Juggalos Deserve Better

Linus Gelber as “Jester” in “American Juggalo.”

A very telling moment occurs right at the top of American Juggalo, a new play produced by collective Unattended Baggage, at HERE Arts Center that closed March 3. After a projected slideshow introduces us in the briefest possible way to the Insane Clown Posse, Juggalos, and their annual Gathering, the text ends by cinematically rolling out the claim that what follows is all based on real people and their stories.

It’s rarely a good sign when creators feel the need to assert the truth of what follows up front, which is why throwing the claim on a title card is almost always a device used in fictional film. (Leatherface doesn’t actually exist; The Blair Witch Project isn’t really a documentary.) Unfortunately in this case, the creators mean it quite sincerely: Not only does the show take its title from both a celebrated n+1 essay and a documentary film (both from 2011, which is why, I assume, the play is set in 2011), but playwright Sean Pollock also supposedly attended the 2018 Gathering as part of the research for the show. Despite all that, the only relationship this play has to reality is that fuzzy concept of “artistic truth,” as opposed to factual truth, a notion that creators sometimes trot out to justify the license they take in translating reality to artistic medium. Really, it’s a tedious excuse for using the parts they want and discarding anything inconvenient, and sadly it can be quite profitable – hey, Green Book just won Best Picture!

Our story takes place, as mentioned, back in 2011, one evening during the Gathering of the Juggalos, when the cast are spread out through a campground in rural Illinois. Tammi Lynn (Niara Seña) is deeply inebriated and tripping in the front seat of her car when Jester (Linus Gelber), an old-school Juggalo, stumbles over looking to get drunk and laid. As they stagger through their blitzed courtship ritual, the rest of cast wander in: Darren (Cody Nash Edwards), a young and recently clean Juggalo; Maniac (Took Edelow), who’s likewise pretty trashed and a second sexual mark for Jester; and finally couple Ashlee and Barocko (Lauren E. Butler and Jarrod Zayas), she pregnant and chain-smoking, he an aspiring rapper busy huffing paint, awoken by the drunken ruckus along with their child Porkchop (either Maxim Swinton or Robbie Crandall; there was no program available so I’m cribbing all this from the company’s website).

I would call this show “bad,” but if I did so, you might get the wrong impression and assume the complaint was aimed at the acting or the production values. And it’s true that the performances are mixed, and the production suffers from faults ranging from sad-you-didn’t-have-time-to-fix-this (misspellings in the slideshow) to inadvertent (Edelow performs wearing two fake lip piercings, giving her an infantilizing lisp that undercuts crucial moments of her performance). But it is a fairly low-budget downtown production, and normally I wouldn’t hold those sorts of things against a show that had something to say. (Hell, I once had the same problem with a misspelling in a slideshow myself.) So no, the problem with the show isn’t the production or actors. The problem is the play text itself, and it’s not just “bad” in the sense of being under-wrought, it’s also exploitative and mean.

For all the claims of representing the experience of Juggalos and their culture, this play has about as much to do with them as the movie Titanic does with telling the story of the eponymous ship and its sinking. Rather, Juggalos and everything associated with them are just window-dressing – local color – grafted onto the same old tired plot about a bunch of misfits coming together to form an improvised family. In the process, they come to terms with their personal traumas in order to start defining who they really are, and who they’re definitely not. Predictably, as each character plunges into their brief monologue about what brought them to this place, the script races through a grab-bag of diversity narratives. Two of them women are bisexual and, within the roughly 12 hours the show’s plot covers, meet, fall in love, and decide to move in together. Both also suffered sex abuse at the hands of family members as children. And one of them is also Black, which doesn’t seem to mean much until she announces it as part of tirade defending the Pope when one of the other characters accuses the papacy (quite accurately, I hope I don’t need to add) of complicity in enabling abusive priests. Barocko, for his part, reveals that in prison he joined the Crips for protection rather than the Aryan Brotherhood, which seems like a throwaway until the very end, when Jester reveals himself to have no shortage of White resentment. And then – as if all of this wasn’t enough to unsuccessfully unpack in a show that lasts all of 80 minutes – Porkchop reveals in the denouement that they’re intersex, which Maniac and Tammi Lynn (happily starting their new relationship) embrace as just the sort of difference that the Juggalo family is there for, at the same time immediately gendering the child as “he” despite the fact Porkchop never identifies their own gender.

It’s always kind of gross to see these sorts of narratives – race, sexuality, gender and abuse survival – used as mere writer’s conveniences, identities to be slapped on characters like so much clown face paint. It’s a playwright treating complicated narratives as signifiers, reference points the audience can just “get” without the playwright actually having to grapple with them. Because the playwright here really has nothing to say about much of anything. The entire play could be summed up as, “Hey, Juggalos are really just people, too.” If the characters have relatable (if extreme) problems, we can identify with them and understand  why they could be drawn to something as “weird” as the Juggalo culture, none of which playwright Sean Pollock seems to have any insight into at all (to judge by the script). It all comes off as extremely Othering and exploitative. This is what I meant at the beginning when I said it was a false realism, using the details that are convenient and discarding those that aren’t. I have no doubt that when Pollock went to the Gathering, he likely saw people cheering women on to flash their breasts and make-out in a public spectacle of performative lesbianism. But all he’s done is come back, write a play with that scene in it and hire some actors to perform it live in a theater, with no apparent cognitive dissonance about the fact that the only difference between these events happening in the theater and the Gathering is that in a theater, he gets to call it “art” while making his supposed subjects seem weird for having done it in the first place.

On Unattended Baggage’s website, the show description notes that Pollock “attended the 2018 Gathering, conducting over 40 interviews in order to ensure the stories he created and adapted from the original short felt authentic to the culture.” I find that phrasing to be, perhaps inadvertently, revealing. It’s not that Pollock produced a piece of documentary work here (the draft was workshopped back in 2017); rather, he went to ensure that the decisions he’d already made “felt” right. As a result, it doesn’t surprise me that the outcome here reads as condescending and exploitative. Back in 2012, Neal Medlyn staged Wicked Clown Love, at the Kitchen, a performance piece based on work he’d done at the actual 2011 Gathering. Medlyn’s work was far more empathetic to its subjects than Pollock’s, and the reason for that stems from the fact that Medlyn didn’t set out to shoe-horn other people’s experience into his own pre-conceived notions. Their stories and problems are treated as complicated, contradictory, and impossible to reduce to mere caricature.

In other words, he let Juggalos exist as actual people, not just as an excuse to write a play.

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