The definition of what makes a woman has never been as black and white as simply having a vagina. In Young Jean Lee’s latest production, the Obie recipient puts this perplexing label to test in the Untitled Feminist Show, where audiences experience what it’s like being female–in all its form, and completely nude, through a performance featuring six famed downtown stars of theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque.
The practically silent dance piece, part of the 7th annual Coil Festival sponsored by P.S.122, includes Becca Blackwell, World Famous *BOB*, Amelia Zirin-Brown (a/k/a Lady Rizo), Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, and Regina Rocke.
For the continuously fascinating, and hilarious, Blackwell, who’s been seen in the productions of Circus Amok, Room For Cream, and Parlour, a film (directed by Sharon Hayes) at the Whitney Biennial, dealing with gender and identity issues is always a constant battle. And although this isn’t the first time she’s been naked on stage, because of the rawness of this show she says “it’s really the most naked” she’s ever been.
First off, what is it like being naked on stage?
I think everybody in the ensemble would agree that baby wipes are essential. This isn’t my first time being naked on stage, but being naked in Untitled Feminist Show feels different. I have no props or words to draw attention away from the loadedness of my junk while I’m trying to be myself, which is a pretty masculine. So it’s really the most naked I could possibly be. I never have identified as female, but I’m sure I read that way to an audience on a bare white floor and five other vaginas (or what-have-you) dancing with me.
It’s hard knowing people won’t necessarily decide that I am a masculine person right away. It magnifies something a little more subtle that happens to me daily. It’s really challenging, sometimes crushing. I worked through a lot of my own gender issues in the process of developing the piece.
What was it like being in this show with this group of such prominent downtown performers?
Wonderful. I’m not just saying that because we have to tour the world together and share hotel rooms. We’re tight. Like grossly tight. We know a lot about each others bodies, for better or for worse. In sickness and in health. We each have a lot of respect for each others work and each others bodies. Everyone had their own struggles in the development, and we collaboratively created a space to really explore all of that.
Everybody in the ensemble has very high standards for themselves and the projects they work on, and being held to that standard makes my work better. Gratitude.
Why do you think feminism is still so controversial?
Besides the fact that in a million different ways there is statistical evidence that proves that there is an enormous equity gap between women and men, I think people intuitively feel the inequity. It spiritually bothers people of every gender and every belief that females are considered inferior to males. People can’t deal with how this makes them feel. It is a complicated and enormous problem that seems almost insurmountable.
For people with privilege, it would be a lot easier to keep the system as is. When any oppressed people rise up and question their ‘position,’ it makes uncomfortable waves. It’s shocking to realize that even some women believe men are more powerful. I’m not gonna lie. I am definitely a reformed misogynist. The language I used to use and my way of thinking was that it was more desirable to be a ‘man,’ and I was desperate to be one. That’s why I did P90X.
The show deals with the concept of identity. What was it like taking on such a broad topic?
Well, dealing with identity is something everyone experiences, and on many different levels. We had a lot of conversations that went spiraling in so many directions that it seemed very daunting to try and manifest those conversations as performance. I felt incredibly opinionated about the fact that I didn’t identify as ‘female.’ To say that with no words felt impossible.
How would I even begin to create the paradox of masculinity in a naked body with a vulva? Can dance even be masculine? How badly do I need my movement to seem ‘masculine?’ Why do I care so much about how people will see me? In the end, we came up with a sense of speaking for the possibility, not the problems of what we are. I got to be bigger than the questions. As awesome as that is, it is still a daily struggle. And we do this show four or five times a week.
What is it like being a performance artist/actor in New York?
I love it and hate it. There is no other city like NYC. I have a great group of friends and artists here who inspire me. I love seeing them and their work grow and change. However, as someone who doesn’t fit into a binary of male or female it can be very frustrating because most work is based in those two categories only.
I am always in a place of actively looking for collaborators willing to challenge those limitations. Working with Michael Cyril Creighton on Jack In A Box has been really fun because it seems like he created a role with me in mind. It’s sort of a perfect blend of typecasting and defying expectation of what a butch androgynous named Kris can be like. Because of that show, some bears think of me as a hot cub. Or at least one guy on Facebook did. I felt pretty special. Not gonna lie.
What’s been your greatest thrill as an artist thus far?
Well, firstly, I make my living as an artist. It’s thrilling to get paid, but even more thrilling to get paid well. I put everything I have into it, and cash as accolade is pretty remarkable in this market. Anytime I get to travel to places with a project is also a favorite. I spent a month in Turkey with Sharon Hayes and Brooke O’Harra, working on two different projects. I spent many years with Jennifer Miller’s Circus Amok: a queer, NYC-based circus that performs for free in parks across the boroughs and deals with issues like affordable housing, health-care, and police brutality on a local level.
I believe in representing a smorgasbord of voices on these issues, and it was a very big deal for me to physicalize all of that in such a ridiculous dirty/pretty way. As far as a personal journey goes, I was in a dark place before I started with Circus Amok and the fact that so many people supported that circus–which was intentionally cast with extremely talented people in my same misfit-in-the-entertainment-industry-predicament–made my soul feel hungry again. It made me feel like there was an actual place, an actual demand for me to perform. When I cut all my hair off, they stopped asking me to audition for Janis Joplin biopics. Instead, I got to wear a lot of fluorescent spandex and pick four people up at once as the ‘Strong Man’ in every tiny and enormous park across all five boroughs of New York City.
Untitled Feminist Show ends February 4th, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street.