Carolina Creative Campus – The Gender Project

Archive for November, 2008

DV8: To Be Straight With You

What does social activism and art look like? What does social activism and art sound like?

For some, it evokes Bob Dylan, articulating the refrain of a restless generation while strumming on his guitar between wisps of vocals and harmonica. For others, it’s a large graffiti-mural piece on the side of a building reclaiming public space for the public good, vibrant colors and empowering images with perhaps a banner-message tagged to sum it all up.

For DV8, the medium of choice is theatre. Their topic in To Be Straight With You addresses the many and diverse attitudes in society concerning homosexuality. These attitudes vary from subtle hypocrisy to outright violent hostility, denial to damning, concession to persevering resistance. I felt that by adopting the interviewees as characters, the performers effectively took the often oversimplified or grossly generalized perceptions of both camps on the issue and, through heartfelt, authentic reenactment, helped me to better see the nuances of this complex situation. Who do we condemn? What do we condemn?

To me, one particular focus of the play was that our attitudes towards homosexuality are an exercise in moral/cultural relativism and as a result, are characterized by those same vexing conundrums: how much of a person’s views are determined by cultural construct, by traditions, by those elements which are never absolute? DV8 does a fantastic job in intimating the many roots of the current perceptions of homosexuality. At one point, while the audience ooh’d and ahh’d (don’t pretend to be jaded—we all thought it was cool) as an actor conjured a large globe, he highlighted and colored sections while spinning statistics and facts about the laws of different nations and religions. By investigating this angle, I really thought that To Be Straight With You strived, at least, to condemn no one– or at least to pass judgement for you. Rather, it put the characters within their appropriate context, for isolated, it would be too easy to pigeonhole them as the hero or the villain which we might even subconsciously seek.

DV8’s performance of To Be Straight With You was definitely no one-act or two-part, break-here-for-intermission and resume-plot-line piece. The company created a collage of stories all compiled through interviews. Together, these stories defied the “sit there and listen” attitude that a lecture might have emulated had it been addressing similarly heated issues. Rather, the stories set the scene for an evening with an accessible and inspiring “let’s think about this” message.

DV8’s work stitched together anthropology, journalism, oral history, multimedia, dance, acting, and technology into a seamless and mutually reinforcing collaboration of mediums, none of which detracted from the other, but each somehow heightening the audience’s engagement with the overall message thanks to the individual role of each. A story is accompanied by a dance, and the dance is accompanied by music which swells at every climax of a story. Suddenly, simple casual jump roping becomes more urgent as the actor recounts of his father’s reaction to his homosexuality, and the gentle pattering of rope meeting ground becomes the threatening and breathless fury of an enraged patriarch or the helplessly frantic footsteps of the protagonists’ escape. In one scene, a recording of an interview with the British prime minister’s wife where she voices her desire to “help” gay people by encouraging them to convert to a heterosexual lifestyle is interrupted between questions by a raucous, feet-thumping, drunken tune as actors dressed with horse-head masks stomp around in an absurdist dance. The message this seemed to drive home is that the self-perceived beneficence of the speaker is no more than debasement of homosexuals to animals. The idea of manipulating their behavior is eerily similar to the domestication of wile, unruly beasts—an unsettling suggestion throughout an otherwise hilariously satirical part.

The result is a piece which is rich and multifaceted. The pace is smooth, and the images are lasting.

Equally lasting are the questions and concerns. For both nights after the show, the student group SHOWW with Arts tried to give the audience members a creative outlet of their own in which to respond to the show and to the issue presented. In the lobby, our blank sheet of white paper was quickly made replete with accolades for the piece (including a proud shout-out to the director from his father-in-law), depictions of scenes, follow-up questions, and other doodles grappling with gender issues (ex: soccer cleat with high heel, blue and pink baby toys, etc.)

Ultimately, as vexing as the relativist conundrums might be and as impenetrably grey those shades are, DV8 does provide a clear stance for one universal ideal: open dialogue. And To Be Straight With You proves to be another excellent answer to what social justice and the arts might look and sound like.

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Images from the production Lulu, presented by the Department of Dramatic Arts. These images were integral to the production as they were projected throughout the performance.

(click on the thumbnails below for a larger image)

What are your thoughts on the use of imagery and spectacle – in the context of this project, and in general as well. How effective are these images in communicating a message? What message do they communicate?

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Vivien and The Shadows

The DTH headline on the Oct. 21 performance of Vivien and The Shadows was “Sex Spectacle Shocks”. Yes, there were elements of the play that were shocking, uncomfortable to watch, even offensive. However, I believe that sex was not the main point of the play – it explored issues of gender and sexuality within the larger issues of appearance and copying.

In the program notes, the director, Ong Keng Sen, states that “Vivien and The Shadows is inspired by the ‘taboo’ concept of copying”. The work addresses the tension between the Eastern and Western traditions of art. This is a topic that has interested me for a while now; the Asian way of learning art (be it theater, music, painting, etc.) is to copy the master until one can achieve the exact same level of ability – only then can one be considered an artist. However, in the Western world copying is seen in a negative light, and originality is praised. We would much rather a child draw an original blob than trace the Mona Lisa. Can original art be formed from a copy of another?
Vivien and The Shadows begins with one performer copying the movements and expressions of Blanche DuBois in the film A Streetcar Named Desire. Throughout the entire play, the movie plays on small screens offstage, and some scenes were projected onto a large screen, with performers copying the movements of the original actors. Yet Vivien and The Shadows was much more than a rerun of A Streetcar Named Desire – it was a work of art in its own right. When does a copy become more than a copy?

Theater as an art form inherently must deal with the issue of copying. When one acts, one is copying the movements, the gestures, the inflections of something or someone else. We don’t expect an actress to actually get stabbed onstage, we expect her to act as if she were. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

Another large theme in the play was the fluidity of illusion, appearances, and our definition of self. The performers constantly changed outfits, wigs, makeup, speech… everything. There was no single coherent plotline, and all the performers narrated in the first person, with no single main character. One point made was that illusions and darkness can sometimes free us and allow us to be our “true” selves. One character was an accountant by day and could only let his gay self be known at night, in the shadows. This reminded me of the summer reading book, Covering, and a question common to both works: how much of who we are is defined by how we look, and what we do? How does our appearance define us to others?

Although some parts were difficult to watch or hard to understand, I enjoyed the play overall. It was definitely experimental theater, but it was thought-provoking and quite beautiful at times. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see the world premiere of this piece, and I hope that it can spark dialogue about the illusions and shadows in our own lives.

-Fei Fei Wang
Honors Arts and Dialogue Program
Freshman, biology and music double major

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