Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen: Is That Voice Still Mine?

Photo by Knud Adams

Anyone familiar with Eliza Bent, whether through her work as “artisté” (presumably the fancy version of mere artist, Bent’s word of choice throughout the evening) or simply as a human person about town, will know that she’s no stranger to delightfully mannered personas and put-upon voices. Her shape-shifting vocal quality has long been one of her staples as a performer and remains on display in Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen at Abrons Arts Center (through April 21st). There is even, mid-show, an extended rapid-fire monologue of sorts – the entire show is a monologue, so let’s call this a monologue within the monologue – in which Bent rattles through her entire allotment of remembered/borrowed voices; southern, Australian, Italian, male, female, and some unsourceable but distinctly unique. She doesn’t avoid the ones that may be a shade too close to culturally inappropriate, because that’s part of her larger point. And it’s the shifting quality of her voice and persona (i.e., vocal performance demonstrating/distancing with regard to identity) throughout the show and its relationship to Bent’s accrued personal experiences and cultural realizations that allows the show to transcend the common trappings of the solo-performance form.

At its purported core, Aloha Aloha is constructed as an examination of a video that Bent made when she was thirteen, in which she reenacted the final days of the last remaining monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani. The VHS footage is played for us on a billowing parachute-materialed backdrop during transitions, and while yes, it’s funny (especially for those of us who know her personally), it’s also there to create space between the Bent that we see on the footage and the Bent who appears before us, pointing at her former self and questioning whether, even now, she has the necessary tools to actually talk about or deal with her own whiteness, and the mistakes she’s made to date as a result of said whiteness.

More often essay-like than dramatic (the staging and direction, by Knud Adams, consists mostly of a few excellent chair spins and several forays into the audience, plus one lap behind the strange textural panels that create a level of depth between stage and bilious fabric backdrop plus one costume change), the performance covers a wide swath of semi-non-descript autobiographical ground. Starting out from the point of view of her 13-year-old self, Bent then moves forward through high school, college, and recounts her job history to date, all the while taking on the subtle persona of herself at the time in question. For example, the persona and depiction of Eliza while working for a fashion magazine is slightly different from the later persona and depiction of Eliza while discovering Hilton Als’ White Girls. This discovery leads her, in a fit of passion and anger following a TCG convention, to pen a poisonous essay which she publishes on TCG’s website and from which she will have to retreat and apologize for due to her lack of foresight and cultural context but also due to, perhaps, her trying on/out a new voice (the one inspired by Hilton Als) that she hadn’t yet figured out how to responsibly make her own.

In particular, I began to wonder about the white voice (via Bent, but also my own, and those of other white Xennial artists I know) as a whole. This, for me, remains a mindspace filled with deep uncertainty. The internal recognition that my voice and identity was formed at time when I lacked necessary education or life experience to understand the level of privilege that allowed me that voice and identity in the first place now requires me to call that entire voice into question. What is my voice, actually? Can it still be the one from before, blithely confident yet ignorant, shamelessly competing for space, demanding attention based on the determination that simply by speaking and making work, attention was deserved? Can Bent’s current voice be reconciled with her 13-year-old voice as it engages in a culturally insensitive depiction of Queen Lili’uokalani?

It can’t, right? Under current American circumstances, the responsible response is to call one’s (white, cisgendered) voice fully into question. This act and examination is what actually makes up the core of Bent’s work here, and grows increasingly complicated by Bent’s tendency towards the use of a kaleidoscope of voices not her own. There is a dizzying effect to the realization / acknowledgement of one’s cringe-worthy actions as white person to date, and Aloha Aloha gives that kaleidoscopic wheel quite the healthy spin.

Yet, at the same time, that voice was hers. From watching on the video, we might notice that Bent’s 13-year-old self doesn’t seem to be adopting any persona whatsoever. There is, instead, a sincerity, a lack of filter in her early performance. In contrast, the 35-year-old on stage maintains a carefully designed separation between her performance and the actual words being spoken. This distance is accentuated, for better or worse, by use of a handheld wireless microphone throughout, which brings the sound of the voice closer but also allows Bent to make herself physically more remote – the microphone not so much prop to hide behind, more a filter that creates space between her and us.

Near the end of the show, Bent asks us, “How can white people even begin to challenge racism without first learning how to talk about race?” To which I’d like to add, how can white people relearn how to speak in a voice that resembles their own? The act of public speech itself – and the space that takes up – what do we do about it? How can we find an artistic self that is true to our (former, less educated) selves yet is somehow freed from the systemic oppressiveness that, by invisibly silencing others, allowed us to settle so easily into that initial identity and voice in the first place? Can that new voice exist yet?

Listening to Bent leap from self to self and finally, by show’s end, settling into the version that most closely resembles her current state of being, her performative sound has undergone a change. It’s more unadulterated, less persona-based, as accessible as it has been all night. The persona is finally stripped of its power, as behind it the artisté searches for new, more responsible vocal control.

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