often, i can feel the way i am such an anxious person. the way the sensation builds up in my gut as i do/ think about things. i don’t even fully understand it because i feel it happening even now, even in this moment when i’m excited about the convergences that are occurring in the work that i’m doing without my planning for them. in the convergence between reading and thinking about anna deavere smith and being able to go back and think about the work of sarah jones that was previously brought up to me. work that i didn’t draw fully from then but am now getting the opportunity to revisit. the ways that that has led me to venus and returning to the essay venus in two acts by saidiya hartman that felt so resonant with the things that i’ve been thinking about.
thinking now: what does fiction (or the admission of fiction) do in how it makes the author/ creator vulnerable as well? again, i don’t think i really thought about or addressed the distinctions between sarah jones’ and anna deavere smith’s work before and am grateful for the chance to reacquaint myself with both now. but one distinct difference i felt when watching both pieces was a vulnerability that was present with the work that sarah jones presents to us and the work that anna deavere smith presents to us. smith’s contextualization of the work as text and intonation that she learns, verbatim, from people she interviews, turns the performer into a conduit, a messenger, who is in many ways absolved of much the political implication/ baggage of her work. she is, then, not held responsible for the things that she’s saying. this is unlike the work of sarah jones where, despite stating that her work draws from people and characters in her life, never claims to be recreations of exact things these people she is inspired by have said. this means that jones continues to hold responsibility for the things that she presents on stage. the theme of the ted talk at which she is presenting is “invention”. her work is primarily about inventing/ reinventing the self and revealing the mutability of selves, the possibilities for these different presentations to exist within a single body. smith’s work certainly gets the audience to reckon with the question of how easy or how possible it is for her, as a black woman, to play these different characters, therefore tangentially casting doubt on the distinct boundaries we draw between identities. however, the assertion that she is drawing directly from ‘real life’ means that the focus of her work, or at least the focus of my experience watching it, was on processing what is being said through this, with her body as a vessel for communication. it’s less about the act of invention or the consideration of that as meta-commentary, and more about explicit considerations of the particular social issue approached through the method.
i think there is value in both approaches (read: reproducing narratives verbatim and the space that gives them on stage and the space that gives us to think about ‘real’ positions that people hold) but i think one thing that looking at jones’ work against smith’s work gives us is the question of whether a performer should need to share in that vulnerability in order to place others’ narratives up there on a stage in a vulnerable position. further, what does our answer to that question do for our understanding of how we might approach such performance work? what does it say about the attitude we take towards addressing difference in communities?
in some ways, lemon’s work seems more similar to jones’ work in content and theme, even if, superficially, jones’ and smith’s work seem far more similar due to the coherency in the two mediums. like jones’ work, lemon’s work seems invested in the personal body, with a greater personal vulnerability of the performer on stage/ the artist who creates the work. shifting between the styles of dancing, our attention is once again called to the ways in which a body learns to move is so contingent on the time and space in which it grows up, as opposed to an essential trait. markers of identity, that we read so easily through styles of dance, (that lemon also articulates in his essay when he talks about tensions between him and post-ailey companies for instance), are presented as learnt items, and items that can be thus shared and relearnt between bodies.
however, lemon’s work also raises further questions about the mediums we undertake in order to engage in such discourse. how different is it watching a dance performance which is less immediately/ explicitly legible to the typical audience than a theatrical performance centred on language and text appears to be (at least superficially)? how does the difference in legibility affect the way these works are received by their audiences. how do we choose our tools of communication? i think about the beauty of maintaining ambiguity in one’s works, in the inability to parse for sure, or at least easily, what the author means. because that forces the audience to contend with what their own perspectives are in that uncertain space. i don’t write this to say, however, that this ambiguity lies solely with non-verbal/textual modes of communication – i did, for instance, get a strong sense of this in the final essay of the lemon group of readings. where i think the two pieces (jones and lemon), or indeed even all three, might be remiss is how they do not fully engage with the effort it takes to move between identities (or representations of identity) in the way that each of them appear to do so effortlessly.
when one looks up the work of anna deavere smith alongside the work of sarah jones, suzan lori parks’ play venus comes up. venus reminded me of a text by saidiya hartman, about ubiquitous presence of venus in the archive, the violence that is enacted upon her body and the struggle to write “at the limit of the unspeakable and the unknown” as parks has done, writing the fictional life-history of sarah “saartjie” bartman. hartman’s writing brings to the forefront of our consciousness the way writing about someone/ putting narratives on stage can be a potentially violent act that requires careful handling. what are the ways that self-conscious fictionalizing allows us to approach the line of violence in a productive manner without infringing upon it? again, what are the ways that that requires the vulnerability of the performer on stage as well? what does the assertion of the veracity of things (in relation to its capacity to capture ‘real life’) do to the dynamic between performer and represented? are there certain narratives that we are more willing to present without being, ourselves, vulnerable? what does that say about our approach towards democratizing space??
wow crazy how i started this post really to talk about the ways i was feeling anxious and finding ways to reckon with that and ended up pretty much writing my whole reading response here. really i just also wanted to think and talk about how i’ve been getting anxious or nervous about things even when i feel them coming together and going well. and that seems definitely unhealthy. am i just worried about the prospect of things falling apart or not coming to fruition in the future?? is that it?? so much of the work that i’m doing in my classes now feels like things i feel personally really invested in. in ways that i’m grateful for, i think, but also in ways that can be stressful!! hmmm more thoughts but there will always be more thoughts and, for now, i think it’s time for bed!