Getting Lost in the Psychic Underground

Photo used courtesy of JACK

Race Card, created and performed by Karma Mayet, is an experiment in storytelling. When I walked into JACK (where the show is playing through December 16th, tickets $18), my eye was drawn not to the walls of foil (an everpresent feature of the performance space) as usual, but instead to the playing cards taped on the back of every seat. I wondered when I would play my card, and why. I watched Mayet move through the space, making adjustments, greeting friends, and laughing contagiously. The show starts about twenty minutes late, but I barely notice. I am focusing on the adjustments being made—when she changes the music, when the lights get brighter and warmer.

The program I am given welcomes me to a “journey through the psychic underground where we’ll dance underwater and not get wet”. My ears perk up—I don’t know what this means, but somehow that is thrilling. Then Mayet welcomes us all, telling us, “This is your world. You’re in the show. Welcome to the stage”. I don’t know what this means, but I am ready for it. As we return to our seats, I notice that the table on stage is filled with notes organized neatly into piles. When I sit down, I ask myself what I expect from this experience—the answers are music, story, community. Race Card fulfills these expectations at times, in moments that are brimming with joy and pain and hilarity.

At other times, though, Race Card struggles to make use of the space between those more successful moments. Mayet informs the audience that we are about to play a game of bid whist—but that she is adjusting the form of the game so all of us can play together, instead of in the typical four person, partnered arrangement. The rules of the game involve trumps and jokers and dancing…and not asking questions about the rules of the game. At first, I welcomed my ignorance, and assured myself that it was an integral part of my experience. As the show went on, my ignorance turned into frustration, which turned into apathy. It is difficult to take pleasure in a game when you don’t know the rules, and it is more difficult when no one seems to know them. The cards we played dictated the stories we were told, and each story fell into a particular suit. Mayet would pull a story from the pack according to the trump, as chosen by the audience member who had won the hand. This was the central tenet of our game. Bid whist carries particular significance in the black American experience, as it was popularized among Pullman porters working long train rides across the country. Any good card game, however, requires tension and balance between strategy and luck. The skilled player navigates the constraints of the game with the cards they are dealt—in the same way that we all navigate our privileges and oppression in daily life. In Race Card, the audience’s experience (and perhaps the performer’s experience) was dictated solely by luck. The meaning of each suit—spades, hearts, clubs, diamonds—was kept a mystery, thus depriving us of access to strategy.

As an audience, we failed to meet Mayet’s expectations of us. We did not dance when we were supposed to. When asked for a story, one audience member claimed she had none. There were moments that were entirely empty, where nothing was happening, not even silence. There were moments that were full of uncertainty, when the performer was asking the audience to join her, or the audience was asking the performer to guide them. I left the theatre feeling like I had lost the game. I learned that the Doobie Brothers were white. I learned that British singers are more likely to sound black when they are white than American singers. I learned that Madonna gained popularity in black communities before achieving mainstream success with white audiences. There were glimpses of clarity, and pangs of recognition. I lost myself once or twice—but I never found the psychic underground.

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