Questions for Cynthia Hopkins
Cynthia Hopkins is a performance artist and art-country musician who lives in Brooklyn and plays piano, accordion, guitar, and musical saw. Her last show, Accidental Nostalgia (two years ago at On the Boards), concerned incest, patricide, a runaway doctor, amnesia, an American Sufi named Cameron Seymour, and an ill-considered homecoming. Hopkins's next show, Must Don't Whip 'Um (this weekend at On the Boards) will be more boisterous and colorful, she said, with a horn section. She spoke over the phone from her apartment, with a mewing cat in the background.
Must Don't Whip 'Um is a great title.
You're the only one who's said that. Everybody asks what it means, but nobody has expressed enthusiasm for it. Most journalists don't take a liking to the title. Maybe because it's confusing.
What do you tell people when they ask what it means?
I heard it as a phrase somebody said in a doughnut shop. I was standing in line and there was a little kid running around wild and out of control. It was South Carolina, I think. And a guy behind me said, "Must don't whip 'um." "Must don't" is a Southern expression, usually derogatory. It means you can tell someone doesn't do something: Must don't wash his hair; must don't shop at fancy stores, because he has crappy stuff.
To me, it came to mean someone who is wild and out of control. Or refuses to be disciplined. In the show, it refers to ghosts, because ghosts are a phenomenon, an energy that persists after death, something that refuses to be killed. The unwhippable.
So this show is about a daughter haunted by the ghost of her mother [Cameron Seymour]. And she makes a documentary about her mother's final concert in 1977.... She starts out trying to make a documentary about this Sufi brotherhood her mother belonged to.
You seem to have a thing for Morocco and Sufis. Morocco and the Sufi brotherhood and a bunch of the details of the life of Cameron Seymour come from the real-life story of a woman whose name was Isabel Eberhardt. She lived around the turn of the century, the previous century. She was a writer born in Switzerland and went to Morocco with her mother. Her mother died; Isabel converted to Islam and Sufism and started dressing like a man.
The main thing I find fascinating about her is the completeness of her attempt of self-transformation, redefining herself against everything she was brought up to be. She was a freak.
How successful do you think she was at becoming this other person?
It's hard to say. She died when she was 27 in a flood in the desert.
Read the whole interview (including speculation about why Garrison Keillor was more interesting when we were kids and why 1979 was an underappreciated year in American history) at here.