WELCOME TO VMAN'S COVERAGE OF PERFORMA 13, THE MONTH-LONG SERIES OF PERFORMANCE ART-RELATED EVENTS THAT, EVERY OTHER YEAR, MAKES NEW YORK CITY THE "PERFORMANCE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD."
DUTCHMAN, BY RASHID JOHNSON
I had been to the 10th Street Russian Baths once prior to my Friday visit this last weekend. In that original trip I exposed myself to extreme temperatures, extreme proximity to mostly nude strangers, and an oak leaf treatment that I will never repeat. I felt mostly irritable, teased by the promise of a comfort that never arrived. I decided that schvitzing must be an acquired affinity, although I did feel changed—if not better—following my experience. I supposed it was good for the long run, as so many things are. I was curious then when I learned that the above-mentioned hyper-sensorial dungeon would house Rashid Johnson’s contribution for Performa 13, a production of Amir Baraka’s (née LeRoi Jones) 1964 Obie Award winning two-person play, Dutchman: a play in which the promises of sex, black liberation, and black retribution hover painfully between historical erasure and violence. In the baths where one has agreed to be exposed, bodily, to others and to climate, weathering race politics, however 'dated' they are purported to be, seemed an intense proposal. Wearing the black robes distributed by the bath’s purveyors, and carrying the liter bottles of water distributed by Performa, our group of 20 was packed first into the Turkish Bath, a tiled sauna with stepped seating. A flashlight illuminated two unoccupied seats nearest the exit.
Enter Clay (Kevyn States), a young, educated, black, would-be poet, and Lula (Tory Ernst) a maybe Jewish, definitely white, communist descended sociopath. The pair meet on an early 1960s MTA line, sans A.C. Lula engages Clay in a maudlin seduction in which she offers him not one, but two apples. The audience slips into the role of fellow passengers as the players move throughout the baths. We exit the Turkish Bath just as I begin to really sweat and follow Lula and Clay into the ice bath room, where a narrow pathway near a 46° pool serve as seating. The pair then finish their apples and continue their disquieting flirtation. Lula derides Clay as complicit, a direct son of Uncle Tom: “The people accept you as a ghost of the future. And love you, that you might not kill them when you can.” Seeing her manic racism overcoming an originally wacky façade, Clay holds back, attempting to deflect Lula’s swelling aggression. By this point I am giving the actors and the audience equal attention. The crowd of robed and damp spectators are absorbed in the space as much they are in the play. Robes stick to skin and other surfaces, makeup runs, skin is revealed. The performance grow porous, everyone's general discomfort bleeding into the greater tension caused by the language, actions and proximity of the players.
Both drama and temperature escalate in the Russian sauna, a stone room with a sweltering stone furnace. It is very, very hot. Three passengers leave the sauna and watch from outside. Clay, finally recognizing the malice in Lula’s overtures, delivers an exhilarating defense of himself and an incisive critique of Lula. Following which, (spoiler alert) Lula stabs and murders him. Clay falls across her lap, she calls for the removal of his body, and the play is finished. I pointlessly wipe my forehead as States, now playing dead on the stone floor of a 125° (I'm guessing) Russian heat chamber stands to take a bow. Ernst is pouring several gallons of water over her head. We emerge from the Russian sauna, and some spectators linger, debating whether to take a dip in the ice pool.
I quickly exit and change back into my clothes, anxious, hurried. Walking down 1st avenue towards Houston I think of our performance, and decide that the bath house was a stellar choice. It is a place ostensibly about wellbeing, but the results of the process are delayed, after endurance of excessive forces on the body and psyche. Side effects are potentially nocuous, if not ameliorated (with plenty of water and rest). One has to take care in extreme conditions, otherwise we risk calamity. But which calamity are we deferring?
Dutchman runs through November 21st at the 10th Street Bath House, 268 East 10th St.
Shows are sold out, but you may place your name on a wait list the night of.
image courtesy of performa