Upping the Ante: Director Alexis Confer takes Shakespeare to Vegas

Lunie Jules as Caius Lucius (left) and Ruthellen Cheney as Imogen (right). Photo by Ted Alcorn @tedalcorn

Director Alexis Confer is in a groove. After three straight successful productions of Shakespeare’s most well loved comedies, she’s taking on the notoriously ambitious, fantastical and wildly dramatic Cymbeline and staging it as a 90’s fairytale in a Vegas casino.

There’s money at stake here, as all proceeds are going to benefit Art for Progress, a nonprofit that supports emerging artists and arts education in public schools.

Culturebot contributor Katy Einerson sat down with Alexis just before a rehearsal to learn more about Alexis’ work and this production, opening April 27 at Theater 80 on St. Marks.


Katy Einerson (KE): Tell me about your involvement with Art for Progress.

Alexis Confer (AC): When I first moved to New York 11 years ago, I was here with a bunch of friends from my undergraduate school and we decided to make theater. We’d done a lot of shows together and we were all public service focused young professionals, so we thought, why not make theater that raises money for the arts? So we had this group called Plays for Progress, and we happened to find this great guy, Frank Jackson, who runs Art for Progress, and we collaborated to raise money for the Harlem Children’s Zone and a few other nonprofits. I’ve also done a few shows with another company I founded called Offline Productions but this time I wanted to go back to the nonprofit model, so we’re partnering with Frank again.

KE: Would you say that Shakespeare is your specialty as a director?

AC: I guess it is my specialty now! I have an acting background and have performed a lot myself. I think a lot of young actors are drawn to Shakespeare because it feels like such a big thing to tackle. Once you look deeper into his work, you realize he talks a lot about issues that are relevant to modern society, like mental health. If you think about Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they’re both going thorough mental health issues. The more I learned about Shakespeare the more I realized how he had his finger on the pulse of what people were struggling with.

I’ve also directed musicals and more modern pieces. I love monologues, I love one-acts, I love real actors’ pieces. But I do focus on comedies because I think we all need to laugh and I love comedy as an art form. I like finding the truth in comedy, as they say in improv, and Shakespeare gives you a lot of opportunities to do that.

KE: As a former English major, I took my fair share of Shakespeare courses but Cymbeline was not a play I ever had to read for class.  It’s not one you see performed all that frequently either. So I’m curious: what drew you to direct this play? And why did you choose to set it in Vegas?

AC: Cymbeline is a piece I didn’t know very well and I wanted a bit of a challenge. The last three shows I did were Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which are arguably Shakespeare’s three biggest comedies. Cymbeline gets mixed reviews. Sometimes it gets incredible kudos for pulling it off – if you stage it in its entirety, it’s four hours long. It has so many plot lines, so if you do it right, there’s the greatest possibility of reward. But you really have to find a way to dissect the play down to the main storylines and make it Shakespeare’s fairytale. In the case of this production, there are huge sequences that have these mystic elements with ghosts coming back, and I’ve taken those out and really boiled down to the main plotlines about folks being banished, the love stories, the class dynamics.

Speaking of class dynamics, we’re playing the Evil Queen as someone who grew up with very little means, and now she finds herself as the “trophy wife,” for lack of a better term, to a head casino conglomerate. So if you think of her as someone who really clawed to get there, was scrappy and worked hard, she becomes less of a one-dimensional character.

We set it in Vegas because when I think about the fairy tale plotline, and where in the United States anything can happen, it’s Vegas. My family grew up as big hikers and campers. One thing we’re very lucky to have in this country is the vast beauty of the desert. The plateaus and vistas are so gorgeous, and the desert has the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen. The colors feel like they actually are make-believe. I’ve been thinking about where in modern society someone could be exiled and really feel removed. There’s this huge stretch of land between Vegas and LA where you won’t see any signs of life other than maybe an occasional truck stop or a diner in the middle of nowhere. The Southwest has the feeling of being remote, but still close to the decadence inherent to the world of Cymbeline. So in this production Cymbeline, the British king, is a casino bigwig whose time has passed.  The Romans, if you look at history, were these modern folks who came in and thought they knew best. Caius Lucius and all the other Romans are played by women in this production, so they come in and their ideas are more modern and fresh and they upset the status quo of this old casino world.

KE: The political clashes between the British and the Romans are a major concern in Shakespeare’s text – are you holding on to that theme?

AC: Yes. It’s in there – we’re playing it more with mergers and financial acquisitions gone bad, and we’re playing with some actual physical fighting. We’re setting the piece in the mid 90’s. There will be some violence, but I really want to focus more on what happens when power shifts, how we play with class and how we deal with social dynamics. At the end of Cymbeline, like in any good fairytale, there’s forgiveness all around, which I find really redeeming. We’re all multi-dimensional people, and there is great capacity for goodness, so I’m interested in how we find redeeming qualities in all the characters in this play.

KE: I know you’ve worked with this cast over a long period of time, and that several of the performers are true Shakespearean actors, while others are stand-up comedians. Can you tell me what it’s like to work with actors with such different backgrounds?

AC: Sure – that was very intentional. I have all those backgrounds myself as an actor—I’ve acted in Shakespeare, in musicals, done improv.  I think there’s more connectivity than people realize, and if you’re able to jump between those art forms, it gives you more versatility as an actor. A stand-up comedian will bring something much different to a role than a standard Shakespearean actor, and vice versa. Even in the way they approach memorization of lines, the way they hit the jokes… if you want a diverse, multi-dimensional, robust piece, you have to bring diversity to the table.

If you’re a Shakespearean actor, you’re going to approach the text with the poetic terms and timbre that Shakespeare intended. But if you bring in someone who hasn’t been trained in Shakespeare, they’re going to read it in a way that feels natural to them. So they cut it in different spots, which pushes everyone to realize that just because it’s written in a sing-songy way doesn’t mean you can’t cut it in the first third of the sentence. Or put the emphasis on something Shakespeare didn’t intend, and really hand it to the audience.

Shakespeare was meant to be enjoyed. I love a good classic production of Shakespeare, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Shakespeare at The Globe and it was life changing and beautiful. But for a modern audience who’s never seen Shakespeare, you have to dissect it and make it feel relevant and fun and easy to understand.

KE: In the research I did to get to know this play I discovered that people have VERY strong opinions about it – about its artistic merit and its stage-worthiness as a play. It’s a massive undertaking, with a huge cast and sub-plot after sub-plot. I’m sure you’ve heard George Bernard Shaw famously called it “a stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order,” which I think, to be honest, is an excellent tagline.

AC: Yeah! That’s kind of where the Vegas idea came from.

KE: Ah, that’s wonderful. Bernard Shaw also famously re-wrote the ending. So I’m curious, and I know you talked about this a little bit earlier, but how true are you staying to the script and how much liberty are you taking with what you’re putting on stage?

AC: I would say I want Shakespeare enthusiasts and folks who are open-minded about Shakespeare to come see this show, but I’m definitely not a Shakespeare purist. I’ve cut huge sections, plotlines, middles of sentences. We’ve cut a bunch of characters. Cymbeline was one of Shakespeare’s last works, and it sort of has all of his plot devices wrapped in one.

KE: Right, it’s almost a self-parody, where he’s re-doing everything he’s ever done.

AC: Yeah, it is. You have your Romeo & Juliet, your deadly potion, the evil queen, the popular-then-unpopular monarch, people being exiled, tons of fools running around. I’m always asking, is this driving the plot forward? Are we telling a story the audience needs to hear? Or are we saying things only because we like saying them as actors? We’re not changing words; it’s been more about cutting. There’s been some gender bending and playing with age. In the original text there’s a character in the desert, Belarius, who is supposed to be the surrogate father who stole king’s sons. In our production that character is played by a woman who’s around the same age, so instead she’s their sister and we’re calling her Belle. So there is some embellishment. And to help clarify the plot, which is pretty complicated, it’s come down to taking out irrelevant plotlines.

I do think this piece has to have a fairytale mood, I have an excellent composer named Tom Lee. He’s done music for our last three shows, and he adds a lot of the magical elements back into the piece.

It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a challenge the cast and I are excited to be taking on. Because we’ve done four shows in less than two years, we have sense memory and our muscles are well honed from the last three productions. So I realized that if I was going to strike at Cymbeline, now is the time to do it.

KE: Is there anything else you want to share about this production?

AC: Just that this is a really hard-working group that cares a lot about the public service and arts education elements of this project. So many of us came from public schools or places where we were able to participate in theater camps, so it feels personal for everyone to be able to do this with a nonprofit. It’s a really special collaboration. And I think everyone feels privileged to be doing theater in New York City. Our cast comes from all over the place and calls New York home now, and we continue to have this familial element in a city that’s tough to do what you love, especially theater. So there’s a lot of appreciation and gratitude within our team for being able to do what we do.

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Cymbeline, presented by Art for Progress, is running April 27 – May 14 at Theater 80 on St. Marks. Tickets available at https://theatre80.wordpress.com/cymbeline/

Sound and Debt

Production photo by Julieta Cervantes

What do we feel we are owed when we walk in the theatre? Put aside all lofty expectations of we hope will transpire—all the talk about being ‘transported’ (whatever that really means), or discussions about the elusive bits of wisdom or morality that can be made clearest on stage, or even the communal experience of being in tune with something live and ephemeral. Put aside even the notion of being entertained and temporary escapism and the easing of whatever pain ails you. I mean at bare minimum, what is the least we expect to receive in return for our commitment and money? Does the show (or Soho Rep in this case) owe us something as an audience? I suspect most theatre-goers believe, whether they admit it or not, that they are owed the chance to understand what they are seeing, that they will leave the theatre in the know.

Debt and what is owed in life are the central moving pieces in Samara, Richard Maxwell’s newest and mysterious offering directed by Sarah Benson. The show begins with a character named the Messenger (Jasper Newell) and his attempt to collect a debt owed him by the Supervisor (Roy Faudree). After the Supervisor balks at the payment, he tells the Messenger, “You know there’s a whole picture that you’re not going to see. And I’m not going to trouble you with.” The line is as useful for the audience as it is perplexing to the Messenger. Maxwell consistently deprives the audience of conventional theatrical context, instead creating a world where questions of setting, time, place, and standard narrative are of little use. In their place is sound: the haunting score written by folk/Americana hero Steve Earle (who also provides sparse narration and ominous stage directions) and Maxwell’s poetic text.

During his confrontation with the Supervisor, the Messenger purchases the debt of an innkeeper who lives several miles away. The Messenger sets out across a violent frontier that evokes simultaneously a morally deprived 19th century Old West, á la the novels of Cormac McCarthy, and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. When the Messenger arrives at the inn to collect his debt, he finds the debtor has died and the inn has been taken over by the Manan (Becca Blackwell) and the Drunk (Paul Lazar). The Messenger chooses to stay at the inn indefinitely until his debt is paid, throwing the lives of the Manan and the Drunk upside-down, forcing them to make increasingly rash, violent decisions.

Earle’s score (played brilliantly by Ivan Goff on Uileann pipes and Anna Wray on various percussion) is essential to the play’s mood. While his folk music gears towards an almost relentless sense of empathy, here Earle uses music not to atone for the characters and their misdeeds, but rather guide them (and us) through the wilderness. When words fail to explain, as they often do here, the music is there to catch us. It doesn’t fill the gap entirely, but it does help soothe and provide an emotional context amongst the confusion.  

Samara’s bend towards the auditory forces the audience to listen far more carefully than what is typically required in contemporary theatre. This is not to dismiss many of the striking visuals (Matt Frey’s lighting design is especially noteworthy), but the language demands an extra level of concentration that can be at times equally thrilling and frustrating. Maxwell’s words exist right on the cusp of insight—living in the charged moments when clarity is being approached, but never quite reached. There are numerous builds that lead astray and several questions that go unanswered. An elaborate puzzle is laid out, but the mystery never fully matures for the audience—at least not inside the theatre. But if you are willing to allow the show to stick in the brain just long enough, letting the words and sounds marinate, a bizarre yet affecting wisdom begins to form.

The larger, non-monetary debts that play out in Samara begin to take weight with time: what do people feel is owed them in life? What do the living owe the dead? What happens to people when they don’t get what they feel is owed them and how far are people willing to go to bridge that gap? Every character in Samara is lacking in some way: deficient in terms they can never fully elucidate. Similarly, I sense that many people will leave Samara feeling like the show still owes them something, that it did not fulfill its minimum obligation—that they are not now in the know.

But here’s the thing: theatre owes you nothing; you owe theatre your attention.

Here’s the other thing: the world owes you nothing; you owe the world a death.

THE ROOM SINGS: MANY SONGS, MANY TIMES, MANY PLACES BUT IS IT STILL EVERYWHERE AT ONCE?

Photo by Suzanne Opton

What stories can a space hold? As I took my seat at La MaMa to see The Talking Band’s production of The Room Sings, a play about a house throughout history, this question reverberated. I knew about The Talking Band, though had never seen their work; had learned about their predecessors and influences in theatre history class. As I sat in this room, I brought in shreds of history. It seemed fitting that The Talking Band, a company with over four decades under its belt, would examine the pull of time on generations and physical space. Paul Zimet serves as writer and director on this piece, with composition by Ellen Maddow, who also performs as The Room itself, personified.

In some material for The Room Sings, it’s mentioned that the play is “visually inspired by work of photographer Barbara Probst,” who took shots of things from multiple angles in order to show different perspectives of the same moment. To a degree, this provides an apt metaphor for how the play operates, jumping back and forth in time between different characters and sets of problems in a non-linear fashion, while The Room (Maddow), provides transitional commentary about the problems that come with being a house, and what a house contains. Especially memorable lyrics occur when Maddow sings, often accompanied by her jaunty dancing, such as “a purple vacuum with assorted nozzle.” This literal song and dance introduces us to the world of the play, and while it at first seems that Maddow plays a sort of Jack Frost figure, and does indeed feel mythic, The Room’s commentary marks each moment of the play, especially at the beginning.

Thematically, these songs describe motifs of the play itself: aging and the wear and tear that comes with a physical space, letting go of memories and moving on, and the way that different people change you. In fact, what’s most exciting is to think not of how The Room is personified in Maddow, but how the journey of this house is mimicked in the lives of humans — the audience, actors, and characters.

Geographically, the entirety of the play occurs in and around this small house — we move to the dock, and the lake nearby, and to a fence; physically, this is represented by a handful of movable set pieces: a dock, a white fence, and a kitchenette and room with a table and two chairs. There is also a screen in the background, onto which images are projected — first, shots of nature or the house from the outside, and time stamps: 2015, 1987, 1958, and 1943. The play begins in the most-present time, and interweaves the stories.

The 2015 narrative focuses on Hope and Sidney, a couple sorting through remnants abandoned by Hope’s deceased mother and selling the house in dreams of a trip to Florence, permeated by visits from Hope’s father, William, who has suffered a stroke.

The 1987 time frame features brothers Sal and Al, one recently disbarred and in deep financial trouble, the other, lusting from a distance after his brother’s wife, Loretta.

1958 features a young man, Oskar, living with an older Chinese man for the summer, Mr. Ma. This is also the only time frame that seems to deal explicitly with race — Oskar used to live in the house with his parents, and after his father dies, he moves to the city with his mother. Oskar’s mother sends him to live with Mr. Ma for the summer, and Oskar has never seen a Chinese person outside of the entertainment he’s consumed.

In the 1943 tale, we see a brother and sister, identified only by those monikers, fight over alcoholism and a wrought past, and featuring violence.

I summarize all of this to highlight the differences in scope and focus of the narratives, but also because all of these timeframes impact the house differently.

Mr. Ma speaks of saving up to buy the house for cheap, for coming from nothing, and — in what is one of the most exciting inventions of the play, adds figures, with Oskar, to the Chinese-style wallpaper which decorates the home. For Sal and Al, the home is one of vacationing and hunting, of escape, and, for Sal, of dreaming about his beaver-focused opera. For Hope and Sidney, the home seems to largely represent financial gain and freedom. For Brother and Sister, the home is a prison from which they cannot escape each other.

The cast of the play is vast and generally strong in performance, highlighted by the brief moments that feel rooted in certain theatrical styles — for example, Sal completes his opera about beavers, and it is performed by Loretta and Al (with magnificent beaver puppets by Ralph Lee, puppeteered by Maddow and Jack Wetherall) during the 1987 arc. This, and a moment when Mr. Ma’s mother’s spirit haunts Oskar, are energetic and crackle with the fun theatrical mish-mash that feels at the heart of The Talking Band’s style.

The Room Sings seems to exist at the intersection of late-20th century theatre-making and some of the more traditional contemporary styles that exist on New York stages today. It is almost impossible not to think of work that also speaks of homes and places, such as Clybourne Park, and I was even reminded of The Light Years by The Debate Society, which also features the history of a place over time. This connection and intersection is both what’s thrills me about The Talking Band’s performance — like witnessing different inhabitants over time in the home that is American theatre.

This excites me deeply, and does raise, however, some thorny moments for me in the work. For example, Loretta mentions to her brother-in-law that a woman has claimed sexual assault against her husband, but he denies it. “I believe him,” she says, and the play carries on.

When we first see Mr. Ma, he is ironing and swearing with creative phrases, but it’s unclear what lens this is through, and I began to worry this was a portrayal of non-English language — he stops ironing, and begins to speak to Oskar in English, and the behavior or its meaning is lost.

Overall, the different arcs seem to try and deal with the slightest element of reality — we never learn where this house is located, and outside of mentions of race in Mr. Ma’s scene, and some basic socioeconomic wishes of a vacation in the 2015 timeline, we don’t know about the neighborhood or the greater culture this all takes place in geographically. I admire the idea that Sal and Al are hunters, and perhaps NRA members, but I feel that some of the elements highlighted, especially in Mr. Ma’s character and backstory, are half-baked into the play, with the assumption that these greater political and socio-economic questions only need to be minimally answered. While I give The Talking Band the benefit of the doubt and assume none of this was intentional, I disagree with the execution, and would have wished to see a more thoughtful handling of the things that allow the room to sing in the first place: specific people, in specific times and places, inhabiting it, outside of certain character details or quirks.

The Room Sings does feature some technical elements that bring it lightness and joy, and at times some confusion, like strange electronic-based music in the background of some scenes, or a voiceover that sings along with Maddow as she performs as The Room. Overall, Maddow’s song and dance is interesting and disarming in a way that piqued my interest, and the play seems to aim only to explore the ways in which the house’s meaning, or physical self, change and stagnate with time. When the piece ended, I felt as though I’d spent time in a museum of thoughts and styles — unsure of any curated message about the world, but more aware of the physical spaces within it.

“Poor People’s TV Room” – Interview with Okwui Okpokwasili

Photo by Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Okwui Okpokwasili. Multiple Bessie Award-winning performer and maker. NYLA’s Stryker/Ranjelovic Resident Commissioned Artist. Mother. Human. Electromagnetic Force. Watching her wail beyond my ability to bear it in Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?; Come Home Charley Patton or amidst the shifting landscapes of adolescent girlhood in her Bronx Gothic, I have found myself struggling to negotiate the intense draw of her performance against my terrified repulsion at the pathos and power emanating from her single body. There are ideas and experiences, sometimes outlandish and delightful, but often soul-crying-ly inescapable that rise to the surface in her work as a choreographer and as a performer. She premieres her newest cross-disciplinary work Poor People’s TV Room, with her regular collaborator, director and designer Peter Born, at NYLA April 19-22, 26-29. It is the culmination of her two-year residency at NYLA and will be performed by her along with Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young.

Inspired in part by the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 in Nigeria, Poor People’s TV Room considers the “entanglement of visibility and shared embodiment, with the spectral and insistent presence of forgotten women. It is a speculative, impressionistic work grounded in a narrative of the bodies of brown women.” It uses the TV room as a space of resistance, a space to talk back, and a space of memory and history – working to challenge the “disappearance of black women in cultural narratives, especially as empowered agents of their own change.” Okwui and I recently spoke over the phone during her residency and performances at MassMoCA.

How is it up there? You’re doing a site-specific performance in the Nick Cave exhibit? That must be wild.

It’s amazing right now here at MassMoCa. I’m doing the performance in the Nick Cave exhibit, activing the space. It’s so, so, super live. That’s kind of daunting. In Poor People’s TV Room, I was thinking about moving through this world like we are in a strange city in part of Africa-slash-NYC–slash-imagination. With Nick Cave, it is reminiscent of a kind of an African space, especially his Soundsuits which make me thing of W. African masquerade. He talked about his windspinner forest as the inside of a soundsuit, so when I perform in the windspinner forest I think of being inside the space of a masquerade that contains both the ceremonial and the spiritual. We might be asking something from the ancestors, we might be imploring. We’re going into that space in Poor People’s TV Room. Are there these other people watching you? What is the veil between the living and the dead? What is the nature of time? It’s interesting to inhabit that space here amidst Until.

That’s fascinating. What a great connection between his worlds and yours. There’s a space of fantasy, sci-fi, and local and global urgencies and realities that converge??? by setting you and your work in the midst of his.

I don’t want to suggest Poor People’s TV Room is strictly an African space. It is a space in the imagination that is pulling from my ideas of certain cities in Nigeria. There are certain ways of organizing familial spaces and the social hierarchies of familial spaces that we’re working with. Obviously, what is forgotten, what are we forgetting as we build from imagination. This is a piece where I have, as a first generation Igbo Nigerian woman growing up in Bronx, pulled from all of that. There is African space and African American space. I’m building something from the imaginary and exteriorizing internal spaces. I’m also thinking about Nollywood and ways of seeing related to screens and projections. What can you see, what can‘t you see. Obscuring. Using plastic that obscures bodies as a way of playing with what is enacted on ‘this other side.’

Ah. The idea of “other sides” is so compelling. Upside/downs, parallels, beyond the veils – all the simultaneous energies beside us that we are separated from, but they’re transmitting at us.

Photo by Mena Burnette of xmbphotography

Right. In pre-Christian Igbo, when you go, when you do go, you don’t go to a place that can’t be accessed. The dead are occupying a space in the world of the living, they’re reaching out to the living and we get signals from them, they return. There’s a sense also that, in pre-Christian space, there is active reincarnation. People have names that are translated as “the father has returned.” These are discrete spaces separated by a transparent veil, the border is porous. You can reach them, you give libations to help them live and by remembering them you are keeping them in some kind of proximity, keeping them alive. All of these things we’re playing with in Poor People’s TV Room.

 

But there is also protest as a practice in there too, yes?

The early research is around women’s resistance and embodied protest practices. That might involve stripping naked to shame the person or the group the protests were directed against or building songs of collective grievance. In seeing the growing resistance movement, the work of unmasking and surfacing the ongoing and systemic violence used to discipline communities of colors. Resistance movements spearheaded by women, where so many women have been putting their bodies in front of the state to interrupt business as usual, speak to a kind of critical embodiment, if in the dominant cultural and public space, women are still regressively valued and defined by the productive capacity of their bodies—producing desire, producing children, producing domestic labor to support the economic output of men—these resistance movements, to me, signify, women engaging in acts of radical repossession.  These traditions seem to extend through the Black Lives Matter Movement back to the Civil Rights Movement back to W. Africa and S. Africa and reflect the radical ways women used their bodies to serve as interruptors of state violence, to rally against the forces that posed an existential threat to their lives.

Wow. That’s so valuable to remember that lineage of protest practices here in the US as tied directly to the fights women in parts of Africa have modeled.

I’m very interested in those linkages. In thinking about the “Bring Back Our Girls,” and meme-culture, it is interesting that the women, someone like a former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division [Oby Ezekwesili] originally said “Bring back our girls.” Women were asking government to get off their butts and find these girls [over 270 girls were kidnapped from their school by “Boko Haram” in Nigeria. Nearly 200 are still missing as we very recently passed the 3rd anniversary.] But, in meme culture, the original is always erased. This movement was spearheaded by African women, then meme culture gives it a global presence and the originating agents of change were disappeared and erased. What’s fantastic is that it gives a larger presence and urgency to the problem of this missing girls, at least initially. And this erasure is true and inherent in meme culture always, but in this case, it also reflects the strategy of the dominant western culture to shape a singular, savior narrative that relies on the erasure of acts of agency and acts of self-agency by African women in this instance. I’m not an activist, I am not making a piece explicitly ‘about’ this, but this concern is a layer in the piece, of trying to resist invisibility, the impossibility of resisting invisibility and moments of radically bringing our bodies together. That’s the stuff. We want to make a space in performance and in a venue that leaves room for complicated readings and transformations of brown and black bodies in a space. We want to make a space of multiple questions. How can we perform in this dynamic space of becoming?

Right? I’m working on an installation performance for late May that uses plastic bags and looks at disposability and disposable bodies. What bodies matter? Esp. in the current crises of refugees, it pulls from my familial ties to Vietnamese refugees and the idea of bodies adrift, now like all of the plastic debris filling the oceans.

Yeah, what happens to bodies if their use has been done. In Igbo culture, you want to be useful – you have to be useful to some degree. To not be useful is the end. The bodies adrift have been rendered by a larger society of having no use. I was reading this article about people crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. The Nigerian economy is driven by oil and as the price of oil continued to drop in 2016, the naira collapsed and that placed people already living at a subsistence level in an untenable situation, and these are the folks in the south, not the folks in the North fleeing Boko Haram. They are economic migrants. So, they’d make this crossing. They’d get to Libya, coming through the desert and ECOWAS region and there are thousands of young girls being sex trafficked, and people  indiscriminately shot, if they don’t have money to pay smugglers, if in some way they are determined to have exhausted their usefulness. It’s like the plastic we dispose and get rid of. We might re-use or repurpose it for awhile, but at some point that plastic is riven with little holes and scratches and must be thrown away, burned usually. This article reminds us that we are still living in a time where there are bodies (particularly of migrants, of people devastatingly and desparated poor) being used as plastic, divested of humanity and used as a raw resource until they have been riddled with physical and psychic ruptures that render them “unreusable” and so they are either murdered or they must set themselves adrift, across the Meditarranean. There are stories of young Nigerian women who are raped or sell themselves to try to make money to pay smugglers to get to the coast of Libya, but at $2 client, owing $1000 of dollars they are stuck in an unending cycle. In one instance, the article recounts an episode of a young girl shot in the head in broad daylight after having an argument with a client-this is a hell—this disposability.

It’s horrifying and it makes it seem insurmountable to battle all of these forces that are meant to keep girls and women as disposable resources, invisible.

And we have stories that surface about those who, under insurmountable odds, go on to reach tremendous success. But, those stories should not erase the systems and structures that are make that those success stories the exception – not the rule. They lift themselves up from poverty and pain to find happiness and success. That’s the story, not the systems in place and governments that make it impossible for citizens to survive – without access to water and sanitation. The story is always about the one out of hundreds of thousands who get in touch with the right NGO person or an engineering savant who builds an irrigation system out of bits and pieces reclaimed from some trash heap.

Right, this is that “insidious individualism” that Angela Davis talks about in her critique of capitalism. The stories of the amazing individual keep us from believing in our little selves as agents of change. Turning individuals into the face of entire movements keeps us from understanding the work of movements.

Yes, those kinds of histories ignore and erase what it takes to build a movement. No one person creates and leads alone. Focusing on the exceptional individual erases the rallying and preparing. It wasn’t just that just one day that Rosa Parks did that and suddenly we have a bus boycott. There was preparation for that action years in the making amid discussions of ways to challenge the system of segregation in Alabama. That work requires planning. In The Women’s War in Nigeria, the colonizers called it the “Aba Women’s Riots”, language to suggest it was some impromptu, unorganized  action spurred on by the heat of the moment, because to use the language that the woman used themselves, to call it a “war” would be to acknowledge that the organized strategic act of a worthy adversary. Language diminishes and erases. I also want to say that the indigenous people also called the action the Women’s Egwu. In Igbo, that “egwu” means dance. And maybe for me, that is also a signal, that the women and the people of this southeastern area tied it linguistically, they tied this resistance, this protest to performance.

Poor People’s TV Room runs April 19-22 and 26-29 at 7:30pm at New York Lives Arts, 219 West 19th Street, NYC. For tickets and information, call 212 924 0077 or visit newyorklivearts.

Mobilizing Bodies: Dance & Disability at 92Y, Petronio at The Joyce, & Work Up 3.1 at Gibney

Alice Sheppard

Let’s talk about euphemisms for a moment. I was schooled in the use of “differently-abled” in college during the late 80s. The school my kids go to is described as “inclusive” where children in wheelchairs (person-first language versus “wheelchair kids”) danced beside them during many an elementary school concert. I admit to still balking at the use of a pre-fix like “dis” before “ability” because of its negating or reversing task, linguistically speaking. Shifts in language reflect shifts in thinking, the 80s attempt was meant to equalize through difference instead of absence. Seemingly more positivist language than the hand-in-cap or lack of ability versions could neutralize oppressive belief systems, but, in the end, it erased and euthanized the struggle for increased understanding through a slight of semantic genteelism. But, in the company of artists like Jerron Herman and Alice Sheppard, at Edisa Week’s “Overturning Expectations: Dance and Disability,” curated for the 92Y Harkness Dance Center’s Fridays at Noon series on 3/31, all the polite aversions and circumlocution are crushed under foot and wheel. As Alice said during the talkback, “I don’t operate from a place of deficit or loss. This is the only dancing body I know.” At the intersection of race, gender and ability, these two showed and tell-ed us through an afternoon of contemplative, rigorous and innovative works and discussion.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Choreographer Heidi Latsky‘s film Soliloquy played in the lobby and Karina Epperlein’s film Phoenix Dance began the formal program in the hall. Phoenix Dance is about the making of Pas, a pas de deux created for Homer Avila and Andrea Flores by choreographer Alonzo King. Homer had been the other half of Edisa’s Avila/Weeks Company. He died 13 years ago this month, but he danced with unceasing passion before and during a battle with cancer that resulted in the amputation of a leg and hip. The Dance Insider recently re-posted several messages and memories from various artists whose lives he’d touched. Homer’s Village Voice piece “Between a Rock and Hard Place” was a sobering call for better health care: Where I come from, it’s nothing special to sacrifice a little to fulfill your aspirations. But even the average American will agree that giving up a leg may be going too far. Refreshing my memory to that reminded me of the insistent, fierce urgency of this new now. Things have been very bad for very many, but it can get much worse. But, Homer, ever intrepid Homer, was the picture of persistence. I have a particular post-Context studios MR class, probably with David Dorfman, sidewalk talk (that went on longer than most coffee dates) memory of Homer. He’d overwhelmed and dazzled me in his performances with Edisa, but he was always effervescent and available in and out of class, truly in-love with dancing. After his amputation, he continued to model a dogged work ethic, after his lung cancer diagnosis he kept on working without seeking a lick of sympathy and watching him crumple and re-stand over and over and over in rehearsals with during the film stuns me, anatomically, kinesthetically, spiritually and emotionally. Rise. Rise. Like a phoenix, rise.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Jerron Herman performed his solo Phys. Ed, a title worthy of inciting anxiety in many of us. In the work, he brings his athletic abilities and the “spastic extreme” of his Cerebral Palsy endowed condition of “dystonia” into a cohesive and personal dance. Dressed in a red uniform, Jerron’s dance was a reimagining of a memory. With an 8th grader who has played sick simply to avoid her morning gym class (at a school Jerron has guest taught at!), the adolescent angst component felt close to home. I empathized with the fraught nature of that school landscape, but felt the amplified struggle to prove oneself and keep up with the additional effort of managing muscles that don’t cooperate. It was frenetic, plaintive and physically exhausting to witness. Jerron arrived on the scene and began dancing 6 years ago as a member of Heidi Latsky Dance‘s GIMP Project. The GIMP Project expands the derogatory slang into its other definitions related to interwoven fabric and a fighting spirit. As a writer himself, Jerron has become an important new voice in the field, sharing his experiences and insight in the company’s development alongside helping to establish more dialogue and representation in our community by actively engaging with difference instead of diminishing it.

Photo courtesy of Julie Lemberger

Alice Sheppard performed two solos, So, I will wait and Trusting If/Believing When. Alice’s dance career ties directly back to a dare from Homer that altered her trajectory from a professor of Medieval Studies into an award winning artist. In her works, especially Trusting If/Believing When, we see a deep commitment to the exploration of movement potential. There is a classical sensibility that combines with a contemporary willingness to risk exposing the physical labor as real, as full of effort and management instead of hiding it behind studied ease. Her dances themselves are an example of disability-led design, her work in, under, above and around her wheelchair is powerful, graceful and daunting. At one point, in Trusting If/Believing When, she rolls on her back in a circle on the floor and we hear the chair’s rims, spokes and frame connect with the floor. It is a display of incredible physical prowess and the material reality of the apparatus that she is strapped into at that moment. At other moments, she undoes the strap and plays along the brink of possibilities. Throughout, she hovers and plunges, bringing us back again and again to the edge where both crashing and gliding are options, but she repeatedly soars.


Stephen Petronio offered the 3rd season of his 5-year Bloodlines project for his company at The Joyce last week. The project honors a lineage of American postmodern dance that has shaped the accomplished choreographer.  This program included works by Yvonne Rainer.  Diagonal (1963) opened the show. Amidst the soothing sound of their sneakers treading on the marley dance floor, dancers Ernesto Breton, Davalois Fearon, Kyle Filley, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, and Megan Wright would call out numbers or letters that would decide the manner in which they would diagonally cross the stage – for instance, “5” meant a spread-legged, walk on the balls of the feet, with arms held up and cheeks blown out into bubble. The task-based, pedestrian-ness complimented the complexity of attending to instantaneous choice making amidst a scored group composition before a paying audience. Trio A with Flags (1966/1970) was performed once naked, but for flags (a gesture of political defiance), by Nicholas Sciscione, Joshua Tuason and Wright and once in street clothes by Fearon, Filley, Medlock and Montoya. I preferred the first rendition, every ripple and rotation was available for view on at least one body at any given moment and the flacid Stars and Stripes felt particularly poignant amidst an era of excessive testosteronical posturing. Observing the simple musicality of sitting, standing and dropping one’s pillow in her Chair-Pillow (1969), reminded me that an endless array of large-cast, college, guest repertory works that use basic movement tasks to offer inclusive performance opportunities were once revolutionary challenges to the demands of virtuosic displays in dance. Nicholas Sciscione’s performance of Steve Paxton’s Excerpt from Goldberg Variations (1986) was the highlight of an excellent program. Several years ago, scholar Ramsay Burt used philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1940 reading of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus painting (in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) as an entry point into examining Paxton’s improvisations in his Steve Paxton’s Goldberg Variations and the Angel of History. Watching Sciscione’s exquisite and precise execution of what was once instantaneous composition and exploration was almost unendurably beautiful, like an angel descended. As we watched his sinewy back ripple and roil, it could have been easy to image wings unfolding. Petronio performed Anna Halprin’s 1999 The Courtesan and The Crone and the completed the program by delivering yet another luscious, full-company work Untitled Touch, with an original score by longtime collaborator Son Lux.


Camilla Davis in Kareem Alexander’s “I Only Stop When I Am Full”

This weekend, Gibney Dance is presenting their first batch of Work Up 3.0 artists. As Ben Pryor, Director of Performance and Residency Program’s noted in the program, this is the 3rd year of one of Gibney’s first performance programs. This month Work Up supports emerging dance and performance artists through a series of three shared-bill performances and an exhibition in the Gibney Dance Gallery. The first night featured Kareem Alexander’s I Only Stop When I Am Full, a work that began as a look into his own exhaustion but, according to the talkback, shifted once he was in the studio with fellow former Hunter College students Camilla Maria Davis, Keiry Abril Amparo, and Janice Tomlinson. “That was in my mind, but in rehearsal it started being about being black as hell!” A couple years away from these good people, I soaked in the juicy goodness of researching rotating hips and some serious left-jabs. Rachel Sigrid Freeburg collaborated with s. lumber (and a plant) for her gentle and intertwined Still Life, Back There: a dyke-otomy. Millie Heckler and Samantha Lysaght’s Giving Yourself to Me Could Never Be Wrong indulged in excessive consumption and endurance. Work Up 3.1 continues tonight at 8pm and returns with new programs on 4/14-15 and 21-22.