Love Letter at La Mama

Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. Photo by Tiph Browne, Nerdscarf Photography

Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. Photo by Tiph Browne, Nerdscarf Photography

The anticipatory energy in the space was palpable. The theatre was dimly lit. People were speaking in hushed, but excited tones. Those that seemed to be reconnecting greeted one another warmly. There was an openness, a familiarity circulating in the room. Waiting on the show to begin — and based on casual social media stalking — I get the sense that DarkMatter has garnered a loyal (and rapidly growing) fanbase. Climbing the chilly stairwell up to the performance space, “Yeah, I try and go to basically everything they do,” someone behind told their friend. Given that DarkMatter is invited to perform and facilitate workshops all over the world, I can only assume that their statement referred to performances in the New York City metro area.

DarkMatter is comprised of trans-South Asian artists Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon. A self-described “creative interruption to contemporary queer performance,” #ItGetsBitter lived up to my expectations as an incisive exercise in dissecting systems of oppression; especially surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and gender expression. Despite the heavy subject matter, the show was cleverly funny.

Greeted with applause that was upbeat, but more polite than I expected from the downtown audience, Alok took the stage in an incredibly important pair of emoji-laden tights, and Janani in a mustard-colored cardigan that I will permanently borrow, given the opportunity. Both had lips lacquered in black. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, fulfillment is an understatement.

In the spoken word tradition, Janani and Alok spoke with commanding authority and conviction on the complex relationships between gender, violence, trauma, and the body. Toward the end of the show, Alok delivered a poem in which they expressed that, “Living in America is to be living in a constant state of delusion.” #ItGetsBitter is an honest, biting deconstruction of the violence enacted on the bodies of QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) that comes as result of systems of oppression that are maintained by said delusion. As a queer-identified black man, a significant portion of the show spoke directly to my life and experiences in a poetic manner that was painfully genuine.

Whether ‘spitting’ on orientalism, gender violence, or acts of resistance, as an audience member, I was not allowed to forget that we were engaging with the physical — the material — matter. The subject matter Alok and Janani were asking us to engage with does not exist in the abstract; it lives in our bodies, and the unapologetic nature with which that message was communicated was powerful.

At one point, Janani performed a hilarious interlude consisting of nursery rhyme adaptations they had written. Of the several they read aloud, my favorite is included below:

if you’re happy and you know it, shut up and stop taking up space

The #ItGetsBitter hashtag is a subversion of the It Gets Better Project, created by Dan Savage, that went viral in 2010. The project’s mission is “to communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.” Midway through the show, Alok performed a piece critiquing Savage’s failure to see that inherent privilege (white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege, economic privilege) lies at the foundation of the “It Gets Better” movement. Furthermore, that the project’s relationship with some of its corporate sponsors is hypocritical; that many of them, capitalistic in nature, rely on the subjugation of the very people the project claims to serve. “It only get better if it gets bougie,” and “masturbation does not dismantle the master’s house,” are two phrases lifted from the poem. I think they beautifully encapsulate the wit and incisiveness that characterize DarkMatter’s aesthetic.

After the show, I didn’t walk away feeling uplifted, or even empowered. And I don’t believe that was the goal. I did, however, feel seen — a rarity in our culture of capitalism. In retrospect, DarkMatter’s performance exists in my memory as a love letter.

For me, love letters needn’t always be sweet. But they should be truthful. Shuffling to catch the train back to my apartment in Brooklyn, I finally figured out why I felt like I had a chunk of ice lodged in my throat, why I was retreating further and further into a deep, dizzy spell of introspection. Because Alok and Janani had just delivered an astounding love letter. And they told the truth.

 

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