Heart and Home

Jess Barbagallo on NAATCO's “Our Town” and Xiomara Sebas Castro Niculescu’s “A Domestic; Cut”

A Domestic; Cut, 2021. Photo: Xiomara Sebas Castro Niculescu.

TWO ONLINE PERFORMANCES earlier this summer—a reading of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town by the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO), and Xiomara Sebas Castro Niculescu’s A Domestic; Cut, presented by danilo machado and Claire Kim as part of Stream/line Artist Residency—conducted serious conversations with the deceased while wisely refusing the dueling lures of nostalgia and better tomorrows. On the surface, these two projects couldn’t be more different—one, wholesome, the other, salacious—but both demanded a strangely profound patience with time itself.

No longer solely the province of sci-fi, the pursuit of other worlds has become a commonplace yearning, from the rise of microdosing, to the Gen-Z rallying cry overheard again and again in my classroom of undergrads last semester: “I hate it here.” As white historical touchstones collapse under the weight of anticolonial scrutiny, the ancestral wisdoms of counter culturalists shape the public vernacular. This would be a cause for joy if these insights weren’t so quickly metabolized into packaged infographics while simultaneously being ignored by our national government’s retrograde exceptionalist agenda. It’s no wonder that with one foot stuck in economic precarity, or hobbled by political immobility, the other longs to step off the planet.

To be clear, NAATCO’s perspective is decidedly more sanguine than I am, even hopeful about the United States as both a project and place to call home. Since 1989, the company has been staging classic European and American texts with Asian American casts as part of a larger mission to “reach across ethnic boundaries to illuminate abiding characteristics of human nature.” It shares an affinity with organizations like INTAR (founded in 1966), the National Black Theatre (1968), and WOW Cafe (1980), liberationist theatrical enterprises that have been centering marginalized communities for decades, often to little fanfare. There is a steadiness, skill, and dignity that comes with the collective survival of sustained systemic violence, which is only one way to understand NAATCO’s approach to the terror laid out in Wilder’s play.

NAATCO's Our Town, 2021. Amy Hill as Stage Manager (center); Left, top to bottom: Trevor Salter, Clara Mulligan; Right, top to bottom: Midori Francis Iwama, Yumi Iwama, CJ Uy

Each Our Town vignette has the makings of a fantastic short story of small town life, and the genius of the work is in its withholding of emotion, which might explain why I’ve rarely seen it used for scene study in acting programs. The play toggles between two families—the Gibbs and the Webbs—brought together by their eldest children, George and Emily, who fall in love and decide to marry. People don’t get psychically turned inside out in the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Instead, Howie delivers the milk, Mrs. Gibbs feeds her chickens while she dreams of going to Paris, and Simon Stimson conducts choir rehearsal in a state of semi-drunkenness. Such banality is only interrupted by brief interludes of existential longing.

Hysteria is not a word I’ve ever used to describe Our Town, though undoubtedly some doctoral thesis floating around this world frames the fate of one of its central protagonists, Emily Webb, through this lens. Over the course of the story, the audience sees Emily (Midori Francis Iwama) at three life stages: as an obedient adolescent, a frightened bride-to-be, and finally, a ghost manically attempting to return to her former life. For her, marriage is merely an inevitable rite-of-passage, and Wilder’s treatment of her ambivalence feels radical for an early twentieth century drama. Sitting in the kitchen with my dinner-for-one, and smoking a cigarette out the window during one of the play’s two intermissions, I shuddered at the obscenity of the marital pact, but perversely considered it from the vantage of my recent unemployment: At least a legally-binding partnership is good for structuring time.

While Emily’s youth, goodness, and her tragic death in childbirth suggest that the play is hers, Wilder is constitutionally opposed to the notion of “stars,” barring his inclination towards those that litter the night sky. NAATCO’s production did well by the playwright’s ethos in the even distribution of gravitas among its ensemble members, each seen in close-up performing in their respective homes, executing small choreographies that kept the screen bubbling with energy. Director and company founder Mia Katigbak first staged Our Town in 1994, and has a masterful sense of the work’s rhythms, aided by a crisp video design that kept our attention moving.

NAATCO’s Our Town is so good because it abides by a basic old-fashioned rule of theater: keep accelerating and then disappear. In the third act, when Emily crosses over into the land of the dead, the actors’ screens were cast in black and white, like a coveted high school yearbook possessed by magic. It’s heavy shit as Emily acclimates to the newness of death, watching her funeral in the company of those calmly resigned to their rebirth into a realm that Wilder asks us to imagine. Unwilling to immediately join the ranks of the dead, Emily asks to revisit her twelfth birthday, and it is simply too much for her to see her parents in their prime, and to be unable to communicate with them. Rather than linger in this pathos, the sequence allowed for breath, even at its exacting pace. I teared up as Emily’s widower George briefly appeared on screen, sobbing. Emily remarks, “They don’t understand, do they?” to which her deceased mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, responds plainly, “No, dear. They don’t understand.”

A Domestic; Cut, 2021. Photo: Xiomara Sebas Castro Niculescu.

Niculescu’s A Domestic; Cut, a sequel to her 2019 hybrid performance video work Tired Selena, traffics in a similarly measured surrealism. In this new piece, Niculescu applies her long-standing research of back page ads culled from the online archives of Ladylike Magazine (1987-2007), and builds a stage from the spaces depicted in those photographs in order to perform her own come-hither promo on it. The archive is briefly presented at the top of the offering in the fashion of a Cindy Sherman portfolio, flipping between historically anonymous transfemmes (and/or adjacents) and Niculescu’s photographic recreations. In voice-over, Niculescu explains that she is considering “the problem of performance, the problem of the bed,” and points to a time in her life when she found it nearly impossible to leave hers. From this private cocoon, she juxtaposes the people she discovered in the pages of Ladylike with a brief homage to the early-’90s cult figure, Lorena Bobbitt, who infamously cut off her husband’s penis in his sleep after she endured years of domestic abuse. The relationship between these disparate figures suggests an emotional catalogue from which Niculescu has constructed her own image. (As video artist Ryan Trecartin brilliantly remarked almost a decade ago: “I’m really interested in how personality is replacing gender in how people are defined.”) Bobbitt’s specter hovers over Niculescu’s piece both as a “dangerous woman” and a castrating angel, reminding me of Andrea Long Chu’s treatment of Valerie Solanas in Chu’s 2019 polemic, Females. Both Bobbitt and Solanas committed tremendous acts of spontaneous violence, and as these memories age and the blood dries, a younger generation of feminists ask: Were these women insane, or visionary?

How does a one-time cultural pariah become a subversive icon? I remember something my father said to me years ago about the nature of time: “It will start going very fast,” and indeed it feels like only yesterday that I was a child, unattached to theory or politics, instinctually clutching my own genitals in sympathy at the mention of John Wayne Bobbitt on the morning news. In the last fifteen minutes of Niculescu’s work, she performs in a black negligee and on all fours, the camera panning to reveal the domestic room as an artificially lit construction. Undulating in autoerotic ecstasy, she barely reveals her face. Vulnerable and sexy and familiar as any private dress rehearsal for a highly anticipated date, she climbs onto a large, nondescript couch and turns it into a dance partner, begging the question: What have you been doing in the off-hours? Her spine is moved by all the trans women who came before her, transmitting the record of clandestine and networked intimacy into our moment of ubiquitous Onlyfans-empowered exhibitionism. While her movement score—edited in slo-mo to create a lurching rhythm that thankfully complicated the trope of thirst trap machinations—fell shy of frenetic, it was surprisingly powerful to watch her press a stiletto into the arm of the sofa, which did not rip or break under pressure. It’s a great visual metaphor for the sub-dom relations she alludes to earlier in the piece. All the titillation made my head race until, inevitably, like an old-fashioned peep show, the recording came to an end.

Despite the relative newness of the Zoom medium, Niculescu appears to be chiseling away at a relatively old conundrum: the oppressiveness of the Cartesian split. She uneasily observes in herself “the sense that performance forms a kind of trap,” and perhaps Emily’s breakdown in Our Town is a similar reckoning with the hegemonically ingrained division between body and mind. If performance is the bridge that connects thought and feeling, I suppose the implication is that repeating certain scores again and again solidifies what should remain dynamic. Yet I prefer not to read these works as cautionary tales about approaching the riddle of womanhood. What most interests me is the decision to be seen, the knowledge that a person might never be seen by some, and the will to keep moving anyway in the pursuit of registers that defy cerebral limitations. This is patience as tenacity.