“You are you even before you…” – Will Rawls & Claudia Rankine at Bard College
Years ago, I picked up Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, because, well… I was lonely. Eventually, I gave it to my baby sister. She’s got late-nite TV watching habits. Then, a few years ago, I picked up Citizen because, yes, once again the title, but more so because of the cover image: an empty, torn, black hood, dismembered from its own sweatshirt. A reminder of the many citizens of this country who are erased and murdered by other citizens with the justification of hoodies and pocket skittles. In the fall of 2015, I gave that copy to a Croatian director with whom I was trying to equate my desire to focus our show, about flawed democracies, towards the #blacklivesmatter movement with his intent to focus on the Syrian refugee crisis. He did cast a black Orestes, but when the Slovenian Pylade painted his dick black in envy, the “John Henryism” – a medical term mentioned in Citizen flares up and I could have been a “you” in one of Claudia’s stinging tales. Last year, she was recognized as a bona fide genius thanks to the MacArthur Foundation because her protean writing defies and redefines race, poetry and America. Micro aggressions and massive encounters of word and image converge in her two lyrics. A few months ago, when I caught a social media hint that the wily, genre-busting Will Rawls was collaborating with her, I perked up and and then, on Sunday, hauled myself upstate a couple hours to see What Remains, their collaboration (with filmmaker John Lucas) at The Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College as part of the larger Live Arts Bard exhibition We’re Watching.
My friend Gilbert Reyes and I talked zombie theory almost the entire way up, so an opening sequence with Tara Willis, Marguerite Hemmings, Jessica Pretty and sound designer Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste slowly walking from the back wall towards us started in an apocalyptic place, but the work soon drew me in and out of both contemporary realities and fantastic realms. It was impossible to escape thoughts of incarceration with all the concrete and an automatic door that came down, psychically locking us in once we were all seated. However, as the performers moved towards us, I felt increasingly compelled by each of them, not wary. I wondered about the different tonalities of their expressions, the variety of sweet, stoic, regal or pensive appearances and whether each artist had chosen a particular set to their lips, focus to their eyes and emotionality to their performance. The closer they got, the more the work actualized the intimacy of the written inspirations. Firmly fixed inside of hard edged structures, but expansive in vision and imagination, the magical mind of Will and his collaborators took flight.
With a dramatic light change, their costumes went from black to red and our skin changed hue. Jeremy moved to his sound booth station and the 3 others walked, swelling and collapsing in and out of moments of sustain and release, strut and trot, in a mesmerizing pattern throughout the space. The satisfaction of the swag comes from the visceral delight at dropped weight and a sense of rhythmic play, the swing of it. It looks like it feels good to do it and I can feel myself sympathizing sonically and energetically with the ahhhh, UH, step, step, step, step – ahhhhh, UH, step, step of it. Later, with Jessica’s tunic raised over her head and the 3 dancers flocking, the rush of air past my face set me in a desert landscape, the sense of exhausting trek and the words “imminent you” floating through my ears. When the 3 began moving with increased urgency, they became more like a frightened herd and the swag and swoop became flight, evasive and agile. At that point, I noted Jeremy’s insistent pulse was vibrating in my chest cavity creating a persistent anxiety. I thought about the pervasiveness of the “self surveillance” Claudia and Will discussed in their NY Times feature, the feeling of always watching yourself being watched, second guessing the perception of the “you” as constructed by a hostile society. As the dancers pulsed and rocked, keeping up and pushing on, I was reminded of the John Henryism as described in Citizen: “They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.”
There is lightness and delight too, as when the 4 gather using fleeting bits of Dreamgirls as a warm up to a vocal quartet singing “I don’t want nobody fucking with me in these streets-ahhh. Ain’t nobody got time for that shit-ah, t-ah, ta-ah, t-, t-ah.” Or a backup vocalist configuration for the 3 women, singing a version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” at microphones. When Jessica unwraps a disco ball that sits on the floor next to her (while she sits a chair and sings), its as if she’s captured a mythical pet. Tara transforms Homi K. Bhaba’s summer ArtForum (Will was in that issue too) “Writing the Void” into a vocal roller coaster, accelerating through a descending and rising rush of words and sounds. Marguerite delivers text from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (about counting the commercials for anti-depressants) with a small projection by John Lucas much like an older television screen on the wall behind her. I can feel myself slipping into the sensation of a late-nite cocktail of fatigue and dread. But, the sound of Claudia’s pre-recorded voice “to call you out, to call out… you” settles me down and after the performers have opened the exit door and left, and the mechanized metal gate has rolled back up, releasing us back into the wild, I’m not eager to exit captivity.