The Dump (or Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest): He’s Our President, He’s Our Problem at La MaMa
Once upon a time, way way back in the 1900s, 4 artists sued the National Endowment for the Arts for defunding their Solo Theater, Individual Artist Fellowships. Though deemed, unanimously, to hold the artistic merit that the peer review panel had adjudicated by, the conservative right’s increasing efforts to dissolve the agency had resulted in articles about “obscene art” by a dangerous lesbians like Holly Hughes or the “chocolate smeared woman,” Karen Finley. So, Congress passed a “decency clause” that demanded that artistic merit could not be the only criteria for granting an artist support, but that the work had to meet the “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs of the American public” and The NEA announced it would not fund Holly, Karen, John Fleck, and PS 122 and Highways Performance Space co-founder Tim Miller. The NEA 4, as they became known, sued and received out of court settlements equal to what their individual grants would have been. Hurray! One for the artists. But, the artists continued the fight against the constitutionality of the “decency clause,” taking their case all the way to the US Supreme Court, where, under Bill Clinton’s administration, they lost National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley. And, the NEA, under pressure from Congress, stopped funding individual artists. Boom. A couple casualties of the Culture Wars of the 80s/90s that you young’ns hear us cratch’ty types bringing up more and more, cuz despite its after-school-special, network-TV scent, “When We Rise,” (ABC’s recent 4 part mini-series on the LGBTQ fights from the 70s to the present) reminds us that the real casualties of these culture wars are actual human lives. And, with 7 trans women already killed within the first two months of this year (5 Black trans women in Feb alone), this isn’t – to chop and screw something I heard composer M. Lamar say – this isn’t…this is NOT our racial and cultural past, this…this…this…this is…our…RACIAL… CULTURAL… PRESENT. WE are STILL at war here. Congress is going to kill NEA and shed no tears for all the coloreds and the queers and the jews who, after hiding in her skirts, now won’t have a pot to Piss Christ in.
Holly and Karen are once again at the forefront. Now college professors, they’re charging up the 20-teens (twonteens?) performance resistance movement. And, who better than experienced, radical women willing to get loud and legal with this shit. A couple weeks after the election, Holly posted her vision for a “Bad Hombres and Nasty Women” (Dumbo’s terms for Mexicans and Hillary) revolt for President’s Day on Facebook. Spiderwoman Theater, Split Britches and WOW Cafe co-founder Lois Weaver and self described rabid, lefty, lesbian, feminist social media maven Mary Jo Watts got on board and suddenly a global “Not My President’s Day” initiative was birthed. Based on World AIDS Day, the idea was to get arts organizations to host events on 2/20 in protest of the new administration’s stripping of civil rights, civil liberties, civility, and civilian lives. In late November, Holly contacted Nicky Paraiso and in mid-December, he and I plotted how to involve La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company in an event in The Club. Organizers had, as Holly wrote, “a frame, a focus, a shared date” but could interpret the event as a concert, a reading, mixed bill or whatever felt right. In the midst of his Winter of Discontent (Christmas in Nickyland), the planning for 2/20 offered a way to envision how art could continue to matter post-inauguration. Writer, curator, educator and Black Witch Eva Yaa Asantewaa recently wrote how Art Matters Now in many ways other than fiscally. She details how the arts “seek ways–ever new and as ancient as humanity itself–to articulate and preserve the story of individual lives as well as diverse communities, cultures and nations…,” something also beautifully noted by Academy Award winner Viola Davis. Eva details the sacred roles the arts play in our lived lives and the vital role a single artist can play in “the ancient and evergreen roles of Storyteller, Guide, Healer and Agent of Change and Joy.” As we battle the anticipated decimation of federal arts funding, it remains vital and urgent to remember how much we offer that can’t be judged only in capitalist terms. On Monday February 20, 2017 in The Club at La MaMa, Nicky Paraiso gathered a packed house of artists and audience members for an evening of guidance, and healing through songs, dances, reveries and resistance. It was a donation based event, artists gave their time, audiences dropped some cash into a hat to help cover the production costs, but in the end it was the coming together, sharing space, time and stories that mattered.
As an organizer and performer for the second and second-to-last acts of the night, I only caught bits of the evening from the sidelines or by climbing up the backside of the risers to watch or grab a photo or video. So, without notes and over a week later, I cannot offer a comprehensive review of the works, but I will say it was an invigorating and epic collection of artistic statements that left me grateful for the chance to participate in art as explicit action and humbled by the activisms of the truly unrelenting mavericks like Karen Finley, George Emilio Sanchez, and Yoshiko Chuma. The refined wit of choreographer and published scientist Beth Graczyk and writers Margo Jefferson, Elizabeth Kendall & Laurie Stone provided us with expansive and imaginative landscapes of the past, present and futuristic worlds. Eugene Lang/New School faculty and resident artist Zishan Ugurlu had brought in her student Cemre Necefbas, who along with Taulant Mehmeti, presented an exquisite song. The young Dreamer, choreographer Luis Grande Angel Corona shared a work-in-progress about his experiences. A recent Hunter alumn, he and I had shared various nerd-fi (Welcome to Nightvale, among others) references when he first started making work, but his work has taken on increasingly more loaded meaning as he has mined his experiences crossing, as a child and striving within the confines of undocumented-ness. He and I conferred on how public to be, but he wrote that while it has been “crazy, and although there might be some risk, I believe that getting the word out is better than hiding.” It was deeply valuable to have the antithesis of the “bad hombre” among us. Judith Sloan & some members of EarSay Youth Voices also gave a direct report from the field about the immediate realities of art in the era of intimidation and increased fear. She mentioned the complications for an organization that works on getting the stories of immigrant teens out there when the unpredictability of recent ICE raids has kept these teens from coming out. Nevertheless, the group shared a song and some excellent “Don’t Normalize, Organize” stickers with us. And, got us singing: “Listen, Listen to Me, I have, I have so many dreams.”
As did Nicky. He led the night with his rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall.” He’d shared this during Nickyland, inspired by Patti Smith’s heart swelling performance for Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Award in December, and it has only gotten more poignant and insistently real with each passing push for a renewed arms race and denials of natural resource justice in this administration’s rush towards corporate control. Midway through the two hour event, Nicky kicked it up with a nod to another “nasty woman” with Laura Nyro’s “Emmie,” often considered the first pop lesbian love song, getting many to sing along with “she got the way to move me...” Along with his long, wild history as a performer, Nicky carries with him the delight and passion from a time that precedes the disillusioned cynicism (and entitlement) that so many around us have steeped in. He believes. He remembers and he believes. The belief is in the power art has had to change the world. He knows, he remembers and he strives on in a constant crusade to see and help others see what needs to be done. In these early moments of this resistance, his is a persistent presence.
For our first appearance of the evening, La MaMa’s Great Jones Repertory Company (originally founded by La Mama herself, Ellen Stewart, along with director Andrei Serban and composer Elizabeth Swados) presented a chant-along from the Obie-winning 1972 experimental theater/opera “Trojan Women.” In the production, the women of Troy mourn and resist the insistent destruction of their city, murder of their prince and enslavement by the Greek soldiers through various songs, dances and chants. “Dios Limna” is a verbal argument between the women and the men (Men yell “Anh” Women counter quickly with “Se”), however for the purposes of sharing and involving the audience in collective protest we decided we were all on the same side and as they chanted back (with some hastily scribbled visual aids I wrote on the back of company member Kim Ima’s former Treats Truck cake plates), our musical director Bill Ruyle proclaimed that all of the ancient Greek meant some version of “Resist,” “Persist” or “Not My President.” It was an early kick-off for the event and highlighted some of Nicky’s curatorial vision for intergenerational, international, and multi-racial connections. It was also a brief chance to share that in addition to art as protest, members of Great Jones have been using art, specifically “Trojan Women,” as part of a global peace project. Cambodian artist and 2017 Asian Cultural Council fellow, Nget Rady, joined the company for the chant-along, having learned the show during a residency last year. Rady’s work will also be a part of this year’s La MaMa Moves Dance Festival. On a side note, many of us had gathered the day before at La MaMa’s Basement Lobby for the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066 Day of Remembrance, (organized by Kim and Allison Hiroto) and the day before that had participated in a Peace Walk (organized by Karen Lee) that, among other locations, had taken us past Dump Tower (and was captured in a Newsday piece). Both of these events reminded and informed those observing and involved that FDR’s incarceration of American citizens based on their race could be repeatable amidst the xenophobia of the contemporary Muslim ban. And…those history lessons were brought to the public by artists.
Yoshiko Chuma had just returned from Cairo, Egypt and was eager to share her thoughts about the art community’s beginning to get the “vibe of opening.” She assembled an army of women for a School of Hard Knocks 1980-2017 “Dead End, Hey! Women” collection, an ongoing project which continues on 3/18 & 19, with live video mixing from Kit Fitzgerald and performances by luminary artist/choreographers Kathy Ray, Sarah Skaggs, Vicky Shick, Catherine Galasso, Ursula Eagly, Irene Hultman Monti, Miriam Parker, Patricia Nicholson Parker, Megumi Eda and Yoshiko. A long-time, fervently passionate, wild and wily force in NYC live performance for over 30 years, Yoshiko takes no prisoners and gives hard knocks in her quest to prove that art will bring people together. She is a masterful curator of artistic others, constantly traveling, meeting and assembling brilliant collaborators for live performances that encapsulate the myriad dynamics that live in the space between “resist” and “persist.” In the end, for this first “Dead End, Hey! Women” she clearly just wanted to “Make America Dance Again.”
George Emilio Sanchez brought the fire. Literally. George, who has created the First Amendment Sanctuary Spaces Project, a network of over two dozen performance, cultural and religious spaces that have pledged to uphold the foundational elements of the constitutional right to free speech in all its forms, was Fired Up, and Ready to Go. Chair of Performing and Creative Arts at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, he’s often been the activist angel in my ear when fighting a hostile administration of a more local nature. We’ve walked protest lines and picketed CUNY Board meetings and the Chancellor’s home together. He directs Emergenyc, the performance project for young “artivists” for the Hemispheric Institute and facilitates Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed workshops around the globe. This man is not messing around. He knows the power of organizing and the role art plays in the pursuit and maintenance of justice and freedom. And, he was out to press the edges of the First Amendment and repeatedly told the audience, they could share his act with the White House. He shared his full “Not My President” script with me, but in quick recap: George enters to The Beatles “Revolution,” dressed in white, with red smeared lips and chin. His hat reads “Make America Indigenous Again” and he speaks to us about the insanity of a world where “El Trumpo” lies and lies. “Yes, we have been here before; yes, we can overcome; yes, we may very well triumph in two to four years, but this is beyond belief! I lived through Nixon and being a crook, I lived through Reagan and just say no, I lived through Clinton, the Bushes and Obama, and although I remain on my own two feet ready to battle and fight back, I have to call this out for it is…this is Crazy! And this Crazy is dangerous…this Crazy is Crazy…but this Crazy is also impeachable.” He points out the attacks on the media and reminds us again that this crazy is impeachable. He then proclaims repeatedly that as long as El Trumpo continues undermining the Constitution and other illegal and self-serving, country-sacrificing activities,“HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT.” He calls upon us all to uphold the First Amendment, which provides us the essential elements of any free and open society, key ingredients of a democratic society and “the ultimate form of non-violent resistance that express the eloquence of the human spirit in its eternal struggle to bring the light that dims the wilted perceptions born of ignorance, greed and xenophobia.” He was rousing, he was impassioned, he was clear, articulate, eloquent and informed. He spoke of peaceable assembly, petitioning, redress and keepin’ on. He could be my president, I’d happily fly my freak flag for that nation. And then, he offered a magic act. With more Patti Smith, he burned the flag. Yup. Doused it in lighter fluid and incinerated it. A fascinating ripple of apprehension and exhilaration spread through the Club as it flashed in a brilliant burst and disappeared, ashes filling a clear bowl of water that George then washed his face with – cleansing in the decimated ruins.
We took the stage amidst the puddles for an excerpt of the Great Jones Rep 2015 production of Pylade. I’ve already written at length in Furious Capitalism or Fascist Consumerism about some of the ties to the US politics that were woven into its original development during the early stages of the fall 2015 presidential primaries and a European tour that was bracketed by the Brexit vote and the RNC Convention this past summer. For the 2/20 event, I introduced the scene by sharing that, originally our Croatian director Ivica Buljan had arrived eager to detail the ways in which the crisis of Syria’s refugees was causing us to re-examine the democratic principles that the openly gay, Italian artist, intellectual and political figure Pier Paolo Pasolini had wrestled with in his play decades ago. But, living in the privileged isolationism that has long been the American way, too many at the table weren’t able or willing to connect the dots between how the drought, famine, radicalization and displacement of people in the Middle East would soon change our way of life here. Still in the early stages of the American presidential primaries, character portrayals in this work, took whimsical jabs at the capitalist excesses of The Dump, the compromised democracy of Obama and fervent revolutionary inclinations and religious fundamentalisms. But, by the time we toured it last July, the misogynistic, racist and xenophobic rhetoric spewing forth alongside promises of increased wealth for the sake of national welfare had become terrifyingly real.
But still we laughed. During a rest stop in Austria, I saw that gaudy 2010 family portrait on a magazine cover and joked with Chris Wild (The Dump to my silent, greedy Malaria for the first few scenes of the play) that we’d made the cover! Now, in the early days of Dumptonia, our arrogant dismissal of fascism’s grip and his disgusting, gilded palace has been staunchly tempered. The dominance of the capitalist state is solidified and the lessons embedded in Pasolini’s tragic meditation have been insistently calling for us to remember. In the scene we shared, a leader (Chris) defines nationalist success against a backdrop of sensationalistic excess. Now impotent from all the partying, he satisfies himself by rubbing up against his wife as she bangs The Boy (John Gutierrez) while ignoring the warnings of a peasant (Perry Yung), who has seen a burgeoning plague. While the peasant and a maid (Valois Mickens) detail the return of the Furies, the wealthy (including Eugene the Poogene and Cary Gant) continue their revelries in a display of true hubris, denying the existence of any god beside wealth and youth. For the record, we backstoried the coke habit and sexual assaults before the debate sniffles and Access Hollywood pussy grabbing tape. But, what fun is being right about any of it now? We live in this reality: the privileged insist on ignorance and our leaders preach about the past while distracting us with a circus and destroying our future.
But if, as we build our own Cirque de Resistance, with George as our nihilistic Pierrot, then Karen Finley would be the star trapeze and tightrope artist. High high above us, in a realm few will ever ascend to, she flings herself through peril with abandon and balances razor sharp political commentary with dazzling displays of mania and brilliance. There are no others like her, not only because of what she has done or has stood for or all that she has said, slathered, spit or scribed, but because inside of the screeching Donald she shared with us on Not My President’s Day there was a fascinating study of pathological need and envy. It was fierce and ruthless as a take down, but unrelentingly entertaining as a performance. Her rendition of The Dump was rampantly hysterical, actually pulling from the womb and tearing a volatile emotional roller coaster. It was both invocation and exorcism. She is a modern witch, boiling the kind of dangerous magic that have made her a target for conservative zealots. In her performance, there is both the kind of feminizing and skewering that would drive the Donald nuts.
I’ll be you, I’ll be her. Brigitte Bardot, Animal Kingdom. I’m Legally Blonde 1 and 2…I’m Platinum blonde…blonde…Gentlemen Prefer Blondes…Blonde Ambition…I am Dumb and Dumber and Dumbest…I have a barbie doll wife, I’ve got barbie doll daughters, I’ve got barbie doll ex-s…Let me be your fantasy, I’m all blondes… … … Am I fucked up enough for ya!! Am I fucked up enough for ya!! Am I fucked up enough for ya!! Don’t judge my hair, Don’t judge me, I’ll bankrupt you for free…If you ask me why I ran, it was me running against Hillary, to have the opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate, debase, cruel…I wanna be that blonde in Trashy and Trashier, the sadistic…everything I always wanted to say to momma, everything I always wanted to say to poppa, as self-destructing narcissist shadowplay… AND I KNEW SHE COULD TAKE IT… If McKay Coppins’ Buzzfeed piece about how Obama’s ridiculing of him at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner (and a 2014 profile by Coppins) led to Trump’s decision to run is true, perhaps we could worry about what getting Karen’s portrayal before a larger audience might mean. But hell, SNL’s finally gotten worth watching again, but Alec Baldwin’s satire is nothing compared to the torrent of ideas and references in Karen’s portrayal. But, see it LIVE. See it repeatedly. I couldn’t possibly catch it all, I can’t even transcribe the clip I shot. It’s dense. It’s rich. It’s riot worthy. So, if word that she’ll be back at La MaMa again sometime this spring is true, then come back for her circus and bring EVERYONE. It’s so much better than the blonde guy’s carnival. And in the meantime, hold Judith’s slogan dear…Don’t Normalize, Organize.
Not My President
George Emilio Sanchez
(“Revolution” by The Beatles plays as I enter the space. I am dressed all in white and my face is covered with talcum powder and red lipstick spread over my lips and cheeks ala the Joker in “The Dark Knight”. I wear a hat inscribed with the phrase, “Make America Indigenous Again”.)
The entire thing is beyond comprehension. The whole situation is beyond belief. I guess that’s why we have to laugh to keep from crying. Or do we….
As a young kid growing up I learned in my public school education that president number one, George Washington, who we commemorate today, confessed on being caught and singled out for his No-No, “I cannot tell a lie.” This is part of the myth of this country that presidents don’t lie, when in fact, we all know all presidents lie. But now we have president #45, El Trumpo, who is singled out every day for his No-No’s, fact-checked to death, who in essence proclaims, “I cannot tell the truth.”
Yes, we have been here before; yes, we can overcome; yes, we may very well triumph in two to four years, but this is beyond belief! I lived through Nixon and being a crook, I lived through Reagan and just say no, I lived through Clinton, the Bushes and Obama, and although I remain on my own two feet ready to battle and fight back, I have to call this out for it is…this is Crazy! And this Crazy is dangerous…this Crazy is Crazy…but this Crazy is also impeachable.
On Inauguration Day the POTUS took the oath of office for all to see, or not so many, or the biggest crowd ever, in the rain, or no rain, or whatever, and El Trumpo solemnly swore to faithfully execute the office of the President. Execute as in making it work, to make it function, not to kill it! And to the best off his ability to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. Really? Protect the First Amendment? The freedom of an open and free press? “The media is the enemy of the people.” El Trumpo lied from Day One of his campaign, invited Putin to hack emails, he lied when he took the oath, and he’s been on the attack since January 21. This Crazy is impeachable! No one in this room can lie like El Trumpo and keep their jobs, keep their families or have any friends. No one. I cannot tell lies every time I open my and expect to have a job the next day! No one can. No, El Trumpo is a phenomenon, he’s like Big Foot only with small hands. Here is movement that could not win a single seat in the New York City Council in four of five boroughs. No wonder New Yorkers are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. El Trumpo is Agent Orange with a two-toned scalp trampling on our rights and whatever liberty we have. Here is a POTUS in office by way of gerrymandering, voter id laws and Russian hacking, and I, I mean we, have to accept this as democracy in action? This is the peaceful transition of government? No, we have become a nation of lies instead of a nation of laws. I do not and will not accept the lies of a president who hoops and hollers, gloats and boasts of his victory through advocating fear, bigotry and xenophobia.
And so tonight I proclaim,
As long as El Trumpo undermines the Constitution; colludes with Russia; and endangers our national security
HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT
As long as the language of hatred and fear-mongering rules the communications and executive orders of El Trumpo
HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT
As long as the business interests and profits of El Trumpo and his family conflicts and compromises the Oval Office
HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT
As long as the President refuses to release his taxes for all the world to see, as no president in modern times has ever done, to make transparent the sources of his personal wealth and whether or not there exists legitimate reasons to question his ability to put the country above his personal wealth
HE IS NOT MY PRESIDENT
This Land is Not Your Land
This Land is My Land
This Land is Not your Land
This Land is My Land
Almost overnight, we find ourselves in a threatening time with little light. Almost overnight, ways of life, the questions of citizenry, our racial and gender identities, and the reality of the 1% v. the 99%, have suddenly become the signifiers for who are and are not “authentic” Gringos. As a way to move forward, to fight back, we need to meet indifference, fear, and ignorance at the crossroads, we must all uphold the First Amendment.
The First Amendment provides us the essential elements of any free and open society. The arts and expression, a free and open press, and the exercise of religious beliefs, all are key ingredients of a democratic society. Each strand of this quilt, the arts, the press and religion, individually and collectively, function to create the practice of freedom. All are essential to the life and soul of this country. But they are all in jeopardy under El Trumpo’s administration. We must resist, be pro-active, protest, organize and strategize how to keep our eyes on the prize. The arc of the universe towards justice. Frederick Douglass, who has been cited by El Trumpo to be doing amazing things, once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Rights and freedom are not passively given over to people. Laws are meaningless without the passion and fervor to make the word flesh. The challenges every one of us faces individually, or as members of the myriad communities we find kinship and solace with, stare us in the face today. We are confronted with the urgency of now and the dark times are also the windows of opportunity we can take up to bring us the light we demand. The arts are the ultimate form of non-violent resistance that express the eloquence of the human spirit in its eternal struggle to bring the light that dims the wilted perceptions born of ignorance, greed and xenophobia.
This place we find ourselves tonight is a physical sanctuary for the First Amendment. La MaMa is a physical sanctuary of the First Amendment. These physical sanctuaries will protect and keep safe the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In perpetuity, which colloquially means….to keep on keeping on!
And now for my magic act, “Now you see it; Now you don’t”.
(Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” comes on. I prepare the set for my magic act. I place a U.S. flag on the floor. I place a circular table on top of the flag. On top of the table I place a clear bowl of water. I take out a miniature U.S. flag on a wooden stick. I place the stick flag on the floor and take out a small bottle of lighter fluid and ala Jimi Hendrix, ceremoniously squeeze the fluid onto the miniature flag. I stand and limply wave the flag in the air. I take out a lighter, light the flag, and wave the burning flag. I then douse the burning flag in the bowl of water. Once the flame is out, I throw my face in the water and wash off my face.)
Repeat after me as I burn this flag:
We are Free Speech
We are Free Thought
We are Free Expression