Thoth starts each “solopera prayformance” by purifying Central Park’s Angel Tunnel with burning sage. Not that anything could purge the pigeon shit or restless souls of rollerbladers who nearly knock over Thoth’s yin-yang-bedecked altar. But Thoth has a John Cage heart; he’s unfazed. Tunnel cleansed, he strips down to his costume—red kimono, revealing gold loincloth, bare chest smeared with glitter and crisscrossed with chains. He writes in the air with a large quill. Gestures hieroglyphically with his hands and dreadlock-plumed head. Whangs around a contraption of rubber bands and Tinkertoys. A group of startled pigeons erupts overhead, scattering droppings, and Thoth takes off too—whirling and yelping, fiddling madly, mugging at children, and jangling leg bells.
And so goes the energetic and unnerving performance of Herma, the story of Nular-in from Festad, who escapes the evil lord Pansu-ga aided by a flying xentar, only to fall in love with his own brother Tito, who, when he learns Nular-in is a hermaphrodite, nearly kills him. From there, it’s all sea turtles and Zilephs and Droshi.
I’m going by the program notes, here. Thoth sings in a language of his own invention, so it’s not immediately clear that Herma is an allegory for his own life as a “mixed being.” Thoth (his given name’s Stephen Kaufman) was born to a Barbadian mother and a Russian Jewish father at a time when interracial marriages were frowned upon. He eventually found himself “capable of expressing both male and female, gay and straight”; in his home-brew queer theory “solopera,” he sings all four operatic voices while accompanying himself on violin. Classically trained on the instrument, he abandoned formal study in favor of “emanating the perfection of the moment.” (“Playing music that is basically dead is a very limited way of expressing one’s self,” he complains; still, his music retains a classical polish.)
“My work is meant to instruct in the process of moving towards the neutral,” he explains, “so energy can flow between polarities.” His two-year-running gig was temporarily repurposed when the Trade Center came down. Troubled by his imbalanced energy, he now prayforms for the living and the dead.
Apparently, his work is striking a nerve; Herma draws crowds reaching the hundreds, and even caught the attention of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Sarah Kernochan, whose film Thoth opens October 19 at Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street, 924-3363).
This may sound like some blissed-out New Age freak show, but Thoth is no flake—he’s mad only north-northwest, as the saying goes. “What I am doing is myth making,” says the artist, who holds a comp-lit degree from San Francisco State. “Myths offer a reflective way of perceiving the now, because it’s difficult for us to see it. It gives us an objective viewpoint.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 9, 2001