This post is going to be a little unusual for me, because I think I’m going to argue with Young a bit more than I tend to…then I’m going to jump around a bit. I do enjoy a lot of this book, don’t get me wrong. And I think his exploration of the active nature of stillness is compelling (Muhammed Ali’s refusal to take a step at the induction, for example, was a really powerful example of the extreme activeness of stillness), but there were a couple of moments that have really gotten stuck in my craw, and I have to get them out.
When he talks about the daguerreotypes in the second chapter, he mentions “the allure of the off-frame space in photography” (48) as he imagines what the studio might have been like for the subjects of these images. How many people were there? Were the subjects watching each other? Where had they placed their clothes? All of these are fascinating questions, and it’s true that we can’t help but want to fill in the world outside the frame of the photo, but he seems to forget this piece of the experience when he’s discussing the “Love it or Leave it” photo, wherein he points out the crowd of black folks in the background all looking away from the main car as some sort of act of rebellion against the message of white superiority implied by the car. But, if we take a moment to think about what logically might be off-frame in a picture of a parade… wouldn’t it be logical that there is something following after this car? If not, this is the worst parade ever. Can we really put so much historical and emotional weight on a group of people who are probably just looking at what’s coming next? Young seems to be stretching a little too far on this one, leaving behind his own earlier ideas in favor of locating what he hoped he would.
My second issue with him came in his discussion of Yellowman. As he introduces the piece he tells us: “Dael Orlandersmith, despite viewing her play as nonhistorical and not autobiographical, tells a story that reflects the treatment of her own body.” (121) It is certainly his prerogative to see what he sees in this piece of theatre, but it seems a little odd coming from a man who has spent 120 pages explaining how meaning has been placed on the black body against its will and how people have worked hard to reclaim the right to define their own bodies. So doesn’t it seem a little presumptuous of him to say, “She might say it’s not about her body, but she’s wrong – I say it is.” The way he is discussing his observations is not merely an attempt to communicate what he sees, but a deliberate contradiction of what she has proclaimed about herself. There is something snide in his tone when he says, “It is difficult to imagine Orlandersmith not identifying with her own protagonist’s racial anxieties.” (155) And she may or may not, but, based on his arguments throughout the book, it is not his place to decide whether or not she does. He’s inscribing his own desired meaning onto her body in performance and that really rubs me the wrong way.
So now that I’ve gotten those two little complaints off my chest…
I think he does a nice job of discussing the physicality of Suzan-Lori Parks’s language: “The focus here rests not on the utterance itself but the process by which that utterance manifests itself, the position of the body at the moment of enunciation, and the reverberations of the sound having been spoken.” (130)
This makes me think back to one of the old truisms I learned in working on Shakespeare – that everything comes from the head, the gut or the groin. Language is not something that belongs to the head alone – it comes from humans and is deeply connected to what the body needs. Language has a taste and a tactile quality that is too often overlooked, but in people like Shakespeare or Parks, whose understanding of language is so fully embodied, ignoring what language, sounds and words can do for and to the body just sort of ends up missing the point. I love reading Parks – she has the ability to shake me out of my heady, intellectual, “I’m reading something and thinking deep thoughts” space with her playful use of spelling and rhythm. She demands that I let go of “the way it’s supposed to be” and go with the flow of something else that generally ends up leading me to someplace way deeper than just sitting and thinking could. In the ever-present mind/body binary, Parks and her characters refuse to choose sides, and her plays are the better for it. The “spells” she casts are those sweet spots where the mind and the body are so intertwined that language isn’t possible or isn’t necessary.