New York

Jerri Allyn

Gefens Dairy Restaurant; New Museum of Contemporary Art

American Dining: a Working Woman’s Moment was an art installation produced in restaurants throughout the United States last winter by Jerri Allyn, a former real-life waitress and a co-founder of a Los Angeles–based performance group called The Waitresses. For Allyn, the occupation has been not simply a frequent job but a rich metaphor for the position of women in contemporary culture. She has used the idea of woman-as-ill-paid servant as a fertile springboard for ideological posturing on related issues from sexism to capitalism. In New York City, Allyn programmed the tabletop jukeboxes in a diner-style Jewish dairy restaurant with anecdotes about her life as a waitress; most of these taped monologues were humorous, but all contained pointed moral punch lines about the sexual discrimination and financial oppression inherent in the situation. She also set out paper placemats printed with similarly skewed quizzes (including a “Fish and Chicks” test). As a site-specific live art installation, American Dining was a low-key, diverting event that scored small, provocative points in an offhand fashion. And the collision between restaurant reality and conceptual commentary made for repeated minishocks of recognition.

Allyn adapted the installation for a one-shot performance at the New Museum, which she called A Waitress’ Moment. She started things off by acting as a live accompaniment to the same prerecorded monologues, here and there doubling her own audiotaped voice (an effect that was eerie when she occasionally managed to synchronize them perfectly but, when she didn’t, ended up as an annoying tic). After a while, she shifted gears and went “solo” (i.e., sans tapes) and read her monologues aloud from a notebook. While Allyn’s dry wit survived intact, her material faltered under the weight of a more organized, lengthy presentation lasting nearly an hour. She tried to embellish her evening of recitation with the “conceptual” shtick of putting on a different apron before each vignette, tying them one on top of another, and then reversing the process. But this one-note theatrical dynamic quickly became too predictable. And as the tales moved away from vivid, concrete, and personal fablelike sketches about her waitress life to didactic, hectoring sermonettes about the admittedly miserable plight of Indian women field workers in Guatemala, her politics lost the solid grounding in everyday experience that gave her political conclusions such force. As a live performer, Allyn’s minimal dramatic vocabulary couldn’t convey Big Issues with a modicum of the conviction that emerged from her more personal material.

The musical soundtrack of A Waitress’ Moment summed up the dilemma. An odd mélange of Bobby McFerrin scat-jazz, Leo Kottke neo-folkie instrumentals, and Sheya Mendlowitz’s Jewish muzak served as an effective, surprising musical punctuation to the first-person tales that made up the first half of the performance. The more digressive texts of the last half were declaimed to the accompaniment of excerpts from Philip Glass’ portentous score for the film Koyaanisqatsi, an ill-advised choice since that music inescapably evokes the apocalyptic imagery of the movie. Here, Allyn strained for a significance that she had already achieved in her often hilarious, sometimes poignant, and always moral tales.

John Howell