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Theatre for Cartoon Demons

Olwui Okpokwasili’s Poor People’s TV Room, REDCAT , Los Angeles Premier — 

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I had a vision not long ago. It wasn’t a particularly visionary vision, but it was very specific in a David Lynchy kinda way, and it involved a dark, fluid space alive with various currents and lit up with a spectral glow. The fluid was heavier than water but not quite as dense as oil, and out of it the quarter moon arc of a human profile would now and then appear in the form of a whirlpool-like structure, and I understood this to be the way a coherent self arises out of the flood of sensations and perceptions before dissolving again back into the underlying fluidity of the subjective environment. It seemed to me it would be unfortunate, and a distortion of the proper arrangement of things, were that form allowed to persist for too long, but still the possibility was always there, linked to some alignment of the physical properties of the fluid itself, or perhaps, instead, to the influence of some obscure sorcery. It was intriguing to encounter at REDCAT an echo of this vision writ large in a dance-theatre piece by Okwui Okpokwasili and her husband Peter Born, along with their three collaborators Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young. Poor People’s TV Room is the title of the piece, and it left me thinking many things—including how so many of the artists producing transformative work in America are black men and women—e.g. Okwui, Kara Walker, Jordan Peele, Kerry James Marshall—and why this might be so.

Among the fascinating personages from the Warner Brothers cartoon pantheon I loved so much as a boy was the Tasmanian devil. Spinning rapidly in the shape of a miniature tornado—a whirling, growling, gray blur sprouting now and then a random foot or an arm ending in a clenched fist as he buzzed through trees and boulders and hills leaving little tunneled silhouettes—the Tasmanian devil would stop suddenly and bare his fanged and voracious maw, snarling and bent on destruction. I relate to him now in my current precariat life, spinning so rapidly hour by hour between different worlds, different roles, hungry, furious, that I am dizzy from the complexity of what I encounter, of what lives me in this hyper-charged, market-driven America, and convinced on some level that my life is no different in this regard than anyone else’s, the months and years reeling past. But then, too, in the course of any given day, I’ll encounter moments of great calm, easing back into the experience of an unmarked, molten luminosity underlying my experience of the apparent world. I have come to recognize this luminosity as also, somehow, me in that it exists only in my experience of it, now, always right now, defeating all ideas of separation and common sense. And against this subjective environment (or nonself) the systemic tornado of my self really is no different in its blind voracious appetites than that Warner Brothers cartoon devil who made me laugh so hard in the TV room of our house on West Third Street in Lexington, Kentucky all those years ago. There are sacred personages in Poor People’s TV Room too, and to understand what I found so intriguing about them—and about the piece they are a part of—I will have to tell you a little more about the performance.

The piece opens with Okwui moving upstage in diagonal behind a long curtain of translucent, drop cloth plastic. She wears a red patterned dress that glimmers in the darkness. The barrier is transparent enough for us to follow her intricate and expressive gestures as she strides back and forth, then stops and turns toward us, bare breasts pressing up against the plastic. The rest of the set is spare and intriguing. The cord of a single light fixture creates a second strong diagonal toward upstage right bisecting the wall of plastic. The space upstage left of this cord contains an odd, room-like architecture arranged, we come to understand, as if we were looking down on it from above. A younger woman moves along the plastic on our side of the barrier, and, in a cheap lawn chair downstage, an older woman sits facing the house. A fourth figure announces itself quietly in the dim light, a huddled form crawling slowly beneath a white blanket upstage along the floor. It is a striking and dream-like tableaux, reminding me immediately of a shaman’s “mesa”—those small table-like structures South American shamans use to represent the topography of occult forces they read and re-direct, engaging with ancestral spirits, deities and also other, potentially hostile, sorcerers. Poor People’s TV Room revealed many other intriguing facets, but nothing dislodged this initial shamanic image—sacred forces were being invoked throughout the evening, to be directed toward new ends.

Making visible the invisible, Okwui’s piece made me smile due to the sustained attention it required from the audience. Amid the dreamlike assemblage of images and actions were textual interchanges—scenes with dialogue and also monologues—that took the same de-centering, minimalist approach to story-telling and event. An early exchange between the older African woman and her daughter situated the production in a post-apocalyptic future, the older woman weaving a mythic story centered around the as-yet-to-be-actualized heroism of our very own Oprah Winfrey. At times this exchange was superimposed over a second scene played upstage between Okwui and the final member of the company, the dialogue clashing fiercely. Statuesque throughout, Okwui spoke also with an African accent, positioning the piece directly across the cultural divide running between blacks born in the slavery-scarred American diaspora on the one hand, and more recent émigrés on the other. Okwui and her younger partner made their way upstage to the room-like set tilted 90 degrees to the vertical. Shifting onto their backs, they took up positions that seemed realistic when taped from above, the image projected on an upstage scrim. Channeling the dignity of the unadorned, Poor People’s TV Room seemed geared to a cryptic reciprocity, as if manipulations of the objects on the mesa-stage might influence the relational forces of the spirit world generating what we experience as reality. The show, in other words, operated in the register of counter-sorcery, pushing back against the collective insanity of our dysfunctional Western world, and opening a borderline, immigrant space full of potentiality and connection.

Back in 2004 on the night after George W Bush got re-elected, I attended a performance of Sarah Kane’s pitch black 4:48 Psychosis at UCLA Live. It was the perfect place to be, the searing honesty of Kane’s despair reminding myself and the two hundred strangers I shared the experience with of what a communal bond looks and feels like, and how close it always is at hand. Immersed today in a psychotic version of right wing America, I felt similarly bolstered by Okwui’s show, but this only made the differences between the two productions more striking. The administration of “W” expressed the cynical realpolitik of neoconservative fuckery, in which the spectacle of foreign enemies is deployed to distract us from the class warfare America’s elites have been waging against the rest of us for decades; the current regime shifts us completely into the violent nihilism and death cult collapse of the fascist mode. With every social restraint against the expression of hatred removed, you can feel the entire culture begin to spin around a whirlpool of criminality, drawing us inexorably down toward the null point of death energy at the root of a single dysfunctional psychology—that demonic, orange-haired caricature of the Great American Winner. Collectively today we enact the reductio ad absurdum of the central premise of Reaganomics, namely that, in Margaret Thatcher’s terms, “there is no such thing as society,” but instead only fully alienated individuals continually at war with each other in a Hell Realm ruled entirely by endless greed and aggression. Against this unforgiving cultural backdrop the loose, associative quality of Okwui’s production embodied for me the covert and restorative relationality of the shamanic.

As mentioned above much of the transformational art one encounters these days was made by formerly abjected segments of the population, and especially black Americans. This is no coincidence, and last year the prophetic voice of James Baldwin identified the specific problem—how relationality itself, in America, has been linked to the abject and then projected onto those with darker skins. Under Reagan the white middle class made a devil’s bargain with the sorcery of the marketplace—namely, the idea that we are entirely autonomous individuals devoid of social bonds. Placing financialized abstraction at the heart of our culture, we have paid for a sense of order and control with our souls. In this context the dark-skinned body becomes, bizarrely, the repository of the relationality white culture has secretly starved itself for, putting black Americans in the odd position of having to rescue those who for so long have ferociously assaulted them. Black men and women in America today seem aware of this remarkable dynamic, watching with a kind of quiet horror as the mechanism of racist projection bursts up out of the white cultural psyche like the horrific parasite in the first Alien movie. To put this more directly, each member of the audience at REDCAT arrived in flight from a merciless demon, namely an internalized, balance-sheet evaluation of self-worth geared to the extraction of vital energies for the benefit of the very wealthy. This is the sorcery Okwui’s production is designed to counter by reminding us in a visceral way of the internal dynamics by which we are induced to betray our actual interests.

Another moment, occurring late in Poor People’s TV Room, bears mention. Born’s sound design was strong throughout, but it ramped up even further as Okwui moved close to the plastic barrier and engaged with an eerie glow appearing on the other side. Expanding, this light took on human form…and then the barrier itself split open to reveal an uncanny glittering presence standing in the darkness, sparkling, bejeweled, a divine and possibly salvational arrival. Typical of Poor People’s TV Room is the way this transcendent moment was then itself deconstructed, Okwui guiding the figure down stage, removing parts of the garment to reveal the older woman who has been with us the entire evening. Instead of ending in a coup de theatre, the piece shifted back into a more mundane register. This deflationary move indicates an awareness of the way powerful dynamic moments and intensive differences the undermine connection and the communal. This brings me back to the vision I sketched out at the top, which is really an account of how different self formations solidify out of a broad field of experience—a subjective environment really—to become vulnerable to different forms of capture. Art works like Poor People’s TV Room allow us to believe, if only for a short time, that the spell of our hyper-charged, market-driven mode of being is today beginning to release us.


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