreation of the abuses and torture the Argentine populace suffered during the Videla regime. Set in a large house, an audience is split up and led across the building’s rooms - each of which is populated by a performance of torture or abuse, factually based on the events that plagued Buenos Aires in the 1970’s.

Gambaro’s text creates reenactments of prevalent abuses in a highly controlled theatrical setting. The setting and tone of the text plays on highly controversial social issues - mainly, the explicit establishment of centers of torture in densely populated areas of the city. These centers of torture, despite being evident to neighbors and communities surrounding them, were widely ignored or assimilated into routine. This assimilation marked the willing creation of passive audiences to the government’s performances of power. These performances of power were highly visible and calculated efforts on the part of military forces, violently juxtaposing the weakness of the individual body with the omnipotent power of the state. The effect was debilitating; the passive spectator became equated with the complicit spectator, further destroying any traces of communal fraternity left in formerly tight-knit domestic and social networks. Trust became nonexistent, and post-dictatorship dialogue at a grassroots level ground to a halt; no one wanting to admit their inaction and thus their unwilling support for the fall of democratic ideals in Argentina. By theatrically reproducing these events, which through their theatrical nature become consequence-free and attain a level of previously non-existent abstraction, Gambaro attempts to rekindle the dialogue surrounding the events of the dictatorship. And yet for this dialogue to resurface, Gambaro assumes the creation of a collective empathy among the audience traveling the house. It presupposes a higher level of identification with the hardships of the actors and the connection with fellow audience members than with the victims of abuse portrayed in the twenty scenes. Thus Gambaro’s text is incredibly particular in the audience is seeks - for Crónica to be a functional piece, those attending it must have a pre-existing distance to the actual events of the dictatorship. It requests an audience of abstracted trauma, one that is two steps removed from being an actual victim. The victim on the other hand can’t help but identify with the events portrayed; thus the former victim’s experience is not one of dialogue and progress but rather one of visceral remembrance - a sort of Theatre of Cruelty for the sake of Theatre of Cruelty. This is where Gambaro’s text faces a very interesting and rather unresolvable paradox - is a text to be considered effective and profound when its success depends so highly on the audience presence, catered to with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel?

Griselda Gambaro - Information for Foreigners

About a year ago I found, on a small piece of parched paper, the following phrase: “Nada era cierto. La muerte de Carlos ocurrió un verano como este. Mientras algunos disfrutaban del sol y el mar un grupo de jóvenes eran detenidos y torturados”. This excerpt, part of a longer letter written by the mother of one of the victims, speaks of a segmented reality - one where disparate paradigms are bounded by invisible walls of hypocrisy and torture. And then I found Gambaro’s Crónica en 20 Escenas. Somehow I want to group all these texts together, these horrendous experiences. I want to label them as one; segment them, partition them neatly and tuck them in a drawer somewhere far down a mental corridor. Gambaro’s work diligently set fire to these drawers, bursting them open with an insatiable brutality. Crónica en 20 Escenas is an exploration, a recreation of the abuses and torture the Argentine populace suffered during the Videla regime. Set in a large house, an audience is split up and led across the building’s rooms - each of which is populated by a performance of torture or abuse, factually based on the events that plagued Buenos Aires in the 1970’s.

Gambaro’s text creates reenactments of prevalent abuses in a highly controlled theatrical setting. The setting and tone of the text plays on highly controversial social issues - mainly, the explicit establishment of centers of torture in densely populated areas of the city. These centers of torture, despite being evident to neighbors and communities surrounding them, were widely ignored or assimilated into routine. This assimilation marked the willing creation of passive audiences to the government’s performances of power. These performances of power were highly visible and calculated efforts on the part of military forces, violently juxtaposing the weakness of the individual body with the omnipotent power of the state. The effect was debilitating; the passive spectator became equated with the complicit spectator, further destroying any traces of communal fraternity left in formerly tight-knit domestic and social networks. Trust became nonexistent, and post-dictatorship dialogue at a grassroots level ground to a halt; no one wanting to admit their inaction and thus their unwilling support for the fall of democratic ideals in Argentina. By theatrically reproducing these events, which through their theatrical nature become consequence-free and attain a level of previously non-existent abstraction, Gambaro attempts to rekindle the dialogue surrounding the events of the dictatorship. And yet for this dialogue to resurface, Gambaro assumes the creation of a collective empathy among the audience traveling the house. It presupposes a higher level of identification with the hardships of the actors and the connection with fellow audience members than with the victims of abuse portrayed in the twenty scenes. Thus Gambaro’s text is incredibly particular in the audience is seeks - for Crónica to be a functional piece, those attending it must have a pre-existing distance to the actual events of the dictatorship. It requests an audience of abstracted trauma, one that is two steps removed from being an actual victim. The victim on the other hand can’t help but identify with the events portrayed; thus the former victim’s experience is not one of dialogue and progress but rather one of visceral remembrance - a sort of Theatre of Cruelty for the sake of Theatre of Cruelty. This is where Gambaro’s text faces a very interesting and rather unresolvable paradox - is a text to be considered effective and profound when its success depends so highly on the audience presence, catered to with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel?

Peter Brook - The Empty Space“The theatre has often been called a whore, meaning its art is impure, but today this is true in another sense - whores take the money and then go short on the pleasure.” Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, posits the existence of two forms of theatre - Holy Theatre and Deadly Theatre. Brook equates the Deadly Theatre with widely prevalent “industrialized” contemporary spectacle. Holy Theatre, on the other hand, represents the “Theatre of the Invisible Made Visible”. This theatre is viscerally linked with the idea of “true” rituals, with performances that respond and grapple with concepts. A tremendously important concept of Holy Theatre is the idea of presence - the presence of the performer; this ties in with Brook’s second argument: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” 

Brook warns of a dangerous societal symptom: namely, the dangerous association between culture, antiquity and its preservation, and an inevitable sense of stagnation and boredom. Not that preservation is wrong, but “current preservation has no more than an antiquarian interest, none had the vitality of new invention.” Contemporary theatre is not immune to this plague - the industrialization of theatre has created a fundamental disconnect - audiences that have been constantly let down; therefore the wrong audience is drawn in, and the cycle perpetuates. Prevalent is also a lack of response to what audiences are truly looking for: “In America today, the time is ripe for a Meyerhold to appear, since naturalistic expression of life no longer seems to Americans adequate to express the forces that drive them.” “The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs; usually, he has a family and friends; he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him - and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities.” The Holy Theatre, in comparison, is the exact polar opposite. The Holy Theatre is governed by “the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.” Brook sees a holy theatre as a theatre that is alive and breathing, that impacts, that spreads, that dialogues, in the same way that Artaud calls for a theatre to “impact, to pillage, to ravage the soul.” “All we know is the end result: we know and we like the feel and sound of celebrating through applause, and this is where we get stuck…. we have largely forgotten silence.” The fundamental question that Brook puts forth is where to find this theatre. He seems convinced of its relation to ritual, to an energy beyond our physical realm that manifests itself in the presence of the performer, similar to Lorca’s “duende”. “Can the invisible be made visible through the performer’s presence?” “Where should we look for it? In the clouds or on the ground?”

Brooks division of Holy and Deadly theatres is a brilliant one, but I fear it runs the risk of quickly becoming antiquated. Yes, Deadly Theatre is at fault for the creation of commercial models based on profiteering and cheap emotions, but so is the capitalist system under which it survives and at times thrives. The argument of Deadly vs. Holy presupposes the struggle of one against the other - the hope being that eventually the Holy wins. And yet Holy theatre, as Brook defines it, shares an incredibly thin and feeble boundary with Deadly theatre. On one hand, you have theatre that worries about preserving the antiquated - it is antiquated precisely because it no longer fits within the cultural paradigms within it was created; it is preservation for the sake of preservation, which is Deadly. And yet ritual is ritual precisely because it remains and thrives within a relevant context, engaged in loop of continuous feedback between the community and the performance. If Holy theatre is to be found in ritual performances (and this is greatly simplifying the issue), then it goes without saying that the ritual cannot be extracted from its context as it will loose what makes it Holy. Thus, ritual is stuck, bound by the environment that allows it to live, like a fish in water. This permanence, this intransigence, threatens to, conceptually, correlate ritual theatre (Holy Theatre) with Deadly Theatre. Not to mention the tinges of postcolonial issues surrounding the appropriation and reinterpretation of ritual tradition for use in Brook’s own theatre. The question remains open. 

Peter Brook - The Empty Space

“The theatre has often been called a whore, meaning its art is impure, but today this is true in another sense - whores take the money and then go short on the pleasure.” Peter Brook, in The Empty Space, posits the existence of two forms of theatre - Holy Theatre and Deadly Theatre. Brook equates the Deadly Theatre with widely prevalent “industrialized” contemporary spectacle. Holy Theatre, on the other hand, represents the “Theatre of the Invisible Made Visible”. This theatre is viscerally linked with the idea of “true” rituals, with performances that respond and grapple with concepts. A tremendously important concept of Holy Theatre is the idea of presence - the presence of the performer; this ties in with Brook’s second argument: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” 

Brook warns of a dangerous societal symptom: namely, the dangerous association between culture, antiquity and its preservation, and an inevitable sense of stagnation and boredom. Not that preservation is wrong, but “current preservation has no more than an antiquarian interest, none had the vitality of new invention.” Contemporary theatre is not immune to this plague - the industrialization of theatre has created a fundamental disconnect - audiences that have been constantly let down; therefore the wrong audience is drawn in, and the cycle perpetuates. Prevalent is also a lack of response to what audiences are truly looking for: “In America today, the time is ripe for a Meyerhold to appear, since naturalistic expression of life no longer seems to Americans adequate to express the forces that drive them.” “The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs; usually, he has a family and friends; he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him - and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities.” The Holy Theatre, in comparison, is the exact polar opposite. The Holy Theatre is governed by “the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.” Brook sees a holy theatre as a theatre that is alive and breathing, that impacts, that spreads, that dialogues, in the same way that Artaud calls for a theatre to “impact, to pillage, to ravage the soul.” “All we know is the end result: we know and we like the feel and sound of celebrating through applause, and this is where we get stuck…. we have largely forgotten silence.” The fundamental question that Brook puts forth is where to find this theatre. He seems convinced of its relation to ritual, to an energy beyond our physical realm that manifests itself in the presence of the performer, similar to Lorca’s “duende”. “Can the invisible be made visible through the performer’s presence?” “Where should we look for it? In the clouds or on the ground?”

Brooks division of Holy and Deadly theatres is a brilliant one, but I fear it runs the risk of quickly becoming antiquated. Yes, Deadly Theatre is at fault for the creation of commercial models based on profiteering and cheap emotions, but so is the capitalist system under which it survives and at times thrives. The argument of Deadly vs. Holy presupposes the struggle of one against the other - the hope being that eventually the Holy wins. And yet Holy theatre, as Brook defines it, shares an incredibly thin and feeble boundary with Deadly theatre. On one hand, you have theatre that worries about preserving the antiquated - it is antiquated precisely because it no longer fits within the cultural paradigms within it was created; it is preservation for the sake of preservation, which is Deadly. And yet ritual is ritual precisely because it remains and thrives within a relevant context, engaged in loop of continuous feedback between the community and the performance. If Holy theatre is to be found in ritual performances (and this is greatly simplifying the issue), then it goes without saying that the ritual cannot be extracted from its context as it will loose what makes it Holy. Thus, ritual is stuck, bound by the environment that allows it to live, like a fish in water. This permanence, this intransigence, threatens to, conceptually, correlate ritual theatre (Holy Theatre) with Deadly Theatre. Not to mention the tinges of postcolonial issues surrounding the appropriation and reinterpretation of ritual tradition for use in Brook’s own theatre. The question remains open. 

Flower Drum Song
Rodger and Hammerstein
Rodger and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song is a 1958 Broadway musical that takes place in Chinatown. It’s notable for being one of the first musicals to incorporate an all-asian cast, where race issues are not necessarily explicitly represented on stage, but rather run along all the play as a significant undercurrent. The play is based on a novel by C.Y. Lee published in 1957. In the musical, a Chinese girl arrives in Chinatown illegally, accompanied by her father. The musical revolves around their experiences and eventual acclimation to American culture. 

While it may be an interesting exercise to read Flower Drum Song in the same way as The Sound of Music - i.e. under a feminist lens, I completely disagree with the idea that these two achieve an even remotely similar level of depth and strength of commentary. My problem being that Flower Drum Song seems like a liberal fiasco to reconsolidate American culture with a rapidly growing and yet segmented Asian population in the 1950’s and 60’s. Particularly after reading Adrian Piper, who advocates the concept of “acceptance” over “tolerance”, Flower Drum Song inevitably feels like a piece that ideologically reduces members of the Asian population to non-threatening, non-complex members of a ghettoized society. Fighting cultural xenophobia, particularly endemic to one’s own geographic and spatial domain, cannot be achieved through the disqualification and over-simplification of “guest” cultures, which is precisely what Flower Drum Song attempts to do. 

Perhaps the counterargument to the above point is “well, better than nothing right?”. Nonetheless, this represents a slip into a dangerous ideological pit, where the value of liberal and progressive action is measured in haste rather than in depth. Avoiding entrapment in the fascination of seeing asian bodies inhabiting a stage for the first time in a Broadway musical is essential to understand what an ideological fiasco Flower Drum Song truly is. 

Flower Drum Song

Rodger and Hammerstein

Rodger and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song is a 1958 Broadway musical that takes place in Chinatown. It’s notable for being one of the first musicals to incorporate an all-asian cast, where race issues are not necessarily explicitly represented on stage, but rather run along all the play as a significant undercurrent. The play is based on a novel by C.Y. Lee published in 1957. In the musical, a Chinese girl arrives in Chinatown illegally, accompanied by her father. The musical revolves around their experiences and eventual acclimation to American culture. 

While it may be an interesting exercise to read Flower Drum Song in the same way as The Sound of Music - i.e. under a feminist lens, I completely disagree with the idea that these two achieve an even remotely similar level of depth and strength of commentary. My problem being that Flower Drum Song seems like a liberal fiasco to reconsolidate American culture with a rapidly growing and yet segmented Asian population in the 1950’s and 60’s. Particularly after reading Adrian Piper, who advocates the concept of “acceptance” over “tolerance”, Flower Drum Song inevitably feels like a piece that ideologically reduces members of the Asian population to non-threatening, non-complex members of a ghettoized society. Fighting cultural xenophobia, particularly endemic to one’s own geographic and spatial domain, cannot be achieved through the disqualification and over-simplification of “guest” cultures, which is precisely what Flower Drum Song attempts to do. 

Perhaps the counterargument to the above point is “well, better than nothing right?”. Nonetheless, this represents a slip into a dangerous ideological pit, where the value of liberal and progressive action is measured in haste rather than in depth. Avoiding entrapment in the fascination of seeing asian bodies inhabiting a stage for the first time in a Broadway musical is essential to understand what an ideological fiasco Flower Drum Song truly is. 

A Problem Like MariaStacy Wolf
Stacy Wolf, in her book A Problem Like Maria, attempts to “reread musicals from a lesbian and feminist perspective by design.” Not that they necessarily are - Wolf’s rereading serves as a prompt to delve deeper into a genre that is often undervalued and ridiculed for its perceived lack of depth. Wolf focuses strongly on the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, sometimes bringing to light their religious and political backgrounds to argue the need for more liberal readings of their work and musicals in general. While Wolf is quick to acknowledge the cliché of the musical - “American art is dishonest - which explains why our only major narrative invention is the musical, a fantasy form (Mordden)”, she also points out the major contributions of musicals to broader societal advancement in the United States - “the Broadway musical is the one performance form that features women as neither passive objects of desire nor subjects of vilification.”
Perhaps one of Wolf’s most interesting observations is the disjunctive relationship between the popularity and importance of musicals to American popular culture and its nature as an art form incredibly tied to gay and lesbian leftist movements - “Miller asserts that virtually all 1950s musicals have a gay subtext. Musicals have long offered personal, emotional, and cultural validation for gay men… gay men have been its most visible devotees.” In conversation with friends, suggesting a lesbian or gay subtext to the most popular musicals in recent history was akin to pointing out the window and screaming about flying pigs. It seems utterly unreasonable, but Wolf’s points are brilliantly put forth; followed by a viewing of The Sound of Music, I couldn’t help but realize that they do indeed have a myriad of layers - one of them obviously gay and lesbian. Wolf also strongly pushes for a deeper analysis of the songs themselves, pointing out Stephen Banfield’s point that we should “hear the song as a single aesthetic entity in which the strategies of similarity and difference, of repetition and contrast, in syllable and note are mutually illuminating.”  

Other than making me question my mother’s sexual orientation based on her love for The Sound of Music, Stacy Wolf’s book serves as a brilliant reminder of the tremendous power of popular art forms like the musical. Assuming a lack of depth in their creation and execution would be doing a tremendous disservice to their creators, who in their own way helped support extremely important civil rights movements in the country. Wolf suggests a paradigm shift; one in which even the most popular forms of theatre and visual art serve as barometers of social change, and in some cases, catalysts of progress.

A Problem Like Maria
Stacy Wolf

Stacy Wolf, in her book A Problem Like Maria, attempts to “reread musicals from a lesbian and feminist perspective by design.” Not that they necessarily are - Wolf’s rereading serves as a prompt to delve deeper into a genre that is often undervalued and ridiculed for its perceived lack of depth. Wolf focuses strongly on the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, sometimes bringing to light their religious and political backgrounds to argue the need for more liberal readings of their work and musicals in general. While Wolf is quick to acknowledge the cliché of the musical - “American art is dishonest - which explains why our only major narrative invention is the musical, a fantasy form (Mordden)”, she also points out the major contributions of musicals to broader societal advancement in the United States - “the Broadway musical is the one performance form that features women as neither passive objects of desire nor subjects of vilification.”

Perhaps one of Wolf’s most interesting observations is the disjunctive relationship between the popularity and importance of musicals to American popular culture and its nature as an art form incredibly tied to gay and lesbian leftist movements - “Miller asserts that virtually all 1950s musicals have a gay subtext. Musicals have long offered personal, emotional, and cultural validation for gay men… gay men have been its most visible devotees.” In conversation with friends, suggesting a lesbian or gay subtext to the most popular musicals in recent history was akin to pointing out the window and screaming about flying pigs. It seems utterly unreasonable, but Wolf’s points are brilliantly put forth; followed by a viewing of The Sound of Music, I couldn’t help but realize that they do indeed have a myriad of layers - one of them obviously gay and lesbian. Wolf also strongly pushes for a deeper analysis of the songs themselves, pointing out Stephen Banfield’s point that we should “hear the song as a single aesthetic entity in which the strategies of similarity and difference, of repetition and contrast, in syllable and note are mutually illuminating.”  

Other than making me question my mother’s sexual orientation based on her love for The Sound of Music, Stacy Wolf’s book serves as a brilliant reminder of the tremendous power of popular art forms like the musical. Assuming a lack of depth in their creation and execution would be doing a tremendous disservice to their creators, who in their own way helped support extremely important civil rights movements in the country. Wolf suggests a paradigm shift; one in which even the most popular forms of theatre and visual art serve as barometers of social change, and in some cases, catalysts of progress.