Let Us Now (Ap)Praise The Work of Famous (Wo)Men
In 1936, Fortune Magazine commissioned writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to produce an article on the conditions among sharecropper families during the Dust Bowl, an assignment and experience that would eventually lead Agee in 1941 to publish a book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which he considered “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.” (And if that sounds a little high and mighty to you, you’re not the only one.) Self grandeur aside, the book was also widely influential. Aaron Copland wrote an opera based on it, and David Simon (creator of ‘The Wire’) considers the book an ‘essential influence’ on his early career and approach to journalism.
Thirty-six years later, Susan Sontag published a book called ‘On Photography,’ in which she states “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” Viewed through this lens, the photographs and book become a force that captures and imprisons its subjects for all time.
Twenty-eight years after that, Fortune Magazine, who actually had declined to publish the original article way back when, revisited surviving family members who were written about in the book and published the article The Most Famous Story We Never Told, in which one still-angry subject states, “We never even got one of the damn books.” The photographs, despite the sense of being truthful, i.e., accurate, also appropriate and misrepresent. A photo not chosen for the book depicts the family in fine clothes, shot in the sunlight, smiling.
Ten years following the Fortune Article (and I guess since we’re doing the counting thing, seventy-nine years after Agee & Evans accepted their Dust Bowl assignment), Sibyl Kempson’s new company 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. undertakes their own assignment in presenting these sharecroppers once more in a strange new light (and eventually, a stream) with Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, a subversively funny and beautifully performed new musical play running at Abrons Arts Center through May 17.
Almost eighty years is a lot of history to carry on your shoulders, sharecropper or no, and these subjects have become tired. Having been cast by Agee’s book as something like white trash (ironically perhaps, as Agee’s stated intent was to dignify their existence), they are now basically dressed in trash. Each wears a tray of strange accoutrements around their neck, which seemed to signify ‘tools of work’ and ‘junk that no one else wants’ simultaneously. Linguistically, they navigate history in a perversely fluid manner (the word ‘bro’ exists alongside much more poetically heightened and dusty text). There is a continuous exploration of what may be considered true (almost nothing, it seems) and/or half true, and what is just flat out made up. There are songs that briefly explode into their world, sung full-voiced and in a way that makes it seem like it’s just what they do sometimes, they sing like this, and then the song ends and the work continues. The work here is depicted by one of the actors slowly ascending and descending a stage-right staircase while balancing a long bent piece of wood upon their shoulder.
They seem happy enough to see us (the audience) but a little confused in terms of how best to communicate with us, if at all – perhaps it’s a matter of describing all the relationships, or showing us their various rituals, or maybe it’s altogether too tiring and they should just keep doing what they’re doing. Every so often, they all cry out, ‘POOF’ and the lights pulse and they look uncomfortable for a moment, blinded by the light, before doggedly trying to recover their train of thought.
Our relationship with the sharecroppers is rather rudely interrupted by two men in yellow (standing in for Agee and Evans, here referred to as Jay & Ben). One wears a picture of a camera around his neck, and the other wears a picture of a typewriter. They set out to document, and photograph the sharecroppers (Click Snap ‘Poof,’ followed by the audience going, “Oh, I get it!”).
But do we? Should we get it? The character of Susan Sontag makes an appearance in the 2nd act, and addresses us / Jay in his dark room as he develops his pictures. “Something of the consciousness and communication shared by humans, plants, animals and the earth, between wholeness for all beings – and they are not so easy to understand … are they?”
Kempson is always careful to subvert and reframe just as we might be getting comfortable with a way of seeing, or satisfied with the lens through which we are choosing to view. Later, Kempson’s version of Sontag memorably sums up the experience of the tenant farming family we have been attending to so attentively throughout the performance: “Instead they are doomed to the eternal profanity of preserved death and endless life in a series of pretty pictures which slowly drain of impact on account of their overuse in an emerging mass culture as starved of meaning as these families were of food, education, and opportunity.”
But just mere moments before this beautifully rendered assessment of us & them & now, one of the members of the audience (real, not part of the show) took not one but two pictures of the actor playing Jay as he sang the opening song of the 2nd Act with her phone. And she was sitting in the front row. And with the first photograph she took, her flash was still on. She cringed (POOF, right?) but undeterred, turned the flash off and took another. I mean, I guess it serves him right. The capturer now is forever captured. ‘Poof’ (historical camera effect, theatrical device) becomes ‘Post’ (ubiquitous social media phenomenon), only now the flash of light is more of a digital notification, a vibration in your pocket. Even with the act of writing this article, I’m exerting some sort of ownership over a thing that doesn’t necessarily exist to be ‘owned.’
There’s a final moment that I will not capture here because I think you should go see this play and experience it for yourself. It’s a moment that recasts everything that comes before it, and gave me a bit of encouragement that it was probably okay to write about the work, because we write out of admiration and appreciation and introspection and we don’t seek to own or capture the thing, even if our words get unavoidably involved with the source material just through the process of responding to it. If this act of writing an article in response to someone’s art in a culture blog can be encapsulated by the metaphor of, let’s say, fishing (in which one casts into the water in search of something to catch), I do try my best to adhere to the catch & release method. But even then, there’s always a photo to document the catch. That’s a nice fish. POOF.