Fragments, Lists, and Lacunae @ New York Live Arts
I took a course last semester titled “Histories of Architecture and Feminism” with Professor Anooradha Siddiqi. In my end of year course evaluation I wrote: “This class has taught me that no one will write your histories for you.” In fact, my whole academic career has echoed with unwritten archives. I feel like a brand new person, wandering through academia without a history. Every time I find a gap in the archive, it’s as if I’ve been robbed. I look for an agent: heterosexism, racism, colonization. I want someone to take responsibility. I want a trial. Alexandra Chasin and Zishan Ugurlu take a different, perhaps more mature approach. When they encounter a gap they ask: what do we do with the hole?
Fragments, Lists, and Lacunae is a play focused on the archive’s empty spaces. The hole, it argues, is a mirror. Missing links become spaces for self-discovery and creation. The work is centered around a college class of the same title, taught on stage by Judith Butler. Through a series of examples and exercises, she pries apart the holes in History and asks her students to confront the abyss.
And yet, the characters on stage had missing parts. Quin, Noë, and Wyler, three students in the class, are just like the lecture materials: mostly there, but incomplete. Quin, played by Aigner Mizzelle, deals with a mysterious pregnancy, but her situation is so vague that it was difficult to comprehend her emotional state. Hailey Marmolejo’s character, Noë, is reticent throughout the show, and then comes down with an unnamed illness and disappears for a few scenes. Judith Butler is also a kind of shadow; a scene of her “home life” shows her sitting in an armchair, re-reading an assignment. She is the professor, nothing more.
Wyler is arguably the most fleshed out. Played by Jackie Rivera, they are the loudest butch you’ll ever meet. They wear a beanie indoors, which complements their classic post-transition Frankenstein name. They’re a sloppy socialist, an artsy type, and a ladies man rolled into one. Yet even this meme of a liberal arts student is incomplete. Their character lacks tenderness. It is difficult to sympathize with any of these students because their gaps were too large, or maybe not large enough. They arre on stage for most of the play, but their interactions are limited to side conversations and margin notes. Their chemistry seems to appear out of thin air.
The strongest relationship in the room is between Judith Butler and the audience. Teaching, after all, has always been a performance. She kills with a spot-on Bernie impression, and her old-school New York accent is a crowd pleaser. Best of all is her take on “Waiting for Godot,” where she delivers both roles while sitting on the ground in a hamstring stretch.
Yet, the true star of the play is the academic interpretation, presumably done by Chasin and Ugurlu. In a lecture on Sappho, Butler presents the theory that Christians burned Sappho’s work because they disapproved of her morals. She explains the brackets, which stand in for holes in the text, then asked the class to read a passage aloud, complete with bracketed gaps. Mizzelle’s character steps up to the challenge, and after waffling for a moment, drops a few pieces of paper on the ground and begins to speak. At each bracket, she rustles the papers with her foot. Single words echo through the theater, and in between, Sappho’s poetry burns.
Another stunning moment comes from the chorus of background characters seated in the audience. To populate the “class,” Chasin and Ugurlu enlisted a group of hoodied mascs to sit in the house and occasionally chime in. During one interjection, Ashton Garcia’s character stands up to read “AID/I/SAPPEARANCE,” a poem by Joan Rettallack. It starts as prose shoved into a numbered list, a meditation on mourning interspersed with digits. In the next iteration, a few letters begin to disappear. As the poem goes on, the virus spreads, taking every letter away until nothing is left but a plaintive “Y” and an empty list of numbers. Garcia begins to recite the poem, and the other students join him, creating a cacophony of stunted consonants and odd vowels. It is a gap full of sound.
No one goes into the archive unless they have a hole to fill. Archives are the remedy to forgetful minds, faulty sources, and even death itself. They promise concrete answers and facts. And yet, archives come with built-in holes. They are formed once something is gone; a person, an institution, a civilization, an era. An archive, by definition, is never complete. It can only ever be a trace. I came into the play asking, why are there holes in my archive? Chasin and Ugurlu responded, why do you keep coming back when you know there is nothing there?
Maya Weiss is a dance maker, cultural critic, and unlicensed archivist based in Manhattan.