In Which A Booking Cancellation At The New Ohio Creates Space For Radical Community Recalibration: #AmericanAF
Part I: Community
Who is your community? For real. Who is your actual community? This question is directed in this instance towards the New York theater people, but can expand to include any person in any community. To make a presumptuous assumption – the real answer, the actual head count of those within one’s inner circle might be fewer than one might hope, less inclusive than one would like. How does one open up that circle? Who to trust, outside of one’s own people? Who will stand up for you? Who will you stand up for? Who do you love?
And if the artistic director of a scrappy downtown theater came into contact with you, mentioned that a recent booking had cancelled, and wondered if you might have a recommendation to fill that slot, who would you recommend?
The short version of the circumstances that allowed the #AmericanAF Festival to “pop up” is that the New Ohio Theater had a space, and Jessica Almasy and Ann Marie Dorr (the festival’s producers) along with lead curators Zhailon Levingston, Monet Hurst-Mendoza, Jeremy O. Harris, Amina Henry, and Darian Dauchan, filled it; not just with a single show, but a nightly bill packed to the gills with raw, vital, messy, energetic work. The work continues through October 7th – tickets can be purchased for $20 here.
The festival’s stated goal is to bring this work to the New York theater-going community in order to “recalibrate – from straight / white as neutral – to an American identity that centralizes black, brown, and LGBQT people, asserting themselves as a fluid, intelligent, articulate, pioneering, dissenting culture relentlessly reinventing itself as it fights for freedom and justice.”
To attend is to remind yourself how much we miss by relying on established institutions to deliver us our culture, pre-curated and mixed just so, on whatever silver platter they might have recently polished. At some point last Saturday night, I turned to a friend sitting in the row behind me and said something along the lines of, “I know neither of us were here ‘then’, but maybe this is how it used to be! Old New York, gritty, angry, political, all night long!” The friend responded, “I know but we’re just so preconditioned now.” Preconditioned for what?
On the evening I attended, whatever that precondition might have been was exploded by the reading of a poem, a film by Mtume Gant, a performance piece involving a lot of onions by Andrea Hart and Kim Gambino (yes the onions got sliced and yes we all cried), a full play by Jeremy O. Harris (discussed in Part II), a monologue that included the recalibration of Taylor Swift lyrics by Kaela Garvin, a performance piece featuring a person dressed up in a heart costume with a machine gun by Alexander Paris, an intertwining series of shorter monologues featuring performances by E J An, Renee Rises, Tadashi Mitsui, and Mia Kang, and an excerpt from a more play-like play regarding science and a sick father by Jenny Reed and Samantha Sheppard. All of the work wrestled with our current precondition, articulating a wide range of rage, sickness, theory, death, and love.
Here is where I own my whiteness, my maleness. I’m writing about this festival, this evening, because I am able to. My circumstances allow me to go to a show at night, write it about for a few days, and publish it into a public forum. I understand that #AmericanAF isn’t a space that is designed for me to come in and take away something for myself. But at risk of taking at least one thing away, being warmly included in that specific Saturday evening by the pop-up community that enveloped both audience and performers alike reminded me that it isn’t so much unity that this country needs – as unity suggests a joining together but also an erasing of necessary difference and dissent – but a reinvention of love. So how do we do that?
Part II: Autofiction and The Feels…KMS
The Feels…KMS (which you can catch most remaining nights of the festival, and should), a play by Jeremy O. Harris, manages to tackle most of the above all at once. More so, his work opens up a space to consider how stories are being told today in ways that stories have not been told before, which led me to begin imagining the (recalibrated, diversified) storytelling landscape of the future. One hopes – Assumes? Dreams? – that not only the content of stories but the also the forms in which they are told will vastly differ from what we still consider “mainstream theater” today.
One thing that stood out in The Feels…KMS was the playwright’s use of what he refers to as autofiction, a term that refers to the literary combining of autobiography and fiction. I had a chance to ask a few questions of Harris about the work, including about what led him to the utilization of autofiction and what it could accomplish. He responds, “I think my interest in autofiction comes from an obsession with Funnyhouse of a Negro and the aesthetics of contemporary dance and the avant garde. For me, autofiction became a tool to use theater for what it’s best at in my mind, embodying ideas.”
How this works: Near the top of the play, Harris establishes an authorial voice (‘the playwright is thinking about…’) which then allows the work to reference the voice’s obsession with autofiction. This (the voice referencing the voice referencing both autobiography and fiction) creates something like an unbreakable loop, which eventually – if one disobeys the play’s overt command not to interpret it – culminates in a horror both literary and physical and impossible to verify within the work itself – the mother of the playwright (real? fictional?) chokes on bleach, a symbolic asphyxiation, which both combines the sound of the two words and attempts, unsuccessfully, to break the loop. It’s one of many echoes in the play, and when all of them are in full reverberation, the play itself becomes a dynamic machine capable of not only recalibration but also of simultaneous construction and destruction of meaning, identity, and form.
Harris expands upon this. “When the ‘body’ for the ideas became my actual psyche and #history I got to put these ideas through a lot of different filters. Which is something so many of my favorite writers do. In the text of the play I say ‘this is less a play and more a study for an essay I would write if I were blessed with the audacity of Audre Lorde or Maggie Nelson.’ The work is deeply referential (on every page almost) in that way to a history of artists who have worked in this way in a lot of different forms in order to try to get to the similar spaces of intersection between form and politic.”
Autofiction isn’t new, but it’s new(ish) – the term was coined in 1977. I’ve encountered it in a number of notable works with varying degrees of effectivity. But I saw it in a new way through The Feels…KMS, which embodied, complicated, and deconstructed itself in a way that felt very much in line both with #AmericanAF’s stated goals and also as a vital and evolving tool for recalibrating how stories are being told (in the context of the larger conversation/debate over identity in America). But a conversation or debate still must involve a community.
Returning to that theme (of community), I ask Harris about it – who is he writing for?
He responds, “A thing I say about Sarah Kane is that she’s a playwright who I feel is talking to herself in her plays but her voice is so loud that other people had to take notice of what she was saying. I admire that and I reach for that at times but I also know that I’m a host. So I think I write plays for an audience that I’m an active participant within. A fact of our ‘community’ is that theater is for #theatrePeople and those people by and large are upper middle class and white. These are people who have benefited from white privilege and have been complicit in the oppression of queer people, women and people of color whether they have been active in it or not. This is seen in what’s programmed, how it’s programmed, and for whom it’s programmed. I would hope that I never write plays that are supposed to sit comfortably in that community. I hope that when I’m the host presenting their plays that I’m actively complicating my audience’s relationship to both me and their ‘community’. I want to be the host who talks about religion and politics first – All the faux pas – and dare them to stay.”
Let the faux pas of today provide the fuel for tomorrow’s fire.
Harris adds, “As a side to that I want to say that’s why the #AmericanAF festival is so exciting. Not only do I get to feel, as I wrote in the The Feels, like I’m truly making a play for me / my community in that space. I feel as though Jessica really challenged the community to be aware of what making radical programming choices feels like and it feels complex and colored and sexy and new and right in the moment we are in now.”
Do you know of a space in your community? Contact #AmericanAF at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about how you can produce your own affiliated pop-up festival.