Like many Americans, artist Cecilia Corrigan was expecting to spend the final months of 2016 celebrating Hillary Clinton’s election to the presidency. But dreading a future under the alternative is extra bitter for her, because she spent most of this election cycle working on a cycle of her own — Motherland, a series of video performances inspired by Clinton, which culminates with a live performance on December 3 at Issue Project Room. Begun as a love letter, it is now, says Corrigan, “a bloody, tear-stained Valentine,” and it’s become a kind of therapy. “The only thing that’s really helping me right now is working on the show,” Corrigan says. “It started as tragicomic piece, but it’s now a lot more tragic.”
Corrigan is a stage and screen performer whose work often examines sexuality and gender roles, and Motherland is her latest exploration of these themes. In January she began a yearlong residency at Brooklyn arts incubator Issue Project Room, but she was so distracted by the election that she was unable to focus on producing work; after the Democratic National Convention, in July, it occurred to her to channel her anxiety through the topic that was creating it in the first place.
Motherland is a series of short videos depicting scenes from the life of a woman named Hillary, who strongly resembles Hillary Clinton. Corrigan was struck by “the strain in her personality” that first emerged during Clinton’s deadpan testimony at the Benghazi hearings and reappered in the presidential debates — those few moments where Clinton became impatient, and thus authentic. “I think we all witnessed [it] in watching her try to match the public showmanship of a professional song-and-dance man,” Corrigan says. “She often came across as someone outgunned [by] empty buffoonery, after spending her whole life building a career based on facts.”
The videos were debuted episodically, like a TV show. In the first, Hillary sits at her laptop well after dark, swigging a beer while listening to Drake. In the second, she brings her bratty children to an ineffective group therapy session. In the third, the goddess Artemis prophesies Hillary’s future and commands her to do battle in Artemis’s name. All three of these tableaux will be re-enacted live at the performance, followed by a final installment Corrigan wrote in the days following Clinton’s loss.
Motherland‘s title, like many of its themes, was intended as hyperbole but now feels chillingly real: It’s a reference to the Third Reich’s term for Nazi Germany — the “Fatherland” — and Corrigan evokes that historical period throughout her project, which she calls “Brechtian comedic political art.” Besides Hillary, the main characters are her children, Gerta and Joel, played by Corrigan and Felix Bernstein. Named after Cabaret star Joel Grey and the German writer Goethe, these “Weimar millennials” have a 1920s vaudeville look nd spew whiny complaints about their mom — personifications of a media obsession with Clinton’s perceived personality shortcomings.
Corrigan’s version of her heroine is a direct counter to this criticism. The artist herself found the Democratic candidate “very lovable” and thinks the endless disapproval amounted to “mommy issues,” she says. “I don’t see her as a ‘motherly’ type, but the fact that she wasn’t ‘maternal’ in some kind of clichéd sense made people angry. I personally admired her for her professionalism and her ambition, which I identified with more. It seems like people couldn’t really handle it.”
To play Hillary, Corrigan enlisted Cammisa Buerhaus, an actor and director who has portrayed Clinton in her own work. Buerhaus saw her subject as “a badass woman who was the queen of resting bitch face, and who I thought was funny in this deadpan way. She’s always thinking about how to present herself, who’s listening, how to best get her point across.” The election of Trump, a noted racist, sexist, xenophobic misogynist, over Clinton, a capable public servant, felt like a betrayal to Buerhaus. “I’ve experienced abuse — sexual, emotional, physical abuse— and this made me feel like it didn’t matter, and that it could continue, and the perpetrators of my abuse could [still] succeed.”
Corrigan intentionally left her final script incomplete before November 8, and as she concludes the series with her cast, all are crushed. Rehearsals since the election have begun with the actors sitting together, commiserating — “a way of managing a lot of traumatic feelings,” says Andrew Ragni, who plays Hillary’s therapist. So, being able to put Clinton center stage one last time is therapeutic. “I’m glad I didn’t write an ending, but I’m not glad why,” Corrigan says. “To finish the play, to me, is to be able to hold a lot of what’s so tragic about this.”
By Cecilia Corrigan
Issue Project Room
22 Boerum Place, Brooklyn 718-330-0313, issueprojectroom.org
December 3, 8 p.m.