This week, we welcome Fargo Nissim Tbakhi in a brand new role at Jewish Currents: artist-in-residence. Over the next year, Fargo will be creating and curating performances to be staged across the country, so watch this space!
Fargo Nissim Tbakhi (artist-in-residence): Lately, I find myself seeking out art that takes disgust, cruelty, revulsion, and other ugly feelings seriously. So I’ve been spending time with the work of the experimental theater director Reza Abdoh, a queer, Iranian-born provocateur whose electrically confrontational theater expanded the possibilities for experimental performance in the United States. Abdoh’s body of work (and work of body) examined the jagged wounds of the American nation in the ’80s and ’90s and tore them open to wallow in the blood.
Quotations from a Ruined City, Abdoh’s last full piece before his death of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 32, is an astonishing piece of such brutality. It is, characteristically, a work of compounding and interweaving fragments, paired with text that moves from poetic to financial to musical. The play begins with two performers’ disembodied heads describing the titular ruined city; as the performance moves they reappear as Puritans, struggling actors, and businessmen, always drawn inexorably back to the city in spite of themselves. Across the work, Abdoh consistently focused on the ways that the body can exert itself on stage and serve as a translation of the various violences which make up the world. The performers of Abdoh’s theater company, Dar A Luz, physically and spiritually collide with one another across evocations of genocide, torture, and something like queer survival.
The play—which was written in collaboration with his brother, Salar—is impossible to describe and almost violent to experience, even with the low-quality video compressing its immediacy. Quotations moves at a frenzied pace, as though it’s trying to match or exceed the speed at which atrocities both daily and historical accumulate. Like all of Abdoh’s work, the performance is suffused with gallows humor, a few fart jokes, and occasional moments of near-sublime grace. In the video of the 1994 Los Angeles performance, someone releases a butterfly from a jar in the middle of the show. The performance ends with two men in dresses embracing one another, and the lines “Remember. Remember. We are bound to the past as we cling to the memory of the ruined city.” The lights go down, then back up as the two remaining performers bow, and then the butterfly flutters directly across the lens of the camera for just a moment. It’s a beautiful, unplanned testament to life somehow persisting inside the borders of a perpetually cruel place.
This interplay of violence and grace is characteristic of Abdoh’s work. In his 1990 evisceration of the Orpheus myth, The Hip Hop Waltz of Eurydice, the title character repeatedly says “The place that you rip open again and again that heals is God.” It’s a fitting thesis statement for his project, and for why we might make art that hurts us. Sometimes the violence slows, and something tender flutters by, just in front of the lens.
Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theater feeling as emotional as I did on Wednesday after seeing Ossie Davis’s 1961 satire, Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, a profound and hilarious critique of racial capitalism.
The play—directed by Kenny Leon with unrestrained fervor—follows the tangled efforts of the eponymous hero (played by the charismatic Leslie Odom, Jr.), an itinerant preacher and folkish trickster who returns to Georgia to retrieve a $500 bequest from a deceased cousin, and with it, reclaim his grandfather’s church, where he plans to preach the gospel of freedom. He recruits a naïve young woman (the hilarious Kara Young) to impersonate the cousin—white people can’t tell Black folks apart, after all, he reasons—and demand the inheritance of Ol’ Cap’n (steam-out-of-his-ears blustery Jay O. Sanders), the cotton plantation owner who is holding the cash, as well as trapping local Black people in inescapable sharecroppers’ debt. Several relatives and household members round out the cast, each self-consciously enacting their expected roles to avoid the wrathful violence of Ol’ Cap’n.
When Davis wrote the play, he wondered if his effort to turn stereotypes “inside out and upside down” would go over. Could laughter be revolutionary? He found a satisfying answer when Black audiences howled happily at the original production in which he and his wife and activist comrade, Ruby Dee, starred, and when, in turn, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X attended the show and came backstage afterwards to offer their congratulations. The play also had me laughing throughout its madcap 100 minutes, and left me infuriated by the aptness of its scathing 62-year-old indictment.
Indeed, Davis had initially set out to write a tragedy exposing the “racist arrogance” he experienced growing up in the South. But his work on a play based on Yiddish stories—the surprise 1953 off-Broadway hit, The World of Sholem Aleichem—inspired him to turn “from anger and revenge toward laughter.” Both its writer, Arnold Perl, and director, Howard da Silva, had been blacklisted and barred from their respective jobs in radio and Hollywood movies, so they shifted to the theater to give themselves and other dis-employed leftists some work. Da Silva met Dee at a rally for the Rosenbergs, where she spoke against the death penalty, and offered her a role. Davis came along as stage manager.
Being a comedy, Purlie ends with the hero victorious. In the final scene, the set (designed by Derek McLane) morphs magically from the family’s ramshackle hut into the beautiful light-filled Big Bethel Church of the New Freedom—“part Baptist; part Methodist; part Catholic—with the merriness of Christmas and the happiness of Hanukkah.” Presiding over Ol’ Cap’n’s funeral, Purlie ends his sermon with a timely benediction: “Now, may the Constitution of the United States go with you; the Declaration of Independence stand by you; the Bill of Rights protect you; and the State Commission Against Discrimination keep the eyes of the law upon you, henceforth, now and forever. Amen.” Much of the audience echoed the affirmation, and I was no different. As tears gushed out of me, I heard myself shout “O-meyn.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Has there ever been a book as fascinating, well-designed, informative, and historically important with as dull a title as Data Portraits?
I discovered this book, which was published in 2018, earlier this year, thanks to a recent show at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, “Deconstructing Power: W.E.B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair.” This revelatory exhibit featured some of the charts and visualizations on Black life in the United States—with a particular focus on Georgia—that the famed sociologist created with his students and presented at the fair in Paris. Data Portraits, which collects these graphics as well as some displayed elsewhere, is an irreplaceable snapshot of the African American experience.
Each chart in this volume displays important demographic information, from the shifts in the Black population of every state to the comparison of the percentages of white and Black people working in various fields. Some of the graphs have clear and essential political purposes. For instance, one reveals that Black illiteracy, near total under slavery, had dipped lower than the rates in Romania, Serbia, and Russia; Du Bois’s intent was to rebut the “scientific” racist theories of the time, which held that Black people were inherently inferior, rather than merely deprived of opportunities. The images themselves are augmented by informative scholarly essays and, more importantly, by captions that explain the genius behind each, from the selection of chart type to the brilliant use of color. The book makes clear that Du Bois refused to be bound by the normal rules governing graphic display of information. In some graphs—like one showing how many more Black students in Georgia were taking industrial courses (2252) rather than studying education (383) or business (12)—the longest bars snake around the page, rather than simply extending vertically or horizontally, to emphasize the data’s meaning.
Viewing the Cooper-Hewitt show and reading Data Portraits led me to finally read David Levering Lewis’s majestic two-volume biography of Du Bois. All of this has convinced me that he ought to be held in higher regard today. This strange and fascinating man—a founder of the NAACP, an elitist who turned Communist—was also a writer of much unreadable purple prose and an advocate of some terribly incorrect positions, like his support for US entry into World War I (which he believed would open the way for returning Black soldiers to put an end to Jim Crow) and his support for Japanese imperialism (which he viewed as a counter-force to Europe and white America). But he was a man who never wavered in his fight for Black equality, and whose example and scholarship are worthy of enormous respect.