Inciting Conversation: @GaryXXXFisher’s BLACK EXHIBITION

Photo by Maria Baranova

I saw the latest Jeremy O. Harris play, Black Exhibition, at Bushwick Starr (where it runs through December 15th) with a friend, Tingting Wei, who is both an excellent writer and a not-as-frequent theater goer, which allowed us gratifyingly varied perspectives on the work. The following is a combination of in-person thoughts, text messages, and email exchanges that followed. If you can say one thing, and only one thing, about Harris’s body of work thus far, it’s that it certainly seems to incite conversation.

Upon leaving the theater, Tingting asked me, did you like it, and I sort of shook my head like, ‘let’s not discuss it here, not yet,’ and while it was true, I didn’t like the piece very much, my liking it or not liking it was sort of beside the point. I knew I probably wouldn’t like it, because, as I awkwardly explained while we waited for a train, my gut-level tendency as an individual audience member is that I don’t usually enjoy performances that rely on making a spectacle of themselves.

Obviously, Black Exhibition, written under the pseudonym @GaryXXXFisher, with its stated desire to “interrogate the limits of vulnerability, the risk of honesty, and the security of anonymity” and to position the audience as “explicit voyeurs of an artist’s exhibitionism…through a mining of transgressive texts both found and written hopes to awaken his audience to the true price of exposing oneself,” was going to be a challenging viewing experience for me. One that, as I tried to extrapolate upon later in an email, feels like wanting to be able to change the channel, as though surfing through television options — “I do not want to watch that. There are certain things in life that just trigger that feeling.” And while I can freely acknowledge that my race, gender identity, and upbringing must play a large part in that response, the conditioning remains. 

On the train, we found ourselves discussing drag (which I must underline here is not what Black Exhibition is, but has some overlap in that it may feature an overt, sometimes sexualized, sometimes explicit, highly stylized gender performance) and I confessed that I didn’t really tend to enjoy it on the same basic grounds as exhibitionism. Then, before we could really unpack that in any meaningful way, we reached Tingting’s stop and she departed.

I asked her later, via email, about something she had said on the train; that if comedy was really about rage, than drag was about…despair? But I wasn’t sure if she had said despair, and asked for clarification. Tingting responded, “Yeah, if comedy is about rage, drag is about maybe pain? Despair also works nicely. One of the reasons I appreciate drag, despite my limited exposure to the culture, is that it’s vulnerability that refuses to be silenced. Excess/exhibitionism primes us for the strip, a nakedness that is more vulnerable than if a performer just began naked.”

During much of Black Exhibition, it may be useful to note, the playwright Harris features himself – his own body, clothed first in a robe, and later, in nothing but a jock strap.

Tingting continues, “As non theater goer, my favorite parts were when Jeremy was describing real events, moments of un-safety. I think for some people, truth (& maybe safety) exists only in trauma, like a reprogrammed nervous system.  A circular relationship to violence. I.e. the only time anything feels right is when it’s wrong. The play felt like violence aestheticized and re-enacted in a safe space, recycled from its initial happening. The repetition felt ritualistic, like a workout, a way of processing and exercising muscles so they kind of wear out? It also keeps the audience at a certain rhetorical distance. The play felt very flirty.”

To which I added, in my responding email, that it felt cagey to me. The play’s loose structure relies on four actors (in addition to Harris, as @GaryXXXFisher) who inhabit characters based on other writers: Kathy Acker, a postmodern writer and performance artist, Michael Johnson, who was jailed for not disclosing his HIV status to a partner, Yukio Mishima, a Japanese author whose work focuses often on the unity of beauty, eroticism, and death, and Samuel Delany, noted science fiction writer. Not knowing when the characters are quoting their source material and when they’re speaking words that Harris has written seems to be part of the game — it’s hard to track.

This contributed to my sense that the work was a constant masking and unmasking. The various philosophical character-counterparts might serve as an act of self-deconstruction, in which Harris breaks his “whole / hole” into fragmented sources and then – maybe? – tries to put it back together in front of an audience. It had a thrown-together feel, which contributed to a sometimes-appealing rawness but also to an overall slackness.

The show begins and ends with a sort of choral ode, repeated and deviated from throughout: “I went to Fire Island to write, but all I did was fuck and cry.” This tells us almost all we need to know, in a certain sense. The show itself spends a lot of time on exploring the fucking part, but I was left unsure whether we ever saw the crying. Was it an (intentionally) failed attempt to show us true vulnerability? Tingting read it slightly differently: “Maybe this illustrates how fucking is easier than crying. Fucking is external, crying is internal, and thus the crying throughout is implied/implicit?”

Referring to a later scene (one of the only partially staged moments of the play, which otherwise is made up of direct dialogue aimed at the audience) that takes place in Berlin, Tingting finds a different way to fuse the fucking and the crying. “I think Fire Island and Berlin is an interesting juxtaposition. Fire Island, the notion of ‘tea time’, these clean colonial euphemisms for sex, and how as a ‘poor black body,’ he still didn’t belong. Like how his butt literally refuses to behave, refuses to be fibrous and clean, how the enemas don’t work, how the gay men there avoid the disgust, the grime. Then Berlin, the relationship between cleanliness and fascism. Maybe exhibition is just a distraction from how vulnerable he is on all fronts, STD’s and fascism.”

Returning to discomfort — there is a moment in the play that Harris engages with how his work affects others. Tingting recalls, “When he talks about the woman who remarked his plays were hard to watch, as though it were easy for him to write — I was so annoyed at her! But I also felt my own hypocrisy. Because it was uncomfortable. It did require a lot of energy and triggered a lot of defense mechanisms. Privilege is a beaten horse, but I do think discomfort and the ability to avoid is precisely that. That’s why I think it felt strange when you said you didn’t like drag or overtness. So much of modesty and covering up is also tied to class/race/gender performance. The hiding of grime and excess. The ability to say I don’t need this culture. His repetition of fucking wherever you want, colonizing the moon. Gayness is the moon if straightness is the sun? In other words, gayness will never colonize the moon if straightness doesn’t first, i.e., straightness doesn’t need gayness.”

Harris also says, somewhere in the middle of the play, that sex has never felt safe for him, and ruminates on his desire (also while at Fire Island) to be the bottom and failure to do so – i.e., to be the penetrated rather than the penetrator. I reflect back on what Tingting had said in an earlier email, about the possibility that for Harris, truth (& maybe safety) exists only in trauma. This seems key to unlocking and understanding this work in particular, but maybe also his previous produced plays, which also feature heavy doses of difficult-to-process content (Daddy, a New Group and Vineyard production, and of course, Slave Play, still running on Broadway). It’s a big moment for Harris, one that I can’t even imagine as a playwright. His medium, the theater, is a space that is safer than real life, but it’s not entirely safe. Perhaps Harris is trying to transform these carefully curated semi-safe-spaces into something that more closely resembles his reality, and that all this exhibitionism and explicit sexual content is there not to make it uncomfortable for us, but to make it unsafe (therefore real) for him…and through that lens, my reflexive preference to dodge the discomfort of witnessing it and instead change the channel becomes all the more disturbing, but also – through my awareness or wariness of that desire – serves as a tool to enlighten. How long can you can bear to look at that which is bared? What will you find there?

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