With her red tuxedo jacket and flattop haircut, Peggy Shaw resembles Sean Penn as a 1950s rock star. Air-guitaring around her junked-up 1977 Chevy pickup, she pays homage to the r&b roots of her musical taste—Sam Cooke, Chuck Berry, James Brown. The irony of black groove turning into mainstream American sound isn’t lost on Shaw. Her latest piece, To My Chagrin, bills itself as a “butch grandmother’s rock ‘n’ roll lullaby” to her mixed-race grandson. A natural Geiger counter of sex and gender hypocrisies, she extends her theatrical exploration into race paradoxes—such as how Otis Redding songs have always provided the backdrop to her emotions even though her chief childhood knowledge of African Americans came via Little Black Sambo.
While racism has properties all its own, a lesbian who can use the men’s room without much commotion can certainly understand what it’s like to feel as though she’s living “in the house of someone’s relatives and they don’t want me there.” Accompanied by drummer Vivian Stoll, Shaw threads her freewheeling meditation around her love of old cars, wondering if this might be a guyish hobby to pass along to her grandson. “I’ve been accused of being masculine,” she tells us. “I’d like to talk to you man to man about that.”
Impressionistic to a fault, the piece fails to coalesce its drifting insights. Yet Shaw’s journey into grandmotherhood has a searching authenticity. To demonstrate how much her grandson means to her, she shows a video of him on her naked breasts—intimately exposing herself as she riffs on the cultural resonances of his cherished place in her life.