PRINT May 1993


THE WOOSTER GROUP IS FAMOUS for an asymmetrical avant-garde theater in which three points make a balance. Director Elizabeth LeCompte, set designer Jim Clayburgh, and the performers—Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Peyton Smith, Ron Vawter, and Kate Valk, along with associates—have been working out of the Performing Garage on Wooster Street since 1975, creating formally spectacular work that’s disorienting yet somehow intimately familiar. In the past few years the Woosters have grown shady and sexy in cult standing, a tantalizing combination of recognizable Hollywood faces and downtown art hardcores. Behind the glamour and Guggenheim Foundation grants is the group’s history of controversy: it’s been defunded for use of blackface (a part of its stagecraft for over ten years), called racist, proporn, antiwoman, and elitist.

As familiar as the group’s stage machinations have become for a regular audience, in the tradition of Richard Foreman’s Ontological Hysterical Theater they continue to be epiphenomenally without “reason,” without a speakable story. But unlike Foreman, the Woosters cull from popular culture, often running on a collision course with the very subjects they explore. The result is art for art’s sake without apology, at the same time that their work is politically charged and often topical. LeCompte describes her method as dialectical, pointing not only to the mixing of texts that argue with each other—Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with black vaudeville in Route 1 & 9, 1981, Chekhov’s Three Sisters with itself in 1991’s Brace Up!—but to the use of what they call a “nondidactic” performing style.

This time around, whether intended to or not, the public world has entered the private garage—and vice versa. In both the latest two works, White Homeland Commando (a video in which cops chase down white-supremacist bad guys), currently in the Whitney Biennial, and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (a work-in-progress, part of the larger Fish Story), at the Performing Garage this spring, race is clearly an organizing subject. White Homeland Commando was shown at the Whitney in tandem with the infamous videotape of the beating of Rodney King, suggesting a very literal reading of the material by the exhibition’s curators: the Wooster’s fictive narrative on neo-Nazism, though filtered and disjunctive, must be juxtaposed with the “real life” King footage (by George Holliday), just so we’re all clear about the Whitney’s message—racism is bad. No duh. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the two videos were shown together.

By itself, White Homeland Commando is a microuniverse of indigestible bits, with no subtitles to clue us into its intent or suggest an explicit critique. It lives well outside the Whitney’s “teaching tool” loop, and also outside any realm of safety. Here an “issue,” be it racism or fascism, is never just one flat thing. This is the intriguing tension with which the work both rivets and frustrates the viewer: the world is seen through a subtle lens that acknowledges, and warps further, the nuances of terror and shame, but doesn’t necessarily move out of the pattern. In a similar way, race is and is not the issue in The Emperor Jones. Performed by two white actors—Valk as the emperor, in blackface, and Dafoe as the trader Smithers, in whiteface—O’Neill’s 1921 treatise on human subjectivity presses the issue on who gets to represent what in 1993.

Too early one January morning Elizabeth LeCompte sits in the Performing Garage office. I stumble in, jittery; she doesn’t seem particularly at ease either, but she offers coffee and I have to smile, because, frankly, it’s impossible to resist a woman in an Armani jacket and snow boots. Longtime collaborator Kate Valk comes in a few minutes later to play translator and mediator, and we begin the discussion.

Beth Coleman

BETH COLEMAN: O’Neill’s text seems pretty much intact in your version of The Emperor Jones, but I know this is a work in progress—

ELIZABETH LECOMPTE: What do you mean, “pretty much”?

BC: In comparison to Brace Up!, where sequence is rearranged and duration played with, The Emperor Jones, except for the first scene with Smithers, which you interrupt with a dance, employs much less framing than previous productions.

EL: This is a work in progress, and shows the material before it’s integrated into a larger piece. But I think it’s a different way of framing the text in any case. In Brace Up!, every stage direction, every word of the text, was in there. In The Emperor Jones almost all of the stage directions are disregarded—they’re not changed, they’re disregarded. Or they’re translated into a video or a fleeting electronic image. In the O’Neill play, there is an entire mimetic scene of slaves being auctioned, which we translate into the face of a white man screaming with a cigar in his mouth and the voice of another white man bidding. You can’t hear the words exactly but you know what it is from the tone. We have a whole historical accumulation of references to black history that O’Neill didn’t have then—so he put them in. But for us it’s almost like we need just a flash and everyone in the audience, black or white, recognizes it.

BC: The work as it stands is very beautiful; if you took a photograph of the stage it would be haunting and strangely soothing. But you can’t lose yourself in its esthetics, because as soon as Kate opens her mouth something different happens. First of all, I had a hard time understanding what she was saying: she speaks O’Neill’s version of black dialect very quickly and smashes it all up together, while Smithers does this cockney mumbling. Are you pointing the audience to how the actors speak rather than to what they say?

EL: I’m trying to interpret the play. We went to what was written and tried to reproduce that aurally as exactly as possible. Sometimes we’re better or worse at it. Smithers’ accent is not actually cockney but a stylized version of cockney—and Willem is playing a drunk cockney.

KATE VALK: As far as performing it, I approached the language as if it was music on a page and really tried to adhere to every syllable of what O’Neill wrote. Some of the phrases were more cryptic than others, because it’s written phonetically; for instance, it becomes apparent that “dis yearth” is “this here earth.” But in the performance of it I think form and content are kept in balance.

BC: The note I heard you hitting the most ringingly was “nigger.” Each time, it was a note one could hear resonating in a way that the rest of the text doesn’t necessarily. And then I found the same kind of ringing sound to “I gets you, you white devils,” during the auction scene.

EL: You could say that the word “nigger” has the same aural impact as the visual blackface.

KV: The weekend you saw the play I’d been reading an article in the New York Times about the word “nigger” and its appropriation by whites, and how the word’s used more poetically by rap artists and how it’s parlayed into conversation. So I was thinking about me saying the word, the resonance of the word, the sound of the two syllables together, how it’s changed sometimes to “nigah.” You know, all the spins on it. It was a kind of awareness for me, so I decided not to shy away from the word. And then I punched the white stuff just to balance it out.

EL: All the language to me is extremely . . . it affects me very much. I wouldn’t say “nigger” stands out for me more than other parts of the language. I guess I’m looking at all of it as charged.

BC: How did you come to pick this play?

EL: There are so many reasons. I can give you some of them, but along with that I have to say that I work with the Wooster Group, and they feed so much information into the world we make. That communal process is always informing me in ways that I don’t always realize. This I can say—it started way back, listening to Paul Robeson do the play on film, and it was frightening and wonderful. So I wanted to do something with Katie and it popped into my mind as a strong role for her that incorporated her work with blackface but also went beyond it.

BC: I didn’t see your use of blackface in Route 1 & 9, just read critics’ responses. But The Emperor Jones seems very different from that.

EL: Well, again, to some people perhaps, but for me it’s the same. The reviews of 1 & 9 were to me incredibly ignorant. It’s hard to. . . . I identify with the characters, that’s all I can say. Just as I do in all my plays.

BC: How does the blackface work in terms of performance?

KV: It’s an enigma to me practically every night. But I think we’re dealing with mask in an ancient theatrical way. As a performer I need a mask. Every performance we do, the first thing I have to find is the physical mask. I’ve dealt with various masks in other pieces, but the blackface is a very strong mask—it’s the most “other.”

BC: Even considering American history?

KV: Well, it’s also a man—I’m talking a lot about the male part too.

BC: Right, but the blackface seems the most familiar mask as well, doesn’t it? In comparison, the forms borrowed or translated from Japanese culture seem very “foreign.”

KV: Actually the physical mask isn’t coming from mimicking American minstrelsy. There’s the verbal mask, which is O’Neill’s text. There’s the literal, facial mask, which is blacking up every night. Then there’s the physical mask, which is really the strongest, and which comes directly from the Noh and Kyogen theatrical forms, incredibly beautiful performances of old men playing young women. I remember one tape of a man performing, and his hands are so old [shows trembling hands], but then the mask is this beautiful young female. And that’s something to me—the disembodiment of it, like each night when I see my hands on stage. You can hear the text vibrating on one level, yet you see the player performing utilitarian tasks and you’re aware of the real task-performing person underneath this stylized performance.

EL: I’ve developed a strong artistic relationship with Kate over the years around the blackface mask; for me, the mask’s an amalgam of some spiritual, demonic force of Kate. To balance the power of the blackface mask, I’m just beginning to develop a whiteface mask for the men, from the tengu, demonic spirits represented in Japanese woodcut drawings and the Noh plays. We’re combining them with a much more common image of the geisha, which means that Willem’s performing a female role as a man. So for me to see Kate and Willem next to each other is the history of theater.

KV: It’s like invoking these ghosts each night.

BC: The geisha couldn’t be demonic on her own? Is that because she’s a real-life figure?

EL: I’m talking about myth. The tengu are mythic figures, while the geisha is real, social. In that way the geisha is more like the blackface. But with Katie I’m combining the blackface with some kind of mythic force too, though I don’t have a good model for it. It’s a mythic force that Katie and I have created together. But culturally I’m more familiar with Japanese masks—I’ve seen many more of them.

BC: But culturally we live around black people.

EL: This isn’t black people; this is a black mask. I don’t see the blackface mask that often because it’s not allowed to be shown.

BC: It’s taboo. And the reason it’s taboo is that it’s taken literally.

EL: Is it though? I think it’s taken symbolically, and it’s invested with many, many meanings. And when you say it’s taken literally, I don’t think anyone in his right mind could say that Kate plays a natural version of a black person. It’s a woman playing a man on stage.

BC: But because of the whole racist history of blackface and minstrelsy it’s not taken the same way as Japanese makeup. Say an all-white American troupe used Kabuki makeup, people might accuse them of cultural appropriation, but racism is not the charge. It’s a different issue.

EL: Not yet the charge. But yes, you’re right.

KV: But there’s an anxiety when a white person trots out in blackface. It’s because it’s had a taboo on it for the last fifty years.

BC: And it’s a strong one. Let’s pretend it didn’t have the taboo—

EL: If it didn’t have the taboo it’d probably be just like the Japanese whiteface—

BC: —which was very eery, but had a different kind of impact for me than the blackface. But it’s hard to separate out the elements of what I’m reacting to; it’s a lot of different things at once. In some ways it’s less the visual than the audio, which is so jarring—Kate’s declamatory style in combination with O’Neill’s dated, fantasy dialect, which hurts the ears.

EL: I had that last night—I watched Roots. That’s in the guise of naturalism, so it’s quite striking that it’s all dis’m and dat’m. Who wrote that I don’t know. It must have been a white person. In LSD (Just the High Points) [1984], a white man had written a black role [Tituba, from Arthur Miller’s Crucible] that we chose to do in blackface.

BC: Right, but there was a reason for that.

EL: There were a million reasons for that. The first one was my anger, my unarticulated anger, at the critical dismissal of Pigmeat Markham [the black vaudevillian whose routines the Wooster Group used in Route 1 & 9] as somehow crass, disgusting, unworthy material. And then my argument that art is a place where you can play anything, you can be anything, you can do anything—it’s not a social context, it’s beyond that. The ability for a man to play a woman, for a woman to play a man, for a black to play a white or a white to play a black, is crucial to the theater. People were saying “You can’t play a black person”—that was separate from the blackface, because in Route 1 & 9 there was both an impersonation of a black person, in the same way as what’s-his-name in Miss Saigon plays a Eurasian, and there was blackface on top of that because Pigmeat Markham performed in blackface. So it was a double mask. I guess I was arguing that if a white man could imagine a black persona, in his head, and write that role, why could we not imagine onstage a black persona—what was the difference?

BC: You said that you identified with the characters in your plays.

EL: Yeah, but that doesn’t really say how. . . . For me it’s always a piece of writing. The play is like a letter from someone to me, and I think of it as this world of one person, struggling within him or herself. And I want to see this intellectual or emotional world played out. The characters are just ways of distinguishing ideas or emotions or ways of somehow complicating and making ambiguous the flow of ideas, so in a way you have lo enter in and interpret yourself.

BC: Is it different working in video?

EL: There’s no difference. I identify with the characters in the video—the construct, the world of it. The questions one against the other. I identify with the dialectic—the question, the answer, the question again. Even in staging I go toward a Japanese theater and I look for the balance of three points in a triangle. I never look to one character, I never look to one object, I look to an object against another object so it’s the whole world. That’s the closest I can come to taking the questions I have to deal with in life and seeing them on stage. It’s not so much an escape as a restructuring of what could be chaotic outside into some world inside that I can then somehow examine, emotionally, intellectually, politically.

BC: It’s just a coincidence that White Homeland Commando is being shown at the same time as The Emperor Jones?

EL: Yes, but what a wonderful coincidence. Those things often happen to us.

BC: Though video often features in your stage productions, as I understand it White Homeland Commando is the first piece made entirely as video.

EL: Yes. Now again, the history of this is long in the making, because Michael Kirby, who wrote White Homeland Commando, also did the rewrite of The Crucible for us. We didn’t ask him for the subject matter, he just came up with it. He knew we were dealing with different kinds of taboos, and the mixing of them. His combining this particular popular genre—the cop show—with taboo language around Jews I think probably comes somewhere out of our work together.

BC: And also the growing phenomenon of neo-Nazism?

EL: He wrote this in ’86, ’85.

KV: When that stuff seemed more self-contained.

EL: But it’s the same thing that happened with 1 & 9. We had been talking about the separation of the two worlds—the white literary world versus the popular-culture world—and the danger that separation represents. It was 1980, 1981, and no one was talking race here in New York, no one.

BC: There’s a beautiful irony running between the two pieces: in The Emperor Jones, Kate’s clearly not trying to pass for a black person—at least from what I can see [laughter]. But in White Homeland Commando Kate is passing as a white person. As the undercover cop Stephanie she plays the white-supremacist Bobbie—another double mask.

EL: It has a lot to do with the difference between TV and theater. We’re using the mask of naturalism, but it’s a mask nonetheless.

BC: The performance styles in White Homeland Commando were really, uh, realistic.

EL: [laughs]

BC: I felt the editing was what disrupted one’s ability to view it as a straightforward narrative.

EL: No, the editing is what makes those performances seem natural. If you see the performances without the manipulation of the videos—take away the strobe effect, the posterizing [a colorizing effect], and the editing—they’re extraordinarily flat and pointed. But their unnaturalness works on screen; they wouldn’t have worked if they had been done naturally. Actually there’s nothing natural about them. Everyone’s talking all the time, which never happens in naturalism, and if you listen everyone’s talking in literary rhythms. There are whole monologues that are built literarily, but TV literary, not written literary.

BC: Meaning Three’s Company speech patterns?

EL: No, more—

KV: Kojak. Or like when you’re channel-surfing and different connections get made just by blipping.

EL: On none of those shows do people talk all the time. There are huge areas of this American naturalism where nothing is said, where it’s all action.

BC: What I was responding to in terms of naturalism, for instance, is the moment when R.R. [Jeff Webster] says, “You’re white, you should be on our side.” It made plenty of sense.

EL: What do you mean, “plenty of sense?” Are you a racist?

BC: No.

EL: Do you identify with the character?

BC: I wouldn’t say “identify,” but it worked in terms of “I believe this character”—that he existed in this way and would speak in this way.

KV: There’s something about that scene and Jeff’s performance where I actually have feeling for that character when he says that—the character’s personal anguish. Then I get this crossed signal when I think of the import of what he’s saying. It’s an interesting sort of jam.

EL: I don’t get drawn into that moment, because the next cut takes me out immediately, and the posterizing effects immediately say “Wait a minute, I’m not going to identify with this person, I can watch this and see how it’s working.” I asked you if you were a racist to tease you as an audience member—to turn the tables. It’s a position I’m often put in as the maker.

BC: As a whole, what does White Homeland Commando look like to you?

EL: Incredibly complicated. Many “mixed signals,” like all of our work. I think I’m trying to imitate life a little more truly. It’s kind of a new naturalism. I’m trying to imitate life, with all its mixed signals. As for the chaotic politics around race, people who are so sure of their politically correct positions today will be seen as racist tomorrow—and vice versa.

BC: One last question about The Emperor Jones: I saw the dances in it working the same way as the editing in White Homeland Commando, as a disrupter. How do you see them?

EL: I see it sort of like a musical—now there’s a dance. It’s a theatrical device. It’s sort of what the posterizing effects are in the video: “Here we are. We’re all just here entertaining you, so watch us enjoy this moment dancing.” It’s sort of an acknowledgment of the theater in its most powerful form, which is showing yourself, simply showing yourself. There’s nothing else, nothing between you and the showing.

Beth Coleman, a writer who lives in New York, contributes regularly to The Village Voice, Out, and Filmmaker. She is currently writing the libretto for Fur on the Belly, an opera composed by Geri Allen.

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