Untitled Flesh

Sacred Naked Nature Girls

By Carol Burbank

The Sacred Naked Nature Girls are everything their name announces–naked and self-anointed through a ritualistic bond with nature. But they are far from the shocking presence their preperformance hype suggested. Instead this collective offers a look at the dangers and pleasures of collaborative feminist performance, taking its place in the entertaining but familiar avant-garde tradition of the theater of healing.

I went to Untitled Flesh at the Randolph Street Gallery on “women’s night.” The show’s content wasn’t any different than on the other two nights of performance, according to a cast member, but she said that the audience energy does change. And from my own experiences in women-only spaces, I think I know what she means: mixed audiences are more openly sexual in their responses, while all-women audiences generally offer a broader spectrum of emotions.

The Los Angeles-based Sacred Naked Nature Girls perform in autobiographical and archetypal scenarios that include rape, masturbation, sadomasochism, children’s games, slave narratives, and ritualistic enactments. The performers–Danielle Brazell, Laura Meyers, Akila Oliver, and Denise Uyehara–are naked in a matter-of-fact way, however: their nudity seems to simply ground them more deeply in these often sexually charged stories, creating the illusion that we’re seeing them without performative pretense. Exploiting this illusion and their own bland, friendly stage personas, they push some buttons hard, forcing the audience to confront the ways we see naked women, from objectification to identification, from desire to disgust.

This confrontation is the most successful aspect of Untitled Flesh, connecting the Sacred Naked Nature Girls’ interests in erotica, pornography, and the body’s memory of both historical and personal experiences. By making themselves vulnerable personally, they effectively make it possible to look at the female bodies participating in violence and arousal and heal themselves and the audience. Also in service to this goal, the Sacred Naked Nature Girls combine children’s games, role-playing, and narratives with overlapping, repeated phrases to create a space where audiences can relive and perhaps relieve past tensions and traumas. (One woman left the theater sobbing during the rape scene; the performers continued without acknowledging her departure.)

The most challenging scenes juxtapose pleasure and pain in the hope of creating a crisis of identification and raising questions about the connection between eroticism and violence. While a woman describes and then enacts a rape by an invisible assailant, another stands before a mirror masturbating to a rape fantasy. Afterward both women dissolve into shame and pain and are led away from the spotlight by the other two, their supporters. In an even more problematic combination, two women enact a halfhearted S-M scene while the masochist, a black woman, recalls violent assaults on her slave ancestors. The Sacred Naked Nature Girls say they intend these ambiguous combinations to explore the power of S-M and rape fantasies, but their juxtapositions come across more as judgmental comments on violent fantasies.

In other scenes the performers use childhood games or popular culture to raise questions about identity politics. The four women play tug of war, forming an X with the rope, while asking one another questions about their sex lives: A lesbian talks about sleeping with men. An Asian discusses the differences between her Asian and white lovers. As the questions grow more difficult and the answers more controversial, the opponents pull harder. The most dogmatic scene revolves around a series of caricatures of pop-culture types, a sort of lounge act performed to a whispered “Hey, check me out” parody of girl-group backup singers. The performers create characters with obvious twists: a gender-disoriented woman who believes she’s a man, a born-again Christian who loves sex, and a woman who argues that physical appearances are irrelevant and becomes enraged when she talks about love. Like the other sketches, these are partly improvised, and so lose the sharp, satirical punch of precise timing.

But despite the sloppiness of the performance, there’s a welcoming charm to the group, as if they were inviting us to a feast. In fact, the evening’s last image is of a strawberry communion. The women daub themselves with mud to represent scars and, taking a page from Alice Walker, proclaim the streaks to be “warrior marks” and declare themselves sacred for their survival, their suffering, and the beauty of their wounds. Then they offer healing strawberries to the audience members closest to hand. “I am sacred, you are sacred,” they repeat. It was tempting to believe this community would hold together, would lead to a stronger commitment to healing support among women: a field of berries where we could stay forever, peaceful.

For a moment, as I waited for my turn to taste a strawberry, I remembered my own hopes of feminist community. But I was sitting too far back and never got an offer to eat; in the end, I guess it’s just as well. The community of healing offered by the Sacred Naked Nature Girls is a limited one. It implies our battles are over, and all we need to do is lick our wounds, celebrate our sacredness, and find triumph in survival itself. But the ambiguities of the production haunted me: the cloaked judgments, the inward-turning impulse of the scenes. What’s the purpose of healing if it ends in a sealed community that exists only to gather into and protect itself?

“What if I don’t want to be sacred?” my friend asked me after the show. “What if I want to be profane?” Her comment reminded me that, as beautiful and necessary as healing is, there are dangers in the Sacred Naked Nature Girls’ version of self-love. Is there room in this comforting, healing community for a more disruptive poetics? Can body memory and recovery move beyond self-protection and self-congratulation into a celebration of action and power from many sources, not just our wounds from the past?

The Sacred Naked Nature Girls seem to believe their performative world is the place to start and to finish: their ritual moves them and their audience toward a seductive but dangerous worship of scars, toward passivity and immobility. But liberation comes when the sacred and the profane mingle in active, rebellious, passionate, proud, worldly activism. Telling healing stories in a “safe space” makes us feel only a moment’s freedom: the illusion of nakedness and vulnerability, even in performance, has its snares.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linda Kliewer.