Kyle Abraham at On the Boards; The Blue Room by the Schoolyard
Some would call dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham a man of contradictions—but to do so, you'd have to believe certain things are mutually exclusive. Like being a young black man with a swagger who's into hiphop but also likes dancing in pink tutus in public.
Abraham's breakout work from a few years ago, performed as a character named "Pookie Jenkins," about sums it up: He walks onstage shirtless, carrying a 40-ounce bottle of booze and wearing that pink tutu. Some women wearing jeans and T-shirts flip him some shit for the way he's dressed, but Pookie is all confidence. A song by Dizzee Rascal—"People gonna respect me/I better make you respect me"—blasts from the speakers while Abraham begins a fast and energetic solo, his spine and limbs undulating with an unusual balance of grace and power. From any dance-vocabulary angle—modern dance, b-boying—it's a solo that demands respect.
Critics talk about hiphop theater and hiphop dance-theater, but artists like Abraham are making that critical frame obsolete, demonstrating that hiphop is an influence, not a cage. In a phone interview about his new piece (Live! The Realest MC, coming to On the Boards this week), he said: "Movementwise, I'm drawing from everything and not really thinking about it. Not 'this is a hiphop phrase' and 'this is a [Merce] Cunningham phrase.' Just where I'm coming from growing up as a black gay man, coming from Pittsburgh."
Live! takes the story of Pinocchio as its inspiration: the desire, in the neighborhood where he grew up, to be accepted as a "real boy" with the respect that the tough guys got, but keeping the nuance of who he actually was.
"I took public transportation to school," he said. "And my voice wasn't as deep, I wasn't walking with that slow swagger. That draws a target to you. There were times that I definitely wanted to be unnoticed... I'm not the first person to draw those connections to hiphop culture."
He may not be the first, but he may be one of the most elegant. Video footage of Abraham's performances shows a combination of guts and technique—he feels it and he has the training to show it—and reveals his training with Bill T. Jones, David Dorfman, and the master in fine arts degree he earned from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. His movement has the strong fluidity of rapids in a river. "He has an unabashed love of movement," says On the Boards artistic director Lane Czaplinski, "which continues to be interesting to me. People who are interested in dance and kinesthetic movement as opposed to parlor games where you're walking around the stage and then standing on one leg for a while."
In the past few years, the US performance community has seen a surge in works that wonder what it means to be "authentically" black or "authentically" hiphop by African American performers such as Rennie Harris and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, as well as Korean American playwright Young Jean Lee. Why the recent, high-profile emphasis on "authentic" blackness as opposed to other "authentic" ethnic politics?
"We've still got such a long way to go even thinking about the history of black and white cultures," Abraham said. "It's like we're still going through college, where there's white, black, and column three, 'other.' Black people are still really trying to get a sense of who they are and where they came from, because they don't really know! And some people don't even want to know that history."
And what, in the end, does a "realest MC" look like? "It's being your most authentic self," he said. "If you really think you're the most authentic black man, you think you're 100 percent comfortable in your skin. And if you're not, you acknowledge that... Honesty is realness."
Realness isn't just about confidence. It's about owning your insecurities as well.
Insecure white people are the main attraction in The Blue Room, a daisy chain of sexual couplings written in 1998 by British playwright Sir David Hare. Hare adapted his work from La Ronde, a 1900 play by doctor Arthur Schnitzler that explored how syphilis could be transmitted across social classes in Austria. According to Wikipedia, its first public performance was shut down and Dr. Schnitzler was prosecuted for obscenity.
Hare's two-person version of the story—produced by new theater company the Schoolyard—begins with a taxi driver and a prostitute who's new on the job. She's sweet and seems to like him; he's a jerk. (That gender dynamic will play out through most of the couplings. The Blue Room could be subtitled The Cads of Our Lives.) They briefly hump outdoors, and he hands her some money, though she doesn't seem to want any, and makes a gruff exit. Then the cab driver has sex with a French au pair in a closet at a dance. The au pair has sex with a law student. The law student has sex with a politician's wife. The politician's wife has sex with her husband, and so on. Actors Andrew Murray and Mariel Neto successfully switch between the personalities—some sympathetic, some pathological—and keep the scenes warm or cold, depending on what their characters demand. Murray is especially good as a vain young playwright who keeps hoisting himself on his own petard of pompousness. (Shocked that his one-night stand hadn't heard of him, he wonders aloud whether she's ever seen any theater. "My mother took me to Phantom of the Opera," she answers. "No!" he shouts. "I meant the theater!")
Neto has a tougher job, since most of her characters are more sympathetic and run a gamut of accents, but she acquits herself well. Her performances as the tragic prostitute and a cokehead model who has sex with the politician (and the playwright) are especially sharp.
Sexually transmitted infections are never discussed, but the audience is clearly getting a virus's-eye view of human sexuality—the few minutes before, the sex, and the few minutes after, before roaming on to the next transmission. It's like the monologue in Hamlet, when the pissed-off prince tells his uncle-king that "a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of a fish that hath fed of that worm... a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar."
The Blue Room is likely to make audiences—the nonvirgins in the audience, anyway—vaguely uneasy while contemplating their own sexual networks and the influence they have on our lives. And then again, it reassures us that we've all fallen from grace. It's been a long time since the innocence of Eden.