On March 17, I saw a rather unique show, in terms of its range of genre and multidisciplinarity, at New York Live Arts as part of the 2017 Live Ideas Festival. The split bill showcased both a live set by Oakland-based trans musician, pop singer/songwriter Star Amerasu and fellow Oakland-ites the Brontez-Purnell Dance Company who performed the world premiere of Chronic: A Dance About Marijuana.
Amerasu’s performance was multidimensional and layered, creating a vibratory celestial atmosphere in the New York Live Arts theater. Her use of “looped vocals and live electronic percussion” created a buzzing trance-like atmosphere in which her soulful and varied vocal-range echoed over and against itself. The drum tracks she lays in real time push the sound ever-forward, as she layers percussion and vocals mirrored by her footsteps, hips, and gestures in time with the beat.
At times, her music is haunting: “The Rain” and “Klonopin” have a somber mournfulness. A video loop echoes the ghostly melodies; Amerasu’s figure in a dark room lit by a blue light, blurry, sometimes in double-vision. There are disembodied hands and shadowy figures. Amerasu prefaces the song by talking candidly about her struggle with a loved one’s death, noting how she suffered from panic attacks and took Klonopin to cope. I later read that “Klonopin” mourns the suicide of her friend and trans writer, Bryn Kelly. But Amerasu’s sound is complex in its emotionality, simultaneously tender, forlorn, and bright. Nastia Voynovskaya notes this juxtaposition in KQED Arts: “I want to forget my life / I want to forget my strife, Amerasu sings in a falsetto, over trap high-hats and twinkly keys that evoke a toy piano.” There seems to be a genuine fragility in both Amerasu’s sound and stage persona, an intimacy she creates between performer and audience. But this vulnerability is simultaneously present with ferocity and joy; she mourns, but then she is fully present, looking right through you, dancing with abandon. For Amerasu, taking Klonopin, drinking, and partying was a way of coping with a society that seeks to destroy trans individuals and trans identity. For her, it was a necessity for survival, which is also, it seems, the case for her music-making.
Through Amerasu’s performance, she relives this trauma and walks us through it reborn. The repetition of sounds, which continually loop and grow into echo chambers as Amerasu adds layer upon layer of beats and vocals, changes the pace of time and the space in which we reside. Time seems to simultaneously speed up and come to halt as her sound envelops us. In “The Rain,” which is much darker than most of her other songs, Amerasu channels the deep soulfulness of Nina Simone, repeating, “Clean me out like the river Lethe / Come on, Come on, let me forget.” And while Simone often used silences to hypnotize her audiences, Amerasu seems to use repetition (of drum beats and vocals) to put us in a trance. We get lost in this other world with her through her music. But rather than forging a way to forget (a common appeal and theme in her work), Amerasu’s music seems to be a space for remembering and reliving past traumas. She bears witness to them, transforming them and us through layers of sound that repeat, but with a difference. And as the sounds continually change, so do we, mesmerized and memorializing in a new space and time. We share in her present-making and her becoming. She is making herself again, and remaking herself again in each performance.
But there’s a delightfully snarky side to Amerasu as well. Her turn as a privileged white girl in “Meg Ryan” is both hilarious and pointed. She takes on the persona of this caricature as she repeatedly chants with a valley-girl accent, “I’m a white woman, I can do whatever I want,” lips pursed and bulging, batting eyes glazed over. The representation is hilarious in its overdone-ness, and even more so in the music video where we see Amerasu clad in a platinum wig traipsing from a shopping mall to Starbucks and sashaying flaneur-like down random streets. The white girl in the video is doing nothing (wandering aimlessly), and yet, there is power in this nothingness, in the ability to be seen and do what one pleases. The white woman occupies spaces that other bodies might be chased from or through; she does whatever she wants. Amerasu argues that this privilege is as superficial and superfluous as a platinum wig, or what one sees externally. And as she repeats her mantras over and over again, “I could be President, I could be Queen, I could be everything in between,” the words have power to transform Amerasu into something new. Is she a white woman? No, not quite. She is something better. She is a black woman who can play in and around racial and gender stereotypes, pointing to the ridiculous and often malignant nature of white privilege, emerging more powerful in the continued recreation of her whole self.
Brontez Purnell Dance Company also uses themes of repetition to relieve/relive past events and past traumas in Chronic: A Dance About Marijuana, which is indeed a dance about marijuana, but also the chronic nature of living on the periphery of a discriminatory policing society. As the lights come up, three dancers (Purnell, Randy Reyes, and Jose Abad) stand upstage nonchalantly posing, dressed in tight black jeans and t-shirts, long black wigs, and huge hoop earrings. Like video girls, they saunter forward seducing the audience with parted lips and wide eyes. They go on to perform synchronized twerking, so slow and robotic and repetitive as to seem nearly apathetic. The performers toe the line here between portraying the true video vixen (sexually exploited object) and a much less convincing version of stereotype. They mime sexuality, but with so little intent at times that we don’t fully “believe” their portrayal. It doesn’t really matter if we truly buy into this performance or not, just that it is indeed ambivalent in its representation of racial and gendered stereotypes. They are video vixens, but not (with beards).
In the background, a video loop of a man who looks like Purnell trimming marijuana plays over and over again. It is so big (a close-up of his face and hands) and continuous that it looms over us. The film is also in time-lapsed photography, so as to appear sped-up and robotic. As it replays, we become mysteriously desensitized to its ongoing presence and Purnell’s seemingly machine-like movements. It becomes something other than the act itself, almost dehumanized. We also feel like we are trapped in a kind of time-warp; time is moving faster, but is also unending.
With the additional layer of a Snoop Dogg track playing, I begin to consider the relationship between marijuana and racial and gender stereotypes. When the three performers nonchalantly remove their wigs and earrings, their transformation draws attention to the tenuous nature of the images they portray. One minute they’re video vixens (albeit completely uninterested ones), and the next, they’re men. There is a tension and interplay between the tough masculinity (even misogyny) of the Snoop song, ambivalent femininity of the video vixen, and the overbearing, continuous replay of the production of marijuana which renders Purnell a robot. Right away, it seems there is a connection here between the policing of certain illegal substances and the policing of gendered/racialized bodies. The state plays a role in determining where certain gendered bodies can and cannot go, just as the state determines just how, when, and where certain substances can go. And what of race? Black and Latino bodies have been the target of prejudiced policing policies which disproportionately criminalize them for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Purnell and dancers play on and around these stereotypes, becoming not the gangsta rapping Snoop Dogg, but his video girls.
Throughout the dance, what seems to be Purnell’s voice narrates a story in several parts. In one part, he tells us that he worked on a marijuana farm trimming with a white woman who was a Libertarian and tried to convert him. She preaches to him about not wanting people to come onto her land and tell her what to do, and Purnell incredulously agrees. The irony of course being that as a queer black person, Purnell has been historically denied many of these things much more violently than this white woman. In the end it is the white woman who robs the owner of his crop. Purnell, on the other hand, dismisses the drama and contemplates going back to waiting tables instead. Purnell’s words choreograph an image of intersecting lines, along and amidst racial, gender, and sexual difference. Purnell’s story about his relationship to marijuana challenges many other versions of the story the government may try to feed us relating to the criminalization of this substance and the related criminalization of the black/brown man.
During Purnell’s retelling, his repetition, Purnell and dancers enter into the audience, having placed spools of string in their mouths. Each spool is connected to another dancer’s, so that when they begin to slowly move away from each other, spreading out, the string forms a triangle between them, with some members of the audience “caught” within the triangle. More than mere prop, the string transforms as it moves in and out of their mouths, covered in saliva. It is almost as if the string becomes a part of their moving bodies. And the dancers too are transformed as their movements must negotiate their connectedness; they move as one. The thread seems to capture all of us in this story, making us a part of it with Purnell. Purnell’s confrontations with issues of race and illicitness, marginalization and sexuality confront us all.
Once offstage with Reyes and Abad, Purnell tells us how after returning to Oakland from trimming weed, he learns of Trump’s election to office and the Oakland warehouse fire that killed dozens. “My friends were dead and my enemy was in power,” he says. Again, we are reminded of the illicit spaces and places our society forces marginalized people to occupy. The response that follows is this:
Along with the audio, a simultaneous, “Daaaaaamn!”, this clip plays on repeat for what may be a minute or two. At first, it seems like most of the audience finds it funny. Many audience members would recognize the clip or GIF from the popular comedy Friday (starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker), and laugh. It is a moment of levity following the heaviness of immense loss (political and personal). But as the meme continues over and over again, it becomes something else, and our feelings perhaps shift. The “Daaaaaamn!” moment in and of itself is already an over-reaction, hilarious in its superfluity. But as we see it replicated over and over and over again, the image becomes even more clownish, animated to the nth degree. Separated from the context of the film, the clip becomes further isolated in its animatedness, and further animated in its isolation. And this animation becomes particularly dangerous when associated with black bodies that may lose agency through this isolation. Perhaps what Purnell is highlighting here is the power and danger of the image in its ability to take on a life of its own. This clip is a meme, and if we consider Richard Dawkins’ definition of the meme from The Selfish Gene as a unit in which cultural ideas might be transmitted by its repetition, then perhaps we might consider what cultural ideas, or ideals, are being transmitted here. What Purnell might be asking is what happens when an image of black life (and certainly a particularly stylized, hyperbolized one) is taken out of context (the context being a comedy film created primarily for black audiences) and repeated again and again? Are we in on the joke and laughing with them, or are we on the outside laughing at them? In the wrong hands, might they become a caricature?
And perhaps Purnell’s antidote to this precarious animatedness is a gleeful “appropriation” of Irishness (which Purnell “apologizes” for). The dance ends with the three dancers scantily clad in green boas and short shamrock tunics, all the while catwalking and voguing to the lavish “Emerald City Sequence – Green, Red, Gold” from The Wiz. They playfully mock white supremacy with their take on an Irish “drag” show, reclaiming white spaces for themselves (which The Wiz also does). After the Friday meme, Purnell simply pronounces, “Then it was Saturday,” as De la Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’” plays. Purnell shrugs off tragedy in favor of celebration. “Saturdays” boasts “fun instead of fights” and letting loose; its heavy use of sampling (and repetition of altered disco and funk songs) creates space for the celebration of queerness and blackness against the odds.