Two black men meet at a barbecue. One's gay, the other's got a girlfriend. The second one agrees to do it with the first—on the low. Right afterward, the first blabbers to his nosy black lady friend (she has a big bulbous nose), and they stand around laughing about the dirty ass of the secret boyfriend. That laughter continues—the lady stutters "ck-ck-ck" in a hilarious and cruel way—and the lady turns around and gossips. With this, the fate of the two men is sealed; before long, one's being buried and the other's in prison. The story, played out in crudely drawn and voiced animation, is an epic in miniature: Characters are bopping black silhouettes that sound like Shaft or the Chipmunks. At the short film's end, a sequence of live action kicks in. A burly-chested black man appears above the funeral/prison drawings like a god in the sky, wearing a crooked blond wig and crying, reduced to blubbering, by the melodrama he's created on the screen below. That guy—the creator of this whole queered-up world, in which drag is expanded to include meta-drag and racial drag, which sends audiences into conflict with each other and within themselves—is 33-year-old Kalup Linzy.
"We didn't know what to think," Seattle Art Museum education director Sandra Jackson-Dumont told the audience about her first impressions of Linzy's videos and performances a few years ago (Jackson-Dumont worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which featured Linzy). "We were like, 'It's embarrassing. Should we be critical? Is this a critique of our black womanhood?'"
Though Linzy releases clips of many of his mostly live-action videos on YouTube, and though he's made headlines recently for his cameo on General Hospital in episodes featuring James Franco, it's been hard to get a handle on him. He invents characters and elaborate, soap-opera-style story lines, which can't be grasped in excerpts. He's been a soap-opera fan, like his grandmother, ever since he was a kid in Stuckey, Florida; his remaining Southern accent turns 2010 to "two thousand tan."
Last Thursday was the first time he's ever performed live in Seattle. He presented a cabaret show featuring his character Taiwan, with a three-piece band and backup singers. (Taiwan wears a flower in her hair and a leotard designed expressly for her for a T Magazine fashion shoot.) Animations and live-action videos played separately and along with the live performance.
I hope he comes back again, because he fits here: His work picks up on cartooning (Seattle is America's comics capital), gay identity (Seattle's only newspaper is the gayest newspaper in the land, dontcha know), and queer video/performance (of which Wynne Greenwood's Tracy + the Plastics is the best-known pioneer, and Greenwood is here). (We are a gay city! Queer theorist Richard Meyer spoke about Warhol at SAM the night before; it was gaytopia up in here.) And Seattle's still-quiet conversation about race needs encouraging.
Linzy's knife could have been sharper in some spots. He promised to, but did not, get nasty on "Proud Mary," for instance. His most powerful moments—the ones that rip you open—make you laugh, and you do not feel good about it. Things are very wrong, and inconsistently (only sometimes does he tuck—title for a memoir?). Meanwhile, the wig Linzy wears is so smooth, it shines like a vinyl record, and his wrists move as fluidly as a turntable, and his gaze toward the audience is almost shy. He makes you want to laugh with him, but he makes you know that sometimes you are, and many people have been, laughing at him.