New York

Robbie McCauley, Indian Blood

The Kitchen

Like an orthodox neo-Brechtian performance artist, Robbie McCauley fed the stomach first in Indian Blood, 1987, her politically bent mixed-media work, by passing around casually introduced plates of fruit to the audience. But the ideological stew that followed was a half-baked dish, a smorgasbord of personal anecdotes and sociopolitical attitudes that didn't congeal. Instead of echt Brecht, McCauley gave us a well-intentioned, passionately felt, and personally meaningful exhibition that was too monotone, too diffuse, and finally too unresolved to be effective agitprop. Indian Blood desperately needed liberal dashes of the ironic humor and skillful “alienation effect” with which the German master laced his hearty dramas.

The setting was simple but forceful. In the Kitchen's cavernous, warehouse-like space, four large panels were set up, like an interior drive-in movie screen, on which images from slides were projected CinemaScope-fashion. A funkily attired band was arrayed upstage, while McCauley occupied center stage as the piece's principal character/narrator throughout the 90-minute miniepic. The show's basic subject was her identity as a contemporary black woman dealing with the conflicting claims of paterfamilias, patriotism, and her own radical politics (essentially, Marxist socialism, although Marx's name was invoked only once). McCauley described an almost archetypal family history about growing up black in the South, centering most of the anecdotes on her grandfather and her father, both of whom seem to have been truly remarkable men. McCauley recited their many accomplishments, especially their achievements in military service, about which she expressed mixed feelings of pride and indignation—pride in the status that it brought them, and indignation at their position as black men fighting white men's wars. Her grandfather fought Indians for the United States Army (despite the Indian blood in her family), and her father was a World War II navy veteran whose patriotism remained fervent in the face of vicious, relentless racism. While the individual anecdotes about each were powerful and moving in themselves, the stories were strung together in a rambling, run-on narrative. This bead-stringing structure was not alleviated by McCauley's one-note delivery, a kind of shrill, declamatory mode of rhetorical address delivered while pacing hack and forth downstage. The upshot was that the occasional stunning moments—such as a chilling tale about a confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan, illustrated with the room-size visuals of men in white hoods—were vitiated by a stop-and-start, uneven narrative flow.

The lack of overall organization was perhaps a reflection of the piece's thematic failure to bring its provocative subtext to some sort of climactic conclusion: How would McCauley reconcile her emotional pride in her admirable heritage with her intellectual rejection of their unwavering armed commitment to a political system that McCauley finds unjust and corrupt? This pervasive dilemma remained latent, submerged with the separate stories; she sometimes hinted at an answer one way or the other, depending on the anecdote's punch line, but nothing was ever really spelled out. The untangling of the personal and the political is one of the great American mythic struggles, and while McCauley was certainly on the mark in her material, Indian Blood seemed too anemic to become the all-out political tonic it purported to be.

John Howell