Sunday, March 25, 2012


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.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Urban Blog Women

“She acts like a scientist, putting a part under a microscope for examination and experimentation.  She unpacks the history of coding and the connections between the body part and the process of identification, subjection, and objectification… Ultimately, Urban Bush Women moves toward putting the black female body back together, healing the old wounds and creating more complete positive images of black women.” (37-38)
·         Laura Mulvey talks about how the male gaze breaks down the female form into its desirable parts, taking a fully formed individual and turning her into a collection of eroticized body parts based on the sexual desires of the male audience.  So I found it interesting how George-Graves turned this vivisection on its ear, using fixation on individual body parts as a process of empowerment, rather than objectification.  It occurred to me that dance is a logical art form in which to counter the male gaze, as it is the art form most essentially intertwined with the body.  The dances described put the spotlight on the processes of objectification, and hopefully begin a dialogue among the dancers and the audience about the effects thereof, but they don’t always present a neat and tidy solution.  I loved the discussion of high heeled shoes and lipstick – how they were used as illustrations of the shaping and marking of the female body – in particular the black female body: “The markers of femininity are commodities, according to this piece, to be bought and sold.  These girls buy and wear desire.  Soon, however, reality confronts fantasy, and the women are left with a confused sense of themselves.  Violence has been done.” (116)  In her essay “Selling Hot Pussy,’ bell hooks points out the eroticization and animalization of the black female body by the white male hegemony, noting how completely the black woman is othered, but also how she is expected to find ways to conform with ideals of white beauty in order to keep her animal sexuality from running wild.  But she also notes how someone like Tina Turner was able to find power in this sexuality.  I thought about bell hooks’s work a lot as I was reading about the Urban Bush Women.  Their celebration of the black female body feels like a reclamation and a declaration – confronting the forces that would rob them of their individuality and identity.  Since the black female body has been so intensely written upon by history, the dance theatre of the Urban Bush Women seems a logical place for wrighting (to use Rossini’s term) their place in the world.  In particular, I was moved by the discussion of hands – how the terminology of hands was so much a part of the language of slavery, and how those same hands have the power to take back history and tell a different story.  “I argue that by creating characters who exist in alternate realities and characters who represent entire populations, the company is attempting to rewrite master narratives.  The characters push against the gaps of history and narrative and challenge us to move beyond stereotypical and limiting images of black women.  These dances are exercises of agency over the stories of black women and the languages with which they are communicated.” (72)  So piece by piece, limb by limb, body by body, the Urban Bush Women come together to tell stories in a way that makes their dance something more than dance.  The incorporation of language and song; personal expression and technique; memory and history all come together in something less literary than theatre and more narrative than dance.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hearing Aids and Community

Rossini says that Moraga was “searching for her own people, for a group that shares both her political beliefs and cultural position, crucially recognizing that her people need a space in which to manifest themselves.” (177)  Isn’t this sort of true of most artists?  I guess this takes us back to community – that every artistic endeavor is looking for some way to communicate with like-minded people, or to convert non-like-minded people into like-minded people.  We want to work with people who understand us and we want to perform for people who can hear what we have to say.  I’ve spent the last eight years working with a company in South Carolina with similar passions and goals and politics and aesthetics, and it’s an extremely rewarding experience to have a community of artists who speak the same language.  Of course, this idea becomes more literal when we’re talking about Latina American theatre, where the intersection of language is so much a part of the aesthetic.  The ways in which Spanish and English intertwine throughout the book create a whole new language that communicates with different audiences in different ways.  I have to admit – the tangent I think I’m about to take is a little off the beaten track, but it’s sort of where I’m living right now, so I guess I’ll just have to deal with that.  On the language front – I spent the weekend in Brampton, ON – a suburb of Toronto.  I was visiting my grandparents in the hospital.  They’re both in there for different reasons, but they’ve managed to be put in the same room.  So they’re there in their hospital beds facing each other – and neither one is wearing his or her hearing aid.  So my aunt and I spent the weekend repeating ourselves loudly and slowly, watching them interpret us and each other, seeing the hilarious and frustrating and adorable patterns that are still so present after 64 years of marriage.  It struck me – the common history and vocabulary and knowledge that was shared by the people in that room.  My grandparents are from tiny towns on the east coast of Canada, my aunt in Canadian-American, my cousin is Lebanese-Canadian, her husband is Chinese-Canadian, I’m on my way to American-Canadian status… we live all over the world, but this common communal thread of family gave us the ability to understand each other and share the experience in a way that would have been so different with an outsider in the room.  The nurses commented on the dynamic – it’s a tangible thing to be among a group of people who understand each other in such a fundamental way – even when we’re not as able to communicate.  I sat in the surprisingly comfortable visitor’s chair reading Rossini’s book and thinking about the ways in which people perform with and for their respective communities.  We assume or are assigned roles that will hopefully serve the entire community in some meaningful way.  And we do what we have to to be understood.  And we accept that sometimes we won’t be understood or we won’t understand, but lack of understanding doesn’t preclude participation – especially in the theatre we read about this week.  Sometimes the source of confusion becomes a source of inquiry: an invitation to take a different point of view or to ask new questions or to phrase things differently.  Certainly the implications of Moraga’s theatre – and the work of all the artists mentioned in the book – are far greater than the implications of my grandfather yelling into the phone to his deaf sister in Halifax or my grandmother believing my cousin’s husband had called her “Phoenician” instead of “a comedian,” but at the heart of all of this is a common experience fueling a common language and a common sensibility with some hope of connecting with our little concentric circles of community.