New York

Frank Maya

P. S. 122

In his show here, Frank Maya told the audience that he started as a rock singer, then began to do what he calls “rants.” He suddenly became known as a performance artist (“I didn’t even know what it was but I said, ‘Fine, give me a grant’”), then as a comedian. While Maya is definitely funny, more often than not his work takes on serious subjects. Child abuse, racial inequities in systems of representation, societal barriers for Jewish performers a few decades ago or for gay performers today—these are loaded topics that Maya negotiates with the sensibility of an amusing philosopher. His manner of delivery makes us realize that some of these issues have been so over-discussed by the liberal press that we may end up knowing all the right intellectual arguments, but lose emotional perspective on their complex content. Maya uses humor to dislodge such issues from our heads and drop them back into our guts. But the intellect is never left behind. What clinches Maya’s style is his simple yet sophisticated manipulation of language.

In a segment on relationships, early in the show, Maya used personal pronouns in a way that allowed for anyone in the audience—male, female, gay, straight—to relate to his story of an energetic, passionate first date. The object of desire was initially referred to as “they,” then gradually and intermittently as “he,” building to the question, “What have I met here? Mr. Atomic Man? The Terminator?” By introducing the character as a neutered entity, Maya pulls us onto equal ground before he starts shifting pronouns—a shift that both clarifies his own sexual status and proclaims the flexibility, once again, of labeling. The latter tips Maya’s work into the arena of post-Modern discourse, where identification of gender and sexuality is viewed as less a matter of nature and more a matter of language and its mutability.

Maya altered the conventions of language more simply, but no less effectively, in his piece on child abuse. Beginning with his claim that “child abuse starts with words,” he explained his childhood confusion over the threat that he’d be “beaten to a pulp,” thinking his mother was saying “pope,” not ‘pulp.” He then led us on a fantasy journey that followed his father smacking him around his bedroom, down the staircase, into the car, to the train-to-the-plane, into a 747, up and down the aisles, across the Atlantic, all the way to St. Peter’s , and finally “up against a man wearing a lot of robes.” While uproariously funny, the piece also shows how serious verbal abuse can be, and how language can be misused to abuse.

This performance inaugurated an American tour for Maya, who called the prospect “kind of scary,” adding, “I’ve never been to America.” “Scary” is a commonly used word in Maya’s pieces, sometimes given an Elmer Fudd phrasing as “sca-wee.” The retreat to cartoon lingo invests Maya with a childlike quality, enhancing our sympathy with him as a performer. It’s hard not to feel protective toward him as he ventures into “sca-wee” places that might be outlawed by Jesse Helms. Maya has used the image of the life preserver as a sort of logo throughout his career. One hopes that it can double as a talisman on his tour.

Kathy O’Dell