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The MCA provides tool kits for plague times

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s performance series has long been noted for breaking down barriers between disciplines. But reimagining what performance means in a pandemic presented its own challenges. This fall, two pieces—Last Audience: a performance manual, created by Yanira Castro and her ensemble, a canary torsi, and Chapter & Verse: The Gospel of James Baldwin by musician Meshell Ndegeocello and a team of collaborators—give audiences a measure of control and community in a time of chaos and quarantine.

“These are two projects that we were hoping to present this year, actually. So it is no coincidence that they have things in common, even though they’re really completely different structures and different artists,” says Tara Aisha Willis, associate curator of performance at MCA. Both pieces now take center stage in audience members’ homes, rather than in the physical environment of the MCA.

Castro, who was born in Puerto Rico and is now based in New York, originally conceived and presented Last Audience as a live interactive experience. The piece (presented at MCA in partnership with Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) involves several performance scores, built around themes such as “mercy,” “judgement,” and “blessing,” with printed instructions for the audience.

One sample score Willis provided encourages audiences to create a “thunderous clash” using a pot and a spoon and following a series of movements, such as: “stand and shake the spoon vigorously inside the pot, hitting the pot’s walls. Do this until your arms hurt. Until your ears hurt.” The pieces are meant to be time-based and durational, and participants are encouraged to document their work at LastAudience.com or on social media using the hashtag #LastAudience. 

It raises this idea of the audience as performers. And the different ways individuals navigate participating as part of a group feels so relevant right now as we all sort of walk around and make choices that really impact other people’s lives on a day-to-day basis in a way that maybe attention wasn’t drawn to before COVID hit,” notes Willis. Audiences who wish to participate can purchase the manuals, available via mail or PDF download, at the MCA website. 

Willis says, “The idea of the publication also really came from this idea of how do you sort of help performance show up in someone’s home? How do you have that intimate relationship that the performers in the live show were able to have with the audience members? They would whisper instructions into people’s ears, they would hand them notes, kind of guide groups through different experiences. So how do you have that kind of intimacy or connection in some way where the performers aren’t even necessarily in touch with the audience, exactly?”

She adds, “It’s not just about translating this into a book form. It’s also about having something show up in the mail. Having something that you can kind of access and have your own personal experience with at home and feel like you’ve received this sort of special gift from the artist.” And though the scores are designed to be performed with others, it’s possible to do them on your own as well.

Willis describes the scores as “very poetic, very ritualistic and bizarre and kind of open-ended. But the design team at MCA has worked really closely with Yanira and her collaborators to think about how the design of it is beautiful and is specific to the work. And it kind of has turned into a combination of a workbook, like washing machine instructions, and also a kind of Catholic missal or some sort of religious object.”

Ndegeocello’s work is inspired by Baldwin’s essays in The Fire Next Time, and was created in collaboration with director Charlotte Braithwaite, featuring contributions from poet Staceyann Chin, multimedia artist Suné Woods, and Tlingit/Unangax̂ multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Galanin, among others. Willis notes that Ndegeocello describes it as “a tool kit for justice.” As with Castro’s work, participants receive material online and in the mail in the form of a monthly newsletter containing “music, thoughts, meditations, and visual media,” all of which in some way reflect on resilience and resistance. (You can sign up at thegospelofjamesbaldwin.com.)

“Yanira is thinking about reckoning in a very specific way, and judgment and how we make these choices that affect other people in society,” notes Willis. “Meshell is really thinking about social justice in the context of this election and wanting to provide this tool kit that can kind of be a balm or a sort of galvanizing view to action, a set of ideas or ways to take action as well as inspiration.” By putting the power and performance in the hands of the audience, Willis hopes the MCA’s fall series will encourage people to think about how the decisions we make, from voting to wearing masks, “is really a decision about a community, and not just ourselves.” Materials for both pieces are available through December.

Out of the closet

Donterrio Johnson has wasted no time moving forward with his vision to reimagine and “reignite” the community around Pride Films and Plays, beginning with the name. The company, whose founder, David Zak, resigned amid controversy in July, is now known simply as PrideArts. And while live performances are still on hold, artistic director Johnson is staging a series of livestreamed “closet plays” for the company this fall. 

Originally, the idea of a “closet play” was one meant to be read, rather than performed. It grew out of the twin calamities in England of the plague and of the censorious reign of Puritan Oliver Cromwell, who viewed public performances as sinful and thus drove playwrights and their fans to share the work in small private gatherings. The lineup Johnson’s created includes pieces by 19th-century English playwrights John Maddison Morton and W.R. Walkes, as well as The Proposal by Anton Chekhov. The casting will emphasize queer and BIPOC artists.

In the press release, Johnson notes, “Right now, in our country we are in the middle of huge conversations about race, gender and politics. Also looming over our heads is the weight of a global pandemic that has altered all our lives. If we were to step backwards to the 19th century these same talking points were very relevant then. We saw the rise of Vaudeville—an art form that brought cis-white male performers to the forefront. These performers would often dabble in drag performance and blackface but would never allow the people who actually lived those lives onto their stages. My idea this season is: What if we rewrote this history? What if we reappropriated the Vaudeville Era and brought blackness and queerness to the forefront? What would it look like? How would it feel?” 

Each show will be recorded live in one of Pride’s Buena Park venues (sans audience and with cast and crew following social distancing protocols), and streamed twice only. The fall series kicks off with a benefit concert conceived by Johnson on September 30 (available in an open-ended run afterward) featuring writing by Tennessee Williams and Baldwin intertwined with original jazz music.  v

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