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Tis a Gift to Be Not-Simple

Early Shaker Spirituals, Wooster Group, REDCAT, January 2015, Directed by Kate Valk —

I went to REDCAT the other night to see Frances and Liz and company sing Shaker spirituals but I decided not to write about it. I was intrigued for about half of the evening, but then things became a little less intriguing, so I left with a smile and a sigh and a tired kind of near-miss feeling about the evening, and it was this near-miss feeling that eventually gave rise to my decision not to write about the production. Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, if you haven’t seen it, begins with four women in Shaker costumes entering from the wings. Grouping themselves on stage, they begin to sing along to tracks from a Rounder Records release from 1978 in which members of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake in Maine performed these iconic Shaker songs. One of the women on stage in Early Shaker Spirituals is Frances McDormand, and the others are Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche and Cynthia Hedstrom. A fifth woman, Bebe Miller, arrives toward the middle of the performance to help anchor its second part, which I found less interesting, resulting in my decision, while heading for the REDCAT exit, to not-write about Early Shaker Spirituals.

Maybe later I’ll write about Early Shaker Spirituals, I thought, crossing the cavernous Disney Hall parking structure toward my silver, humming Prius. Assuming, that is, the Woosters take the piece a step or two further, I thought. Right now, I thought, there’s not all that much to say beyond the obvious comedy of Frances McDormand pretending to do, or to be, anything simple, I thought, strapping myself in behind the wheel. Frances McDormand, it seemed to me – a woman who brings such Grade-A irony to every expression or utterance she winds up seeming entirely earthy and grounded – is the very opposite of simple, and probably her only relationship with the terror of not-fucking is when she wants to punish her Coen Brothers husband (which one is it?) for leaving the toilet seat up, or maybe she just got bored with sex or something, which is as far from the Shaker vow of chastity as you can get, I thought. It’s just not really possible to convey in prose the McDormand effect, I thought, the quiet kind of schizophrenia at work in McDormand’s implacable aura, her shock-proof poise amounting to a kind of sacred charisma, all of us on our knees. And Early Shaker Spirituals is itself all about this kind of raging, psychotic simplicity, the terrifying simplicity of not-fucking that is actually lit up with the kind of powerful, nuclear-force repressions one knows will only emerge elsewhere in the shape of a storm of capitalist exploitation and domination, say, or maybe a hurricane of capitalist exterminations of indigenous peoples or something. Nobody needs to read about that kind of crazy magic, I thought. Frances McDormand and her infernal appeal are paradoxical – so what?

Plus, if I were going to write about Early Shaker Spirituals I’d have to write about how, in the West, we like to assume a thing is what it is, and that’s the end of the story – no fucking anywhere in sight. I’d have to mention how, in the West, we like to believe there is a simple reality – a unity — underneath the confusion of mere appearances. In the West, I’d be forced to continue (and in an increasingly high-faluttin’ mode besides), we like to assume a unified truth undergirds both thinking and being. As a result we are haunted by paradoxes…but never haunted enough to abandon our apocalyptically simplistic assumptions, I’d have to write. The way parts relate to wholes is always a puzzle to us, I’d have to explain, as are the relationship between reason and desire, etc. Codified into Aristotle’s laws of non-contradiction, I’d be forced to continue, this insistence on the simplicity and unity of truth fuels a fierce oscillation between binary oppositions, and this fierce oscillation acts as a kind of fuck-engine, fueling the relentless, expansive dynamism of the West — all the brutality of our colonial depredations up-to-and-including the current collapse of living systems on a global scale, etc., I’d have to write. This frenzied coital action, in short, is what drives us so relentlessly on toward the great, terrifying fuckfest of the coming apocalypse, I’d have to continue, and who needs to hear about any of that?

Early Shaker Spirituals, I might as well mention — just so you fully understand my reluctance to write about it — centers around record playing technology. A polite young man, timelessly attired in archetypal slacks, his button-down shirt carefully tucked, his manner grandma-pleasingly mild, introduces each cut on this record from the 1970s, in which a few of the surviving Shakers explain the hymns they are about to sing, and then sing them. The young man provides context, the Wooster women watching and listening to his comments. And then, as he steps back off stage, they raise their voices in simple song (Suzzy Roche is especially fantastic). To watch McDormand and the Wooster Group women deliver hyper-ironic Shaker paens to simplicity before a rapt audience of traumatized Angelenos, all of whom coughed up fifty bucks for their ticket… it reminded me of how trapped we remain within our love of simplicity, which amounts to a kind of apparatus of capture. At REDCAT I sat on stage, in the bleachers, with a view of the audience arising in tiers – I should add to give you some context regarding my ultimate decision – again – not to complete a report about Early Shaker Spirituals. And, to mention one more thing – looking up at the tiers of affluent refugees from hipper islands in the sea of wage slavery and downward mobility that defines urban life in America today, I was struck by how McDormand, LeCompte and company once again had their finger on the cultural pulse. “We’re too busy to fuck anymore…!” I heard the tiers of Angelenos sigh to each other. “We’re too tired to fuck anymore…!” I heard them all agree. “I probably shouldn’t even be using that word in print anymore,” I thought to myself, sitting there in the bleachers. “The only people who should fuck from here on in,” I thought to myself, “are those people you can watch in internet porn, losing respect for yourself as a result,” I thought, my mind bending in the direction of Mother Frances and the meeting house, or Mother Liz and the meeting house, those ladies who embody the charisma of a lost era of plenitude and free fucking called the 1960s, those ladies who now point us in a different direction, but do so with a sly, ironic smile. Simplicity, yes — you can parody it as long as you like, providing you do so with a wink that delivers the goods and the simulacra of the goods in one tasty, postmodern Cuban sandwich, I thought later, as I drove out of the REDCAT parking structure into the clear Angeleno night.

So, in the end, I only had one real regret about my decision to not-write about Early Shaker Spirituals. This had to do with the way the evening acts as an elegant and dismissive response to the screeching multicultural Platonism that greeted the Group’s pilloried teepee version of Troilus and Cressida last year in the same venue. Instead of deconstructing the unified self-image of this or that identity group, I would have been able to point out, Early Shaker Spirituals allows LeCompte and company to tap and parody the delusions of their own white ancestry. I’d be addressing here the Shaker’s insistence on simplicity as an extreme version of the defining gesture of white Protestant culture, and the way that gesture can be construed as a psychosis-inducing and life-destroying impulse in a world marked at every level by complexity and emergence. The evening sagged for me, as I mentioned, at the mid-way point when the stately ladies were joined on stage by young hipsters who could not bring the Artaudian madness of the Shaker’s apocalyptic dancing to life for me in the way I wanted. Ecstatic-apocalyptic dancing would have been the way forward, it seemed to me, in keeping with the way the Woosters have typically married misperformance and virtuosity to produce an orgy of postmodern irony. But even in the stripped down simplicity of Early Shaker Spirituals, Frances and Liz and company embody a double truth we are never quite prepared to make sense of – I have to give them that. Our Shaker-like sobriety has delivered the entire world to an ironic denoument of environmental self-sacrifice, but we still like nothing better than to sit, rapt, before an invocation of the simple unity running beneath the multiple appearances of this fallen world. If I had decided to write about Early Shaker Spirituals I might have closed by suggesting somebody call a priest and call him fast – last rites are perhaps in order. But, sadly, being unable to fully praise Early Shaker Spirituals in the way I like to praise the Wooster Group, I have decided to stay true to my decision to not write about the evening.

All Photographs by Paula Court


  1. Cheryl Slean says:

    HA! I love this piece, Guy. Very droll and fun. In your playful paradoxical way do you argue for the simplicity of multiplicity? That is, replacing the idea of repressive sobriety dictated by a unifying Spirit/God concept with the idea of emergence and complexity and the erotic fucking mess of life? That’s the problem with the prefrontal cortex and its busy messenger, language; those hardworking neural nets always struggling to contain into concepts, to various degrees of complexity, what just IS. As soon as we write or speak about it, we’re immediately in interpretive mode, attempting to contain the Is-ness into concepts; if we then go on to believe in those concepts, we’re ironically blocking our access to the is-ness, in all its mindblowing universal inter-systemic connectivity of everything to everything. But we’re human and we gotta do it, reduce and contain, reduce and contain: certainly if we reduce and contain enough, we will finally be SAFE? The very thing we want being directly undermined by our strategy for going about it.
    Well there’s a difference as you know you big Buddhist btwn letting the prefrontal cortex do its thing, getting some entertainment and even use out of it, and believing in our ideations as reality-definers rather than what they truly are, reality-distorters/interpreters. Let’s not believe in these ideas, but let’s use them as the handy tools they’ve evolved to be, recognizing their limitations when it comes to describing (not to mention evoking) reality.
    And so, I just have to address your diss on sobriety, which is also just a word and has different meanings to you and I. But in my experience as a sober addict who embraces sobriety as a practice, (not just substance sobriety but all its ethical and spiritual reverberations)– well, sobriety to me is a skillful means to access the boundless compassion and wisdom (and joy and creativity and non-harming eros) that is readily available to us when we stop chasing after sense pleasure as a raison d’etre– either because we want to or because we don’t know any better– and that includes the mental sense pleasure of chasing after the Big Idea that Unifies All. THAT’S a samsaric exercise if there ever was one, and I speak from experience as a recovering big idea addict!
    Thank you for your post, dear Guy, and for receiving my comment. You’re the bomb!

  2. dov rudnick says:

    Shake, shake, shake,….shake, shake, shake,….shake your booty! duh-nuh-nuh, duh-nuh-nuh….

  3. Guy, you make me giddy, you old dog.

  4. patrick scott says:

    I heard it was dreadful.

  5. Your very own “MODEST PROPOSAL” my Swiftian friend!

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