UMS

FRAME-ing Performance

By UMS Lobby

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 pm in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

Angela G. King

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

This is not an artistic undertaking for the faint of heart.

From the two-person cast that lay bare all inhibitions — literally as well as theatrically — to usher a fictitious middle school class along a graphic exploration of race, sex and power. To all the cultural deliberation that can surface amid witness of a black prima ballerina performing at the zenith of a historically Eurocentric dance form. Or a medley of classically superior vocalists belting out an operatic take on black life as interpreted nearly a century ago by those well outside that life.

The University Musical Society and University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities skirted no potential disquiet in culling their second slate of creative offerings for later discussion on how such offerings can test the limits of the status quo.

A discussion that, by her own words, left Amanda Krugliak in awe.

“It was a conversation so open and deeply generous in terms of what was being said by everyone on the panel as well as in the audience,” shared the curator of the U-M Institute for the Humanities. Krugliak conceived with Jim Leija, director of education and community engagement for UMS, the three open dialogues being called “FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity.” This most recent exchange continued into February after its January debut.

“Jim and I had talked for several years about wanting to create a gathering in the tradition of early salons in Paris and Berlin, first organized by women who had no space to express their thoughts and ideas,” explained Krugliak.

Their goal, she elaborated, was to create an intimate space not unlike a living room, one “where intelligent people could come and talk about the visual art, music or performance they had seen at UMS or the humanities institute.”

“We weren’t after lip service, or accolades, or a pat on the back for good intentions,” continued Krugliak. “But rather, a frank and informed conversation that would take us all somewhere else further.”

From that foundation ensued a discourse that may not have been quite as well attended as the first FRAME get-together of 30 or so guests. Convened once again in the atrium of the Thayer Building, it proved just as riveting, though. If not more so.

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

“I didn’t think I could be made to feel uncomfortable again in my seat,” John Sloan III confessed from the outset of that second back-and-forth of Underground Railroad Game, one of two recent shows from the current UMS season that he attended. An actor and musician originally from Oak Park, Sloan capitalized on his U-M fine arts degree, spending more than a decade trekking around the country affecting others in their respective seats at regional theaters, concerts, and venues along the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King. He finally returned to this area for good this past August, bringing original theatrical works before audiences via his GhostLight Productions Inc.

Yet having appeared in everything from Julius X, a 1960s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar during the last days of Malcolm X, to Showboat, the racially provocative musical depicting life on a floating theater along the Mississippi River at the turn of the 19th century, he still found himself grappling with Underground Railroad Game.

Created by and starring Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott R. Sheppard, who is not, this is the 90-minute farce that made its way to the Arthur Miller Theatre on the campus of Sloan’s alma mater in mid-January. Bringing with it the racially-charged adult language, sexual content, and nudity that inspired The New York Times to declare the off-Broadway show a “resounding testament to theater’s continuing power to shock” when hailing it as one of the best theater productions of 2016.

“The nudity itself wasn’t necessarily provocative for me,” Sloan opined of Kidwell and Sheppard’s portrayal of two fifth grade teachers at Hanover Middle School. This is the school in southeastern Pennsylvania that Sheppard actually attended as a child. And where he actually experienced the premise of his stage collaboration with Kidwell: being led in a role-playing game where Union soldiers try to smuggle slaves — represented by dolls — to freedom. All while Confederate soldiers try to recapture the dolls as they make their way north.

Recast in far more mature terms of late by Sheppard and Kidwell, at times calling upon the audience to become the fifth graders, it was an enactment replete with oral stimulation, domination, masturbation, and the “N” word that Sloan admitted to finding “difficult, in moments, for me to digest emotionally.”

“There was a sense that the nudity allowed for an exploration of status and power dynamics,” he elaborated.  “This became especially dangerous when considering the actors’ identities.  Not to mention the idea that the entire framing was of two teachers using this ‘game’ to instruct middle-school kids.”

Articulating her own discomfort, Billicia Hines, the director of Wayne State University’s black theater program who was also at the UMS presentation of Underground Railroad Game, buttressed that with how the other black women in the audience reacted.

“The black women were really vocal about the fact that they were unhappy with the situation,” according to Hines.

“I understand that the characters in the play were constantly switching roles in terms of power,” she voiced of her dismay, in particular. “However, this play only left me more frustrated. Do I want to see the black female body be objectified even if she chooses to be? No. There are definitely other ways for them to make their point.”

Misty Copeland as Juliet in Kenneth MacMIllan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

What Underground Railroad Game did to shock sensibilities, even provoke the four arts mavens leading the second FRAME discussion to question if they could ever appear in such a project, American Ballet Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet did to confront notions of cultural identity. And the standard of success in correlation to what has been deemed mainstream.

“Does a European aesthetic have to be the parameter of success?” Hines wondered.

Yes, she maintained, her mother was beside herself merely to get the opportunity to witness Misty Copeland, the first African American to be promoted to a principal dancer within the renowned American Ballet Theatre, onstage. In town from Hines’ home state of North Carolina and all dressed up, she was excited, even perched in the top balcony of the sweeping 2,700-seat Detroit Opera House, to see Copeland perform. For three hours with her daughter among a full house of fellow onlookers who had braved a Michigan snow storm for ABT’s elaboration of Romeo and Juliet.

“She is good in her own right,” Hines granted of Copeland’s leading turn in this enduring romantic tragedy by Shakespeare.

“It wasn’t about Misty,” she disclosed of what ultimately nagged her about the overall experience. “It was about the [dance] company.”

“I kept asking myself, what kind of dynamic would that have presented if she had been dark-skinned and had a big afro?” challenged Willie Sullivan, development coordinator for UMS. “I don’t think that ABT would want that on the stage, quite frankly.”

Still, Sloan cautioned against a discourse on some sort of standard of blackness. More productive, he urged, is the examination of how the black experience has been played out through the lens of white artistic creators. From Ragtime to Once on This Island to, more recently at U-M’s Hill Auditorium thanks to UMS and the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Porgy and Bess.

Composed by George Gershwin with his lyricist brother, Ira, and author DuBose Heyward, this long-hallowed love story between a disabled beggar and comely but drug-addicted prostitute that premiered in 1935 debuted more recently at U-M in concert form. That is, with the more familiar theatrical presentation swapped out for an orchestra on stage that, for four hours, fronted the all-black cast of opera singers who were adorned in tuxedos and evening gowns and backed by a sizable multicultural choir.

Porgy and Bess is a wonderful opera,” insisted Hines. “I love history. However, consistently telling our story from a white person’s point of view is getting tiresome. Do they truly know how we are feeling? I say no. And constant images of weary black people sticks in our souls and unconsciously stains

Photo: Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

our hopes and dreams.”

Such candor is why Sharman Spieser was glad she didn’t go with her first inclination to skip this latest FRAME salon, an informal occasion again that, according to her, “created a sense of intimacy and spontaneity.”

“Listening made me feel part of the sharing, and this deepened my understanding and appreciation for the complexity, authenticity, and skill that artists offer our world,” raved the independent education consultant. With a ticket already to Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, the multi-media concert that UMS will host on March 14, Spieser plans to be at the final FRAME discussion five days later as well.

“They bare their souls for us,” she noted of the creative professionals who lend their time and insight to facilitate these talks after such performances. “I have so much respect for them!”

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

Share your thoughts!