Markeith Wiley isn't disclosing many details about Working (Undecided Title). But here's what I could coax out of him over tea at Barjot, a day before the dynamic dancer/choreographer/educator/DJ/etc. performed his stunning solo in Dani Tirrell's Black Bois to a sold-out crowd at the Moore Theatre.
Working (Undecided Title) is a party DJ'd by drag phenom Arson Nicki.
W(UT) describes the mood Wiley wants you to be in when you walk into the room, that fertile combination of confusion and wonder. Will you be a wallflower at this party, or will you try to steal the spotlight?
Besides Wiley, other performers include Randy Ford (probably the most magnetic dancer in town), Laura Aschoff (a contemporary performer who works with Wiley in the group Grief Girls), Imana Gunawan (a talented dancer who performs with the fabulous Au Collective), and Mario Martinez (who performs with Intim@ Cabaret as the hilarious drag queen Lola Meraz).
To direct, Wiley tapped his longtime collaborator HATLO, who directed the paradigm-shifting show That'swhatshesaid in 2016. Timothy White Eagle, Tim Smith-Stewart, and Shontina Vernon have also consulted on W(UT).
These are some of the more exciting artists working in the scene today, so even if the show is just Arson banging on a laptop while these others improv for 15 minutes or so, it will still likely be one of the better shows of the year.
Wiley assured me it will not just be Arson banging on a laptop while others improv.
The performance will run on the main stage at On the Boards from April 9 to 12, and at ACT's Bullitt Cabaret sometime after that. More on the striking differences between those two subscriber bases later, but the stage layout at both venues will be the same. Platform risers will wrap the room, with plenty of open space for people to maneuver in the center. There will also be a platform positioned 10 feet off the ground that only performers can access. There will be no seating, but there will be some chairs for people who need them.
You may walk in with your group of friends, but you might not be with them at the end. Wiley said the performers have developed some strategies to speed up the mingling process.
One of those strategies involves party games such as "'Hood Jeopardy," inspired by skits from Nick Cannon's Wild 'N Out, an improv comedy show that is pretty fucking funny, or so I learned after going down an extended YouTube rabbit hole.
As it is a party, there will also be dancing. Wiley said he's still looking for a dance that everyone knows, such as the Electric Slide or the Cupid Shuffle. "I'm curious to get that going, and to have us performers back away and just watch and enjoy that." Unfortunately, the mystery dance will not be the Macarena, even though it's objectively the best group dance.
Before you start panicking: W(UT)'s goal is to engage the audience, not to single out audience members for ridicule, or to make anyone the butt of a joke. "It's not about putting you on blast," Wiley said.
In short, "This is a social, anthropological experiment with badass performers doing badass shit," Wiley said.
Why all the secrecy and evasion?
Wiley said he did a lot of "explaining and overexplaining" for It's Not Too Late, the piece he created at On the Boards in 2016, and he's tired of explaining stuff. That performance featured Wiley hosting a talk show that slowly goes off the rails. I vividly recall when I saw the show, him asking the crowd to raise their hands if they'd taken public transportation or a car to the venue, and I felt like an absolute asshole raising my hand when he asked if anyone had taken a Lyft. But then I realized he didn't want me to feel like an asshole. He wasn't trying to shame me. He was just trying to give the audience an opportunity to get to know itself, to offer a quick reminder that we all took different paths to the same place, but some of us had more available pathways than others.
That's the kind of reflection Wiley is trying to spark within audiences. "It's like, do your work as a participant in this art and go home and see how you feel afterward. You're not going to be wrong in your thoughts," he said.
But as he's become more familiar with Seattle's audiences over the years, he's noticed a couple of interesting phenomena he wants to explore in W(UT).
"It started happening in the middle of Obama's last term, and then definitely skyrocketed when Trump took office," he said. "The weight of putting a mirror up to the world started getting heavier on the artist. People just wanted to get it; they wanted to understand more. People started feeling the need to lean way the fuck in, to pay attention so hard that their voice locked and their body locked."
The impulse to pay close attention to the work of artists who have been underrepresented on Seattle stages for years was welcome, but it was also expressing itself in hypocritical ways. If there were a large number of people of color in the audience, white audience members would look to those POC for permission to laugh or otherwise respond bodily to the work, Wiley said. But if there were only a few people of color scattered in the audience, white audience members would enforce the standard of rigid quietude pervasive in Fine Arts spaces.
"I got shushed!" Wiley said, when he burst into laughter at a recent Ligia Lewis show at On the Boards. The artist onstage quickly reassured Wiley with a look and a gesture that it was okay to laugh, but the incident made Wiley wonder why a white audience member was policing his natural response to the performance.
"It feels very specific to Seattle," Wiley added. "Especially at places that produce fine art. It's like fine art means sit down, shut up, and just watch. But I have so many reactions and responses. When I'm watching shows at home or listening to music on my headphones, I'm responding to those things—why not here? That's been a major question for me."
With W(UT), Wiley wants Seattle audiences to lighten up, to feel the tremendous sense of togetherness and fellow-feeling good performances can foster. "I'm just trying to bring us all together and let weird shit happen," he said.
Which brings us back to the subscriber bases at the two venues where W(UT) will run. While Wiley is a familiar name at On the Boards, he's not so well known at the downtown theater famous for its contemporary takes on the classics. To introduce Wiley to the new audience, ACT is inviting a handful of subscribers to watch test rehearsals, and then asking them to spread the word among their own networks about what will go down at the show.
Apart from just feeling more comfortable as a performer after he shatters the fourth wall, Wiley can't quite describe what makes him so interested in exploring audience engagement in his work. "There's something more interesting in an untrained performance, in the way people respond," he said. "I know we have our hang-ups and we're nervous, but we're all people at the end of the day. We're all walking around being observed anyway."