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.
Thank you! 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. And she makes a documentary about her mother's final concert in 1977. It's a ghost story.
Is this the same daughter and mother as the ones in Accidental Nostalgia?
No—the daughter in Accidental Nostalgia goes to Morocco to find her mother, who she thinks is Cameron Seymour and she takes on the identity of Cameron Seymour but, at the end, she finds out her mother is not Cameron Seymour.
This about Cameron Seymour's real daughter—she also goes Morocco.
In this story, the daughter 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 who went to Morocco with her mother. Her mother died; Isabel converted to Islam and Sufism and started dressing like a man. She was a writer so she kept a diary, but she wrote fiction and nonfiction as well. I always wanted to make a show about her.
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. But you can't ever really know, which is what Must Don't Whip 'Um is partly about. You can't really ever totally recreate a life. Each life is its own unique flash. But she transformed the physical properties of her life—she became a Moroccan and Sufi.
Are you a Sufi?
No. I'm more interested in Buddhism as a spiritual practice.
Have you visited Morocco?
Yes, I went there last summer as research for this show—mostly Marrakech, but we also went to Casablanca, drove through the Atlas Mountains to the desert, toward the Sahara. One of the amazing things about Morocco is that it has a really variable landscape—mountainous, desert, lush valleys, and the seacoast.
Were there any surprises?
The most amazing thing was that the sense of time was totally different. In places there, things are done by hand and really carefully and really slowly—if you're in the desert and don't have access to a lot of resources and you want to make something, you'd better make it right the first time. And also the heat—things are slow because it's hot.
I loved the care with which everything was done. I think there's a really virulent carelessness, in America especially. I had a hard time coming back.
Was there a moment?
Yes. I came back right at the end of June. So the very next thing was the Fourth of July—there was a party at my house with people setting fireworks off the roof and drinking a lot of alcohol. There was a frenzy of energy that was the opposite of careful—loud, obnoxious and careless. It really shook me up.
Did you kick everybody out?
No. It was at my house but it wasn't just my party—I live with other people.
What instruments do you play?
Accordion, piano, and guitar. And musical saw. Although in this show I play mostly piano and a little accordion.
No, but somebody else plays the saw—and there's a horn section. Trumpets, a trombone. This show is more of a group extravaganza. More boisterous. Almost more the feeling of a worship service at times. And it's loud. And colorful.
There's a lot of weird stuff in Accidental Nostalgia—incest and father-killing and amnesia and identity transformation. Do people ever ask how much of the show is autobiographical?
A good portion is autobiographical, because it's good source material. And for me, making art is like an alchemical process of transforming demons or things that disturb or haunt me into something hopeful. For the alchemy to work, there have to be elements of fiction and autobiography and non-autobiography—like the neurology of amnesia and the focus on 1979.
Does the alchemy work?
Yes. Yes. I'm still here. Here I am. I've survived. So far.
The conversation turns to storytelling, folk music, and old-time radio.
Where did you first hear old-time radio?
My parents used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion when I was growing up. And although I don't enjoy listening to that show now, at the time it had an influence as a fictional construct in my mind, but based on reality, but with a fictional population.
Why don't you like to listen to A Prairie Home Companion now?
I think I find it a little too precious—and it could also be because it's associated with my childhood. Garrison Keillor is a master storyteller but his style is a little too... sentimental, too structured.
It seems like Garrison Keillor has gotten more sentimental. But is that just us? Because pat and sentimental weren't on our little-kid radars?
Maybe. It's like the difference between seeing a movie before you study filmmaking and after—you see the craft of it, you can't just be a layperson. The charm of certain things wears off. I mean, he's a master storyteller. There's no doubt about that. Whether you want to listen to him is another matter.
Why was 1979 so important?
It was a real turning point in this country to the conservative backlash that lasted through the '80s and to this day. It was a time of real disillusionment because of Vietnam and the impeachment of Nixon. And it was also the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so the very beginning of what would become a jihad against America that resulted in 9/11. One of the many seeds of this show is me wanting to know how it came to pass that these buildings fell down in the place where I live.
Part of that was the U.S. helping with arming and funding the mujahideen to fight against the Communists because they didn't want to Communists to have an oil pipeline.
It's similar to Iraq. The U.S. went in there and right when the people needed them most, they abandoned them. It's just lousy foreign policy.
In the story, the Sufi brotherhood is maybe under surveillance by the CIA—which is maybe one of the reasons for Cameron Seymour's disappearance. Which is actually very implausible. In the show, I take the very implausibility and make that the reason.
What I was trying to do is parallel the way that, on a larger scale, the American government is haunted by the actions of its past. And we as citizens are haunted by those errors and—well, they're mostly errors.
I was going to say triumphs, but that's not the right word.
Although I guess the Civil War turned out for the best.