Tell It Like It Is

Miriam Felton-Dansky on Adrienne Truscott’s (Still) Asking for It

Adrienne Truscott, (Still) Asking For it, 2019. Performance view, Joe’s Pub, New York. Jenn Kidwell, Adrienne Truscott, and Mari Moriarty. Photo: Gretchen Robinette.

STATISTICS TELL US THAT, at any given time, someone in our immediate vicinity has been raped—someone in our classroom, our office, someone ahead of us in line for coffee, or next to us on the subway. Which means, necessarily, that someone in our immediate vicinity has committed rape. We just prefer not to think that way, not to put the verb in the active tense, to consider that anyone—say, a fellow audience member watching Adrienne Truscott’s (Still) Asking For It on a Monday night—might have committed sexual assault. That would make rape a normal thing to do.

Which it is, as Truscott forcefully reminds us in her celebrated standup piece about rape culture and comedy, now playing at Joe’s Pub in New York. Truscott first performed Asking for It in 2013, as a solo act excoriating America’s addiction to laughing at victims of sexual violence while minimizing the crimes of its perpetrators. (It also featured plenty of nudity, lip-synching, crotch-baring tube dresses, and handstands; Truscott comes to standup and performance art from the worlds of circus and burlesque.) In the new version, titled Adrienne Truscott’s (Still) Asking For It, she’s joined onstage by a racially diverse cast including performers of multiple genders: regulars Shamika Cotton, Jenn Kidwell, and Mari Moriarty, plus a rotating list of special guests. The evening I attended, these included comic virtuosos Becca Blackwell, Carolyn Castiglia, Kerry Coddett, and Krishna Istha,and Truscott’s longtime collaborator Carmine Covelli did projection/video design, with direction by Ellie Heyman.

The expanded casting widens Asking For It’s original scope, turning the piece into a layered meditation on agency, privilege, and imagination. As Truscott writes in a program note, “I’ve realized that it’s easy for me to get on stage naked. . .But in many ways, I’m not ‘naked’ but clothed in my cis body and my whiteness.” In (Still) Asking For It, Truscott puts this revelation into practice, not by striving for an abstract idea of diversity but simply by ceding stage time to other artists. (Cotton and Kidwell give the evening’s standout performances.) Everyone, of course, participates in Asking For It’s signature costume look: crop-tops, shoes, and nothing in between. A more diverse cast means a more diverse set of acting approaches to Truscott’s material. It also means more transgressive jokes, more bare butts in spectators’ faces, and more variations on pubic-hair coiffure.

Adrienne Truscott, (Still) Asking For it, 2019. Performance view, Joe’s Pub, New York. Jenn Kidwell. Photo: Gretchen Robinette.

The show’s most explicit target of critique is standup comedy culture, with its deplorable dependence on rape humor. The stage—featuring a microphone, screen, and many empty beer cans—displays framed portraits of comedians famous for misogyny or for accusations of sexual assault: Daniel Tosh, Woody Allen, Louis C.K. Contemplating the photos, the performers treat these men the way they’ve treated women, usually from the safety of the comedy-club stage: as objects, as prey. A slideshow expands the pantheon of noted misogynists to include a parade of white male politicians in suits, flicking by at high speed: There’s Brett Kavanaugh. There’s Ted Cruz. Oh, recognize Todd Akin? By the time the audience does, three more powerful men—or three more accused rapists—have appeared and vanished. Rape is so deeply embedded in American culture that we struggle even to catalogue the publicly-identified perpetrators. In comedy culture, rape-joke scandals are so common that each shrinks in collective memory when the next one erupts. Survivors reckon with the problem, instead of the people who created it. (Still) Asking For It locates catharsis in the act of speaking these histories out loud, all together, all at once.

Also cathartic is the ensemble’s unflinching humor, which delights in confounding our expectations at every turn. Blackwell stuffs a banana into their mouth while staring keenly into a spectator’s eyes. Cotton discusses the genitalia of ducks (females have “decoy vaginas,” a salutary anatomical feature humans lack)—then presents us with the statistic of how likely it is that an American child will be raped by a family member (spoiler: more likely than you’d think). Castiglia spins a tale of attempting to date-rape a man, a project that, she complains, requires both roofies and Viagra, making even date-rape more expensive for women. The evening ends with the four core cast members onstage, inserting rape whistles into bodily orifices and whistling exuberantly at top volume.

But before that elated conclusion, (Still) Asking For It levies its most lucid, scariest critique. What if, the cast wonders, survivors didn’t sublimate their pain into a carefully orchestrated combination of therapy and community organizing and art? What if they exacted violent vengeance instead? “Imagine,” says Kidwell, stepping onstage and stealing the show. Imagine if victims of sexual harassment opened fire on their harassers, instead of opening HR-department complaints. Imagine replacing slow nonviolent reform with bloody revolution. Imagine burning it all down. Then Kidwell pauses. “Imagine,” she says, “imagine I could imagine all that—instead of doing it.” Attunement to the boundary between fantasy and action: that’s what constitutes true agency, Kidwell implies. That is the imaginative space (Still) Asking For It creates, and creating that space is one of the highest functions of art.

Adrienne Truscott’s (Still) Asking for It runs at Joe’s Pub in New York October 3, 4, 5, 6, and 13.