Root Wy’mn Theater Company

at Randolph Street Gallery, May 27 and 28

The great contradiction of performance art is that though it has habitually posed as radical and political, as ironic commentary on the academy, it is in fact very much a part of the institution it supposedly critiques. Even the issues it has most embraced–sexual identity and feminist concerns–are white, middle-class issues privileged at their core. Performance may be the art world’s enfant terrible, but it’s very much a part of the family.

As a result of its supposed radicalism, performance has had a kind of false cachet. When it has included artists outside of the academy–such as most artists of color–it’s often been patronizing. And the artists themselves often play to performance’s expectations of them, even if they do so bitterly. (Watch Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s work, especially after Year of the White Bear, and you’ll see what I mean.)

But Root Wy’mn Theater Company, a collective of African American women from Austin, Texas, seems to be signaling something new, politically and aesthetically, for artists of color. What they do is performance art for themselves, for black women, black lesbians–but actually, ultimately, it’s for everybody.

Perhaps because performance artists are usually white and middle-class, they tend to have a limited view of history: Hollywood is a mother lode, but manifest destiny is a mystery. Cultural references tend to come from TV (Brady Bunch) or from art-school standbys (Artaud or Foucault); feminists might mention Frida or Yemaya, Madame Curie or the Great Goddess, but usually do so as if they were all interchangeable.

The greatest single issue of our time is probably the one that’s most absent from the performance agenda: it’s the rare white performer, and most are white, who mentions race and its attendant concerns, prejudice, homicide, poverty, genocide. And on the rare occasions when race is mentioned, it’s only mentioned. Race is acknowledged as part of the dynamic of racism, that deplorable thing; but it’s never explored, never showcased. While white performance artists may painstakingly deconstruct an incest or coming-out experience, a humiliating job or the epiphanic birth of a child, they seem incapable of looking at their own relationship to race and racism. They seem more interested in personality than in how the personal and the historical interact, more interested in self-references than in taking stock of their place in the world.

The way to relieve this problem may seem obvious–find a way to develop and integrate more artists of color–but performance has not been particularly welcoming to artists of color. When artists of color step onto the stage, performance is suddenly more strictly defined. I’ve heard local performance programmers say that Joan Jett Blakk isn’t really performance but drag (an argument never made about Gurlene & Gurlette), that Jeanette Green and Donna Rose aren’t really performers but poets or rhetoricians (an argument never used about Lisa Buscani or Nancy Forest Brown).

This has always struck me as ironic, because performance seems a natural for artists of color. More than most art forms, performance lends itself to oral story telling, fractured time and nonlinear narratives, rituals that involve both the sacred and the mundane, and the process of transformation–all elements that play vital roles in marginalized communities and that have everyday cultural counterparts among African Americans, American Indians, Latinos, and other people of color.

Certainly some of the resistance to involving artists of color has been territorial: there are only so many performance spaces with so many dollars and so many openings on their calendars. And performance is cliquish: artists often double as curators, and more often than not they invite their pals. Consider artist-curated showcases about town: who (except Paula Killen and Buscani–and they only recently) regularly include performers of color on their bills?

In recent years, however, not-for-profit performance spaces have had to reconsider their programming. Funders have been pressuring them to better reflect the demographics of their communities, not just their mailing lists. Funders–not artists have demanded that performance spaces diversify their bills and their audiences. Most performance spaces–staffed by white people who have few links with communities of color and no desire to give up any control to people of color who might be able to build bridges there–have been frustrated and mystified. In some cases, performance spaces have booked artists of color whose work hasn’t really been performance at all but theater or poetry or some other traditional art, which has helped raise the question of what performance really is, who defines it, and where it’s going. In other cases, the performers haven’t been ready for showcasing, which has often fueled resentment from white artists and helped confirm some nasty stereotypes.

With the exception of Gomez-Pena and Dan Kwang, most of the performance artists of color who have passed through Chicago have in fact been much more based in theater than white performers. Spiderwoman calls itself a theater; Pomo Afro Homos lay claim to performance more through their subject matter than their technique. But what all these artists–and most performance artists of color I’ve seen here–have in common is an awareness of the performance audience as white. Both Spiderwoman and the Pomos stretch to explain; Kwang uses inside cultural knowledge to cause discomfort; and Gomez-Pena, in a recent show with American Indian performer James Luna, put the spotlight on this issue by devising a semistaged question-and-answer period in which white audience members were fed typical, often racist or stupid questions to ask the performers.

What Root Wy’mn do is entirely different. They assume the audience is black and female, and address us accordingly. This may seem simple, but it’s critical: the message is that the sisters are–and if not, should be–in the house. By assuming the presence of black women, Root Wy’mn essentially demand it.

What is particularly fascinating about Root Wy’mn is how subversive, how smart, their assumption is. Instead of drawing a righteous line between those on the inside and those on the outside–as Gomez-Pena, Kwang, and even the more polite Spiderwoman and Pomos often do–they assume the line is already drawn. They don’t bother with it; they figure we know it’s there and what side of it we’re on. This assumption instantly creates a dynamic of trust between audience and performer, and that’s what makes the journey with Root Wy’mn inclusive and whole. At the most fundamental level, Root Wy’mn’s approach turns the focus from the oppressors–white folks who, after all, get plenty of attention anyway–and puts it on the oppressed: women, especially black women.

Yet Root Wy’mn aren’t exactly what you’d call a feminist or lesbian company, even if their topics and members could be defined that way. They make a point of describing their view as a black “homosexual” perspective–a clear signal that, whatever kinship they may have with the lesbian and gay community (which is usually white-identified), their take on sexuality comes first and foremost from an African American framework. The show’s very sexy, but only on the group’s own racial and cultural terms: when Kaci M. Fanning slyly describes herself, it’s as a “bulldog,” not “bulldagger.” While the difference may be lost to most non-African Americans, it is a subtle affirmation of black gayspeak that says volumes to insiders without alienating outsiders.

Certainly if you’re black, you can ride on Root Wy’mn’s blackness; if you’re female, you can recognize their gender experiences; if you’re gay, you can hook into their stories about love; if you’ve got any kind of sense of humor, you’ll certainly laugh on cue. It isn’t hard to find a place in their universe–but Root Wy’mn aren’t feel-good ninnies either. They don’t pamper anybody, but neither do they wield their anger carelessly.

Root Wy’mn is the creation of Sharon Bridgforth, a writer, poet, and playwright, and the group uses her work as a jumping-off point. They also integrate the choreography and performance of K. Anoa Monsho, who specializes in t’ai chi and African dance, and the sculpture of Marsha A. Gomez, whose altarpiece serves not as the backdrop it may seem at first but as axis for Lovve/Rituals and Rage. The group also feature Fanning, Arriama A. Matlock-Abdullah, and Sonja Parks.

Lovve/Rituals and Rage isn’t theater, poetry, rhetoric, or any other of the traditional spoken words–yet it uses all these genres. In its treatment of character and time it’s conceptual, and it requires a certain gutsiness–you can’t get into it unless you’re willing to both embrace history and leave some of its heavy baggage behind. Root Wy’mn telescope time in order to connect African women brought over as slaves with the modern women of the company. Through individual monologues linked to one another by imagery and metaphor, Root Wy’mn loop bloodlines with both ancestors and their contemporaries. “This is my story,” they say. “I am my story: first thoughts, without words.”

Throughout the show Root Wy’mn go in and out of different accents. One monologue will be spoken in deep southern, the next in an islander patois, then the next in a crisp, urban voice. At one point, Parks “jazzsings”–not scats–her piece. The women move all the while the monologues are spoken, ringing the speaker the way African dancers ring the featured performer. Sometimes their movements are jerky, like African dance. At other times they’re more meditative, smoother.

Certainly Root Wy’mn make all the requisite stops on the African American train ride: crossing over, slavery and lynching, murder at the hands of cruel whites, discrimination, vulnerability, cooking soul food, blues, church, and Aretha. But this is also Africa speaking–black Africa, yes, but also Africa as the cradleland, as the beginning of time and of all human life.

There isn’t a weak link in the Root Wy’mn ensemble, but there are two standouts: the young Matlock-Abdullah, a yellow-skinned tomboy with a sexy swagger and an impish smile, and Fanning, a vocal powerhouse with a devilishly delicious presence.

Because Root Wy’mn focus on the journey to the present–producing the kind of historical travelogue that’s so foreign in performance art–the experience of Lovve/Rituals and Rage is rich and profound. This show challenges other performers, regardless of their race, to reach beyond their grasp, to turn off the TV and dig a little deeper.

Will Root Wy’mn redefine performance all by themselves? No, but they may introduce a kind of reformation: artists of color integrating on their own terms, with their own values, and forcing white artists to take a more probing look at their lives and history.

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