Pass It On

The Wooster Group, Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, 2014. Performance view, St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, April 14, 2015. Cynthia Hedstrom, Frances McDormand, Suzzy Roche, Bebe Miller. Photo: Paula Court.

IF VISUAL ART sometimes seems only to mine archives for stuff to appropriate or sell or both, performance is the now-action that reanimates and perverts the past, in large part because performance can’t (won’t) calcify time into objects, or objects in time. This is a very obvious thing to say, but running between galleries and theaters these past weeks, I’ve been considering how to better map these spaces’ relationships to the historical, wondering how to think about their differences in a way that isn’t always reduced to capital. Three recent performances—each by female artists—wrestle history, both shared and personal, bringing documents to the stage in one form or another for the audience to chew on. Of course, the reappearance of a text in whatever form reflects more of the present than it does of the past from which it was plucked. For what its worth, these productions are well aware of this fact.

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals is a production of great modesty (and modest perversity), directed by founding Wooster member Kate Valk. Billed as “a record album interpretation,” the performance, which I caught last month at St. Ann’s Warehouse, brings together a cast of fiercely accomplished artists: Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand, Bebe Miller, and Cynthia Hedstrom. In the parlance of the Shakers, these “Eldresses” take the stage, poker-faced and plainly dressed, to sing Shaker hymns from the titular Rounder Records LP. The songs, piped into the performers’ ears via receivers, were recorded between 1963 and 1976, though were handed down from one generation to another. “We learned from hearing people sing them,” explains McDormand, reciting the words of one of the recorded Shaker sisters.

One of the Wooster Group’s many superpowers is their ability to flay their source materials until the original bodies of text transform into entirely other beasts. Here Valk exercises restraint, opting for subtler cuts into the Shaker LP. The earpieces shift the act of acting into something akin to channeling; we remain acutely aware of the recorded sisters’ voices beneath those of the actresses. Between the songs, a recitation of the liner notes give the hymns both historical and personal context. Apart from these twists, the performance is relatively straightforward.

“Come life shaker life/come life eternal/shake shake out of me/all that is carnal,” sing the women as the audience giggles. Though there are moments that foreground how oddball the Shakers are, Early Shaker Spirituals doesn’t wholly send up its subjects. Though faith through celibacy always feels a punitive and repressed practice, listening to these women sing and stomp for some greater good—outside themselves, inside a harmonious community where all members are valued—one begins to wonder if we might rethink our notion of radical kink. The Shakers practice equality of the sexes, both in labor and in leadership. They are devout pacifists, and live communally, giving up traditional family structure for the good of all its members. In this age of endless parenting wars and “feminist” lessons on how to lean in—when in the ongoing debates about marriage rights, every side, no matter how alternative the sexuality or lifestyle proposes to be, still upholds family values as the great unimpeachable, the highest achievement of American grace—maybe, just maybe, the Shakers have a point.

Sibyl Kempson, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, 2015. Performance view, Abrons Arts Center, New York, April 30, 2015. Becca Blackwell and Rolls Andre. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Also wrestling morality and the material world, Sibyl Kempson’s latest play Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag is a meditation on photography and poverty, taking as its springboard James Agee’s essays and Walker Evans’s photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers published in the 1941 book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Evans were later criticized for depicting its subjects in a manner to which they did not consent. Kempson plays out this conundrum: “Pretty starving child, do not smile,” leers Jay (Robert M. Johanson), the photographer who descends on a family of tenant farmers along with his journalist pal Ben (Gavin Price). “You will ruin my picture.” Throughout the first act, the family—played by the vibrant ensemble of Eleanor Hutchins, Rolls Andre, Tanya Selvaratnam, Sarah Willis, Becca Blackwell, and Amanda Villalobos—tells and sings their life stories, allowing the interlopers in only to be left behind when Jay and Ben return to the big city.

Kempson’s tale isn’t historical as much as it is hysterical; hers is maximalist, whirligig prose. As the title predicts, the second act is punctuated by a Sontag ex machine, in which the author of On Photography (played by both Kempson and Selvaratnam, a whip of gray hair pinned to their heads) explains to Jay how the aesthetic achievements of his photographs ensured their moral failure. In effect, his images were too beautiful to inspire action, or to save the farmers from being

doomed to the eternal profanity of preserved death and endless life in a series of pretty pictures which slowly drain of impact on account of their overuse in an emerging mass culture as starved of meaning as these families were of food, education, opportunity.

Read Kempson’s play as taking up the challenge to return context and content—albeit fictional—to images. Regarding this point, an intriguing question of stagecraft propels the production: how to theatricalize a photograph? There is no prop camera. No images are projected onto the stage. Kempson chooses instead to sew a certain disbelief in the powers of both photography and theater to show us anything real at all. She smartly locates the birth of an image in words—Poof! Click! Snap! Shoot!—occasionally punctuated by surges of light. The action is interrupted but never captured, never frozen. Time continues. The moment is the only real matter. In a lovely marriage of these media—performance and photography—now you see the image, and you don’t.

Sophia Cleary, Emerging Artist, 2015. Performance view, Performing Garage, New York, May 2015. Sophia Cleary.

A video screen in the shape of a smart phone looms center stage like a blank totem at the top of artist Sophia Cleary’s performance Emerging Artist, which premiered May 8 and 9 at the Performing Garage in Soho. “I wanted to make a solo,” she explains at the outset, also referring to her act as “doing a solo.” The one-hander has never sounded so masturbatory (or scatological), and that’s certainly part of her point. This sharp and funny show twists the usual possession of “youthful narcissism” into the burden of acute awareness—awareness of self, and of other—poking fun at the plight of an aspiring performer in New York.

Wryly crediting both trauma and therapy as the forces that shaped the artist she is today, Cleary’s “I” travels as she speaks both as herself and as other people. When an image of Jordan Wolfson’s 2014 Untitled (Female figure) flashes on screen, Cleary tells us that she is the creepy lizard lady in the picture. “I return the male gaze,” she explains as the audience snickers. (Insider-ism puts the punch in her punch-lines.) “I do look gorgeous,” she adds, but then acquiesces, “You can’t quite tell because of the mask.” She confesses that she considers the sculpture a total failure, but no matter: She’s moved on.

Later in the show she name-checks Leo Bersani, mentioning his signal essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” on the potential pleasures of self-destruction. But here Cleary is dying only in the comedic sense, slowly losing her command of the stage, and of herself. In the piece’s coup de grâce, she dances for us in that contemporary genre best described as “Sexy Millennial in the Mirror.” As a bounding, sinuous beat plays, she rolls her pelvis, undulating, turning herself, rubbing herself, and—finally—peeing herself. Wild abandon and a weak bladder: That’s one way to make something happen in this town.

Cleary also tries to give the show points of emotional gravity. At the end, she plays back old tapes that her parents made the day she was born (June 8, 1988), as well as their recordings of her first words. As Cleary performs catharsis, the audience may not be as moved as she is, perhaps because the show’s arc is still finding its feet. My advice to a gifted young artist able to risk and deliver as Cleary does? Just give it time.

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation ran April 23 – May 4 at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Sibyl Kempson’s Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag ran April 28 – May 17 at Abrons Arts Center in New York. Sophia Cleary’s Emerging Artist ran May 8 and 9 at The Performing Garage in New York.