Thursday, March 20, 2014

Up Your Ass and Around the Corner: Staging Valerie Solanas

A little over a week ago, I staged two performances of Up Your Ass, the long-lost play Valerie Solanas wrote in 1965 and gave to Andy Warhol hoping he would produce it.When Warhol lost the manuscript, Solanas showed up at the Factory and shot him through the chest. Obviously, the play was found. I directed and performed it using a bootleg PDF copied from the original mimeograph and called it a “staged reading” to avoid lawsuits.

Valerie Solanas

For what it’s worth, the brief summary I wrote for the university website read like this: “A wisecracking lesbian hustler working the streets of 1960s New York encounters a multitude of colorful passers-by in this fast-paced comedy by Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.” It’s accurate enough a description, if not a little hyped up. You, too, can access this bootleg copy if you get your Google game right, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll probably never know what exactly drew enough people to “Up Your Ass” to run me out of programs and litter the floor with approximately ten million sticky hand wrappers (in an attempt at integrating the audience into the show, I encouraged them to fidget as much as possible by handing out sticky hands—ordered in bulk from a creepy wholesale website, of course). I can, however, speculate, and what good is a blog if you can’t use it as a public platform through which to project suppressed desires onto your classmates?

Simply put, I think it’s Solanas. I think people need actual access to the Scary Feminism that gets frantically gesticulated about by Men’s Rights Activists and cautious gender studies majors alike. If you identify as a feminist and someone warns you not to be “one of those bra burners,” what good does that do you if you’ve never encountered an actual bona fide gun-totin’, man-hatin’ feminist? If you don’t identify as such I might ask the same question. Shouldn’t an actual Dangerous Feminist deliver the bad news here?

Bongi, the play’s main character and a loose analogue of Solanas—who also did sex work on the streets of New York, on and off—here is arguing with Russell, the play’s embodiment of pure male chauvinism. The quarrel itself foreshadows the famous-in-some-circles opening lines to the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men,” though as far as I know, people are still debating whether Solanas actually coined the acronym or if some smartass found it appropriate and spread the rumor from there):

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

There we go. Every fear, every suspicion that feminism might be about something more sinister than “women’s equality”—all confirmed in one luscious sentence. Valerie Solanas, ladies and gentlemen: the embodiment of the dreaded Straw Feminist, the One of Us that no feminist these days wants to claim as Real. Never mind that Ti-Grace Atkinson called her the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and Florynce Kennedy, while defending her in court after shooting Warhol, deemed her “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” That's not to say anyone needs to claim her as a role model; what I mean is that she received legitimate praise from two of the most important feminist figures of the 60s and 70s and perhaps we should examine her influence with a little more nuance.

Up Your Ass runs itself in circles referencing pop culture and then re-referencing its own jokes. The characters are fantastically unbelievable except for Bongi, whose semiautobiographical nature still feels fantastic at points. Some other points of absurdity: Ginger, a perfect handmaiden of the patriarchy, plans to eat a turd for dinner to impress her male guests. Solanas shows wildly unsatisfying sex onstage (we moved it into the wings), depicts drag queens in a light tottering dangerously close to offensive, inserts a lengthy “Creative Homemaking” lesson into the play at random and culminates the action in a mother strangling her six-year-old son because he’s “bugging the hell out of her.”

Beneath all the raucousness are pockets of something-like-truth that sting a little more than one might expect from a play so outlandishly ridiculous. One drag queen accuses another of “jumping right in the sack after a piece of pussy;” the other responds bitterly with “I am a piece of pussy.” Ginger says, “I adore neurosis; it’s so creative,” explaining why the men she deals with all day in her profession are “really fascinating” compared to Bongi’s johns. That doesn’t come long before this gem:

These are things that still get said. Solanas laid it out in 1965. Since then laws have changed, certainly, but I’m inclined to think not much else has, and I’ve yet to encounter a text that addresses the rotten core of gendered discourses so frankly, so bleakly, while still wrenching a laugh out of its audience.

There’s been an upswing in Solanas scholarship of late; most notably, Breanne Fahs, who has been writing on Solanas for years, is releasing a hotly anticipated biography in April. Solanas has never been fully absent from filmmusicother music or consumer goods either. But something in me is dissatisfied with the depth usually afforded her. 

I get it: if you want to convince someone of feminism’s worthiness as a cause, casually mentioning Solanas as a member of the Famous Feminist Pantheon isn’t going to help you. Fine. So what happens when we acknowledge Solanas’s existence on her own terms, without trying to promote The Cause? As a writer? An actress? When my cast and crew acknowledged her as a playwright, people showed up. They might have been skeptical or event resentful of the play, but they filled a theater space during week-before-finals-week. It might've been the sticky hands, but I think it was the several-ton elephant in the feminist theory room: Solanas.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leave Me Here, I'll Save Myself: Hellfyre Club and Rhyming in the Present Tense

(This article cites a bunch of lyrics- it is important that these are heard in their original context. I linked to the songs the lyrics are culled from and, where possible, the specific point in the song where the lyrics occur. The title comes from milo's song Karl Drogo Sighs)

 “'Maintain'- not a claim but an action word”- Open Mike Eagle from Self Medication Chant

I’ve been following LA-based rap collective Hellfyre Club with quasi-religious devotion for the past year or so- since my friend Rory Ferreira (rap moniker milo) joined it. The primary members besides milo are Nocando, Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. I wrote a response to one of milo’s essays in September. Part of Hellfyre’s appeal is that despite having very different styles, the emcees possess a shared conviction regarding the value of their work and their collaboration. While bold rap crews have been around for a long time, there is something unmistakably new about Hellfyre. They don't all hail from one locale or have similar back-stories, but their cohesion and sense of purpose comes through nonetheless. In this post I will foolishly attempt to comment on the cultural significance of Hellfyre- Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle in particular.

Busdriver (Regan Farquhar)
Busdriver often voices bitterness and/or ambivalence about how his work is received. He complains that his place in society is to "entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine". His music, like an ethnic food, is used as a symbol of discerning taste by a class of consumers who judge everything by how well it contributes to their own feeling of cultural distinction rather than how it relates to their own experience. Furthermore, Busdriver realizes how much he fails to fit into this role, saying "my raps don’t sell vitamin water". So, Busdriver doesn’t derive his conviction from without- from the hype-machine network that his music is circulated within. It also doesn’t seem to be derived from some place of inner peace- his delivery is so emblematic of agitation. Busdriver’s lyrics don’t beckon us to the vegan utopia predicted by brazenly politically-correct twitter poets like Steve Roggenbuck- he mocks the idea, saying "we can go to the hip hop show and join arms in unison at the soy farm". Trying to incorporate his music into any narrative of cultural or multicultural unity and the notions of progress implicit in those narratives violates it; his lyrics at times reflect the existential horror that comes along with the sense of being assimilated into a culture of compulsive mediocrity. The traditional sources of artistic conviction that I outlined above- positive reception by a trustworthy audience or the steadfast sense of articulating one’s authentic self- fail to account for Busdriver’s work.

In his book “The Location of Culture”, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha posits that the “self” in a modern context (i.e. a world defined by western ideology, where competing ideologies or even the notion of a ‘competing ideology’ are unimaginable) isn’t a sovereign entity with a fixed identity. He writes, "Being… postcolonial is a way of… surviving modernity, without the myth of individual or cultural sovereignty". For Bhabha, slippage of identity is the very condition of human agency in a post-colonial context, and art in this context reflects the vicissitudes of this condition. The adversity of modern life is something to survive, not overcome; and in Bhabha’s view, communities are not pre-ordained (the black community, the gay community etc.), community itself is articulated from a space in-between identities or estranged from identity: 

Homi Bhabha
"Political empowerment…comes from posing questions of solidarity and community from the interstitial perspective. Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project - at once a vision and a construction - that takes you 'beyond' yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present."  

We are not historically located in an interregnum from where the past can be seen nostalgically and the future can be seen as a liberal utopia we are modestly doing our part in creating or, alternatively, a sci-fi dystopia we are careening towards with a tragically hip lack of agency. Because the struggle with identity is part and parcel with survival itself, art, rather than being a venue for emancipation or overcoming, invites the audience to bear witness to the artist’s mortal struggle between herself and what Foucault calls “the heterogenous systems that inhibit the formation of any identity”.

Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics attempt to construct a community in the present- "I thought I had a home/ but I was told that we were stolen/ now I have no land of my own and so I live right/ I live right next to you". This line exhibits how the disappearance of identity implicit in modernity coexists with the ability to envisage a community, and that this phenomenon allows the “political conditions of the present” to be brought into relief. The importance of new conceptions of collectivity is also impressed upon me by many of Busdriver’s songs, which express the fact that (for instance) love and happiness are antithetical to the self-help calculus of middle-class communities. Some acerbic examples: "this freedom it tastes funny/ I am a case study/ dealing with utilitarian uses of love" and "I’ve got a point system that determines my happiness/ its unit of measurement is your interest in my crappy shit".

Open Mike dedicates his song "Self Medication Chant" to "my friends that are slowly losing their minds". The artistic dedication that Hellfyre brings to the table is, I think, inextricable from a sense of slippage and empathy; their conviction about the aesthetic merit of their work is a far cry from traditional hip-hop posturing. In an interview, Busdriver says "I am a failed venture, and I’m only tenacious enough to keep it going… in no way should anyone think that there's a blow-up factor on the horizon or even present's rooted in something else that I'm not really at liberty to even touch on". Busdriver’s music creates the present, it illuminates reality, but this radical quality doesn’t offer a route to escapism or transcendence because it is itself an effect of the daylong sense of loss and failure that accompanies ‘modern life’. Hellfyre’s relentless work ethic (Busdriver, Nocando, milo and Open Mike Eagle all have full-lengths coming out this year) and expanding roster ensures that they will be a crucially important collective for years to come.

Hellfyre Club members (r-l Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, Nocando, Rheteric Ramirez and milo)