Read a Book: Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s #negrophobia as a lesson in sitting in pain

Photo by Scott Shaw

Photo by Scott Shaw

The stage is strewn with photographs of crying black men. And other objects: a bleach bottle, flags, balloons, a party hat.

Across it stretches a (basket)ball and chain, hooked to a pair of sneakers.

We’re still taking our seats, the house lights are still up, and a person arresting in form and height and dress is moving in front of us. Tall, made even taller by heels over a pair of calf-high socks, IMMA/MESS (a.k.a. Jarrod Kentrell) has a stocking pulled over his face and he’s filming us. His body, presenting feminine in its grace and poise and masculine in its height and power, is mesmerizing (to me: beautiful) and he’s holding an iPhone trained on the audience, catching all of us looking, and the phone’s screen is streaming live to the wall behind him. I think of security cameras. The stocking has a cartoonish face drawn onto it. One eyehole is cut out, allowing flesh to bulge out of the hole in the fabric and making the distortion of the face below it more dramatic, alienating. I think of robbery. Between Kentrell’s legs it’s maybe 5% fabric, a higher, thinner cut than anything I’ve ever dared to wear, and the rest is crotch. When Kentrell comes near me my eyes are right at crotch level. I think of sex. I think of the sexual act and the sex of a person. I’m drawn to the body, repelled by the face. I think of Stop and Frisk Watch apps. I think of fear.

The stage is a curious shrine, and even before the incense I think: séance. One of the first things Jaamil Olawale Kosoko (who is the show’s creator and performs alongside Kentrell) does when he enters the theater is invoke his lineage. He recites a litany of mamas and it’s a confession as much as it is a celebration. In the form of a poetry reading, a gold-plated Kosoko indicts a family history that could have dragged him down, though his words are not without tenderness for Mama.  And there’s much more to indict over the course of the performance. #negrophobia presents the image of a shackled body, imprisoned by origin story, race, lack of imagination, stereotype, sexuality, ignorance, fear. Kosoko talks of his life as an artist in terms of escape from the prison of his roots, but it’s only when we learn that his brother has recently, violently died—that this performance is, in some ways, simultaneously a memorial and a séance for him—that we feel the implications of that escape, and what Kosoko has actually escaped from.

For me one of the most powerful sections of the performance is when Kosoko, kneeling over piles of Hurston and Lorde, Coates and hooks and Baldwin, begins to tell us, “I’M READING.” A laugh track swells in the background. Kosoko’s refrain grows more frantic, pleading. The laughter gets louder, it includes screams of hilarity and thunderous applause. Kosoko holds up each book; he reads the titles, the authors, and though he continues to use the words “I’m reading,” he seems to be pleading with his audience to read. It’s a self-referential joke a la the internet classic “Read a Book,” and also a real, poignant demand, especially leveled at a room of mostly white audience members in an age when the canonical black authors Kosoko is invoking are still lumped, on the whole, under African-American Literature and vastly under-read.

By the end of the performance, we’re forced to read, like it or not. Kosoko hands an entire Baldwin essay and a microphone to an audience member, and over the course of the many minutes it takes her to speak all of it aloud, works himself up into a state that seems possessed. In the interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates that Kosoko plays somewhere in the middle of the performance, Coates talks about the necessity of sitting with pain without trying to make ourselves feel better. Kosoko must conjure his brother every time he performs this show. He ritually inhabits the pain of loss, calling up his brother through the litany of mamas and exorcising him, in the show’s final moments, through James Baldwin’s words and the literally frothing mouth of a pharaoh. #negrophobia feels like a choice to sit with pain, in a way that feels somehow active, that is most decidedly not wallowing. It ends in an expurgation that might feel cathartic, but doesn’t feel final. We know that tomorrow night Kosoko will have to lose his brother all over again. An audience will watch it happen. And through IMMA/MESS’s iPhone, they’ll watch themselves watching it happen.

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