Yong Jean Lee’s “The Shipment”

Performativity is separate to performance, affirms Butler. When it comes to the performativity of gender, she believes that “gender is a stylized repetition of acts… which are internally discontinuous … so that the appearance of substance is precisely that — a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief.” Butler is speaking to the idea of gender being constructed by society rather than naturalized at birth. Gender is not a biological recognition, but a constructed concept. This is in much the same way that race is also constructed. With a cast of five people, Young Jean Lee’s production of The Shipment put together five distinct parts to their production. The first being movement on stage by two of the actors, then a stand-up comedy show with just Douglas Scott, a short skit with the entire cast, an acapella performance by two male actors and the only female one, and lastly a short play performed by the whole cast. Their work speaks to the ‘script’ that is often tied with race and the acknowledgement of race as a constructed word that has become normalized.

The show opens with one black male actor moving energetically on stage. He is soon joined by another actor. The two imitate each other’s movement, at times performing in unison or even individualizing their movements. Their movements are directed to the audience, often turning to face them or even shaking their bums right in front of them. The opening can be seen as recognition of the form that the production is following by having an all black cast on a stage and where there is a frequent acknowledgement of the audience. It parodies the concept of minstrelsy and how black bodies were a source of entertainment for a white population, to the point where blackfacing was even done. In his stand-up comedy solo performance, Douglas Scott ties his comedy to specific kinds of terminology. For example, he openly acknowledges the use of the word “nigger” and uses it frequently in his own sentences. Douglas energetically says that he “needs to talk about race because white people are stupid motherfuckers”. He attempts to highlight a hypocrisy that exists amongst people who are white. Although he spends a great deal of time blaming white people for their opinions on race, also acknowledges that “black people are stupid” as well. Although he uses race as a target point to build his rants and discussions off of, it would appear that he aims to place blame on people and not a racially specific people.

I recall moments when watching the final short play with the whole cast where I questioned who it was that they were playing. I remembered Cloud 9, where the black slave is played by a white actor because it represents the black man conforming to what whites want him to be. There were moments where I thought the all black cast was playing all white characters. Part of this assumption lies in how the cleverly the stand-up comedy component of the show was a kind of set up for the final play. Douglas spoke about how “white people don’t want to hear black people whine” and that white people are probably the biggest whiners. In the last act we have Omar for instance, who whines about people invading his personal space or how he avoids certain foods. Douglas’s acknowledgement of stereotypes of both whites and blacks allowed for the characterization of the actors into their final roles at the end. Rather than each segment of The Shipment then, being distinct, each one builds off of the other. The sheer absurdity of these aggrandized characters highlights the expectation of the audience to see black people perform in a grand, stylized and humourous way. When they begin to play a game and the prompt is “the negro believes,” there is a similar sense of normalcy similar to the beginning when Douglas openly uses the word “nigger” in his speech. This plays on the notion that it is perfectly fine for blacks to use these terms because these are the terms that that are associated and imposed on their ‘identity’ as blacks. However, when Omar states “I don’t think we’d be doing this if there was a black person in the room,” it completely turns the whole scene on its head. The production blurs the lines of the actions, gestures, language and characterizations that are associated with blacks and imposes them on whites. In doing so, they present that race is not determined by birth but by language. Note that the transition between scenes into the last one was incorporated into the performance. Rather than the set up of the stage being a moment the audience is not supposed to see, the transition is made visible. In fact, Mary J. Blige’s “Ooh” song is played, and all the lights on stage are kept turned on two older white men who take their time in moving everything into place. White men are literally constructing the set which then black actors perform in. As one can see in the play Our Town by Wilder, whiteness is always defined in relation to its other. The black actors never change anything on set and are restricted to furniture on stage, elevating the idea of conformity within societal structures and the normalcy attached to constructed ideas of race.

The Shipment speaks to the stereotypes that are associated with African Americans. More than this however, it is a portrayal of what is thought of that happens when people do talk about race, and how this conversation differs between white people, black and white, and black people. The discussion of race is considered taboo but also privileged; only white people get to talk about race. Only do the whites get to feel victimized and targeted when in a room with blacks. As Douglas says, “for white people the sense of persecution festers”. However, as Douglas acknowledges in his stand-up comedy, black people are also afraid of other black people. What this speaks to is not the nonsensical stereotype that all blacks are dangerous, but that people are dangerous. We tie these stereotypes to race in order to feel like the victims or have a sense of authority over a scapegoat, but humans in general have the potential to be dangerous. Race does not determine action. However, the associations – the ‘script’ – that are tied with race have been normalized to the extent that one can come to believe that race does inform action. The Shipment attempts to rewrite this script by following it and performing it differently each time so that its absurdity can enlighten the audience to question the identity of the self and the other.

Plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings

Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading at NYU Abu Dhabi of Dry Land, a play by Ruby Ray Spiegel. The play is set in a highschool girls’ locker room, and is a coming of age story centered on the topic of abortion. Having grown up in a conservative culture, one can imagine my initial surprise when hearing the word ‘vagina’ being spoken aloud. Other topics of conversation include sex and their period. It occurred to me that I had rarely, if ever, heard these topics being spoken aloud openly in public with a mixed gendered audience (though granted, a closed space may be considered a private space). But wait, what’s wrong with saying “vagina” anyways? Honestly, absolutely nothing. My reaction however is a testament to how its meaning goes beyond a simple definition that is tied to the physical body.

Beyond being simply words, they are identifiers; labels attached to an individual. Yet they drag a whole script along with them. To be a girl, is to have grown up playing with Barbie dolls, wanting to live in a princess castle, being good at cooking, etc. When Simone de Beauvoir claims that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman,” she appropriates gender to be an identifier that is not static. From the moment of birth – and perhaps even before – there is a gender label attached to the body. “Is it a boy or a girl?” is a simple question that can be translated in many possible ways. On a biological and physical level, it asks if the newborn has a peinis or a vagina. On a familial level perhaps it means whether parents invest in football or ballet. Should the socks be blue or pink? With the association of a gender comes a whole series stereotypes and perceptions attached with it. These can exist within a large community or even between two people, representing that there is ultimately a cultural governing system enforced on the body. Narcissister exaggerates the body and sexuality to convey the absurdity of gender as a social construct.

One could only imagine my reaction to the work of Narcissister. I do not recall quite exactly what my first response or feelings were. I do recall, however, being incredibly confused as to what I was seeing. Her work is bizarre, expressive, outspoken…. and also enlightening. Having been tagged as ‘the topless feminist superhero New York needs,’ Narcissister is an anonymous performance artist whose work centers on race and sexuality. She frequently wears plastic and a mask that bears the likeness of a Barbie doll. What plasticity, lights, Chaka Khan and red stockings all have in common is that they have a strong presence in Narcissister’s performance titled Every Woman. Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” plays throughout the piece while Narcissister, who appears like a live mannequin, moves to the music while she places her hands below her hips and near her crotch. She then begins to perform a reverse strip tease, “slowly redresses herself from clothing she pulls out of various bodily orifices” (Narcissister). Here, Naracissister is seen critiquing society on the ways the female body is sexualized. As she pulls the red stocking out from her and wears them, she empowers her own self by being the source of the clothing and also the ones who gets to put them on. She has her own agency in what she wears, how she wears it, and what she chooses to do with it. Instead of teasing her clothes off, she chooses to start naked and covered in plastic. This sense of a being a live mannequin whose face resembles some Barbie dolls, announces her identity to be conflicted between what femininity means to her versus what is means societally. Her body is torn both real and ‘fake’ yet ultimately the human body is material. This is reminiscent of Riviere’s notion that “femininity is a masquerade” (Hughes 90).

We grow up with thinking gender is simple to understand. It is not complicated. It is as simple as walking into a toys store and there are sections marked clearly labeling which toys are for the boys, and which ones are for the girls. Gender and its associations are dictated for us. If we defy or step out of this script that is constructed for us, it is out of the ordinary or even taboo, and we risk exclusion from society. The truth of the matter is that gender is complicated. What if I have a vagina but choose to identify as male? Or do I really have to fit into either male or female tick-boxes? Narcissister’s exaggerative style of performance art is indeed provocative. She has chosen a style and forms within her pieces to express the absurdity of the definitions tied to gender. Butler speaks of how to “de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, the body is understood to be an active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities,” which is what Narcissister attempts to do as well (Butler). She recognizes her body to be her own, but also uses her body as a text to speak for the influences society has. She recognizes her body as material and uses it to represent the conflict of self-identification.

So then what exactly is gender? Is it the label or the associations made or both, none, something else? Gender is complicated, but in trying to understand it, I choose to side with Butler’s take on its definition. Butler believes that gender is simply “the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of sub- stance, of a natural sort of being” (Salih 1).

 

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. Web.
“Every Woman.” Narcissister. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.
Frank, Priscilla. “Narcissister Is The Topless Feminist Superhero New York Needs (NSFW).” Huffpost Arts & Culture. The Huffington Post, 30 June 2014. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Hughes, Athol, ed. THE ININER WORLD AND JOAN RIVIERE. Collected Papers: 1920 – 1958. London: Karnac Book, 1991. Print.
Salih, Sarah. “On Judith Butler and Performativity.” (2008): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

If Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ was based in Sri Lanka….

Time and time again, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) has been enacted within a political context at varying degrees. In 1984 in Haifa, Ilan Ronen had the protagonists Vadimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) be Arab construction workers in Israel, who would wait to be hired. Donald Howarth’s 1980 version in Cape Town was meant to make a statement about relationships between black South Africans and white South Africans during the Apartheid era. For Susan Sontag’s production in Sarajevo in 1993, it was an “act of defiance against a world which appeared content to stand by and watch” during the Serb bombardment of Sarajevo (Bradby 165). She pushed for her performances to be “full of anguish, of immense sadness, and toward the end, violence” (Bradby 166).

If I were to produce my own take on Beckett’s classic, it would be set between 2010 and 2014 and take place in the popular Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf café in Colombo, Sri Lanka. These specific years are in reference to a time when the country was in its last years under ‘a failed dictatorship’. I chose these years specifically because I was living in Sri Lanka up until this time, and so have not experienced conditions under the new government. To begin with, Pozzo and Lucky would be a comedic duo of politicians who represent both the ignorance and the idiocy of the government. Didi and Gogo however, would represent the Colombo youth.

Coffee Bean, as it is referred to, is a popular café for people of all ages to meet for casual or professional reasons. It is also a common meeting place for high school students or college undergraduates as it is the perfect place to have a formal meeting without any sort of pressure attached. Over mochas and lattes, seated on the comfy leather chairs, is where the youth of Colombo organize conferences that aim to empower the youth or plan events to help the local community in some way. To speak in general terms, the problem with Sri Lanka is that there is much talk but little support or action taken. Kudos to the youth of Colombo for finding a time to meet to discuss some cause, like finding ways to promote unity in the multiethnic country, but in a group of ten or fifteen only a third will show up and only a couple will actually turn words into action. There is a desire to delay words that should be spoken now, and actions that need to be taken now. Far too often does sheer laziness get in the way of any meaningful change being made.

On a much more personal note, I cannot help but imagining Didi and Gogo as an elderly heterosexual couple. In their late seventies, Grandma Didi and Grandpa Gogo want to leave their home and explore, but there is always something holding them back. Pozzo and Lucky would signify younger versions of themselves, full of energy and going where they please and saying whatever they please.

In all honesty, the idea of Didi and Gogo being played by an elderly couple is based on my parents. My parents are near their sixties but they seem like they are in their thirties. They are not afraid of anything or anyone. Most of our family though, lives on the other side of the world. Torn between Sri Lanka and Peru, my parents always talk about one day leaving and moving to live in Peru, but something always keeps them from going; the reasons have mainly been work related. They are waiting for some miracle to happen that will force them to leave. As much as I would like them to drop everything and just go, I understand that they cannot afford to without securing employment, or maybe winning the lottery. The more they wait, the more I feel like perhaps it is not in their hand of cards to leave. Perhaps they are condemned to live alone together in an island to which their children will never return to. We have our lives to live and as much as Sri Lanka will always be a home, it is now a place to go for holiday, but not to live.

 

Works Cited:
Bradby, David. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.