Eric Mayer-Garcia field report from the 2014 NoPassport theatre conference
Eric Mayer-Garcia was co-curator of the conference.
The 8th annual NoPassport Theatre Conference took place last Saturday, March 29, 2014 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. NoPassport theatre alliance and press (www.nopassport.org) has held 8 consecutive conferences, each exploring a specific theme. The last two years of NoPassport Conferences are archived on Howlround TV. This year’s conference will be archived there as well for future viewing. At this year’s conference performances and panels explored “The Diasporic Imagination,” as it is reflected in theatre and performance. It was the first meeting of NoPassport in the Southeastern U.S. Louisiana made for an ideal space from which to query the diasporic imagination, with all of its rich, transcultural traditions that interweave West African, Caribbean, Isleño, Vietnamese, Native American, Acadian, Latin American, and European diasporic cultures. Panel discussions included topics on “Caribbean Diasporas: Tracing Interconnections Through the Archive, Theatre, Performance, and Ritual;” “Jazz in Plays;” and “The Katrina Effect: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters.” José Torres-Tama, Teatro Luna, the Signdance Collective International performed excerpts from their latest work. Perhaps not so coincidentally, all three performances were connected by a similar approach of grounding their provocative acts of imagining and reimagining diaspora in ritualized structures of movement and incantation.
Dedication to Muñoz
Caridad Svich dedicated this year’s conference to the memory of José Esteban Muñoz, invoking his work to frame the conference theme with her inspiring opening remarks. “Cruising utopia, as if we were cruising the transgressions of our youth, the split selves that make us bi and multicultural, multilingual, immigrant and exiled, and the children of inheritors of diasporas that raged through and across earth and oceans—these selves find themselves in our books, stories, poems, plays, films, and hybrid tomes, indebted to the exploration of aesthetic, cultural, faith, gender, economic, and class differences, as well as those along and across constructed lines of race “determined by neoliberal policies, first world to so-called third world.” In these utopic lenses that almost always reflect its opposite—dystopia—we construct new selves that practice decolonial love in the hope that by so doing, equitable co-existence will be possible with our fellow humans on this planet… For now, the utopias sit on the landscapes of our dreams, acted on the stages yet to be written, ghosted by the past in the palaces of our expansive and gorgeous imaginations.”
“Caribbean Diasporas: Tracing Interconnections Through the Archive, Theatre, Performance, and Ritual”
This panel was moderated by Lillian Manzor and began with presentations by Solimar Otero and Carolina Caballero, who, drawing from Muñoz’s writings, showed how diasporas are interconnected and connect themselves to new worlds through performance. Otero’s presentation on espiritismo masses in Mantilla, Havana traced diasporas through the interorality of practitioners who invoke the dead in séance. Otero drew from Muñoz’s concept of queer world-making in performance to theorize the arrival of a gitana spirit in the mass that was co-constructed by practitioners as a nun, the Yoruba goddess Oya, the Congo goddess Centella Ndoki, and la Virgen de la Candelaria, demonstrating both the interconnectedness of diasporas in this religious practice, as well as the tensions of race, ethnicity, class, religious difference, and sexuality that create fractures in the misa espiritual as a utopic performative. Carolina Caballero analyzed the plays Blind Mouth Singing and Bird in Hand by Cuban-American playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, arguing that the characters universalize their diasporic experience through emotion. Drawing from Muñoz’s observations of latinidad in Cortiñas’ theatre as “una forma de sentir en el mundo” (a way of feeling in the world), Caballero argued that the emphasis of “el sentimiento de existir, el sentir en el ser” (the emotion of existing) in Cortiñas’ theatre transformed the diasporic condition and up-rootedness of exile into “a globalized experience… easily recognizable by anyone anywhere.”
The Caribbean Diasporas panel included two 10 min performances. The first, by Margaret Kemp, was an excerpt from her autobiographical solo-performance Confluence, formerly entitled A Negro Speaks of Rivers that tells the story of her Bahamian father and Panamanian mother and the systematized destruction of a pan-Caribbean neighborhood in Boston. The power of Confluence… regarding the diasporic imagination is in the way it tells the story of multiple diasporas intersecting with one another in cosmopolitan spaces. Of particular interest in Kemp’s performance is her use of Flamenco singing, specifically Seguiriya, as a transplanted diasporic tradition to flesh out the distant memories of her mother’s folk songs, bridging the rift created by the traumatic splitting of her family and the absence of her mother at a very young age.
A presentation by Lillian Manzor on the recent Havana production of Anna en el Trópico and the performance excerpt of Makina Total Free by Cuban performance group Omni Zona Franca presented two different looks at representations of the Cuban Diaspora by Cuba artists on the island. Lillian Manzor argued that Cuban cultural production has always been made from a diasporic space and found that the recent production of Anna… enacted diasporic consciousness in two senses. First, the staging underscored parallels between the Cuban diaspora of 1920’s Tampa with the Cuban diaspora of today. Second, director Carlos Díaz cast actors from the Cuban diasporas of Venezuela and Miami. Through these casting choices, Díaz staged a reunion between Cubans on the island and Cubans returning from the diaspora. Manzor concluded, “The diasporic imagination continues to draw a map of grater Cuba that goes beyond the national and is poetically anchored in the theatrical.” Luis Eligio and Kizzy Macías of Omni Zona Franca presented a multidisciplinary spoken word performance piece, which explored the shifting and merging of new boundaries in political, cultural, and national identities within human subjectivity, focusing on the experience of Cuban and Latin American immigrants in the U.S.
Jazz in Plays and NoPassport Press Reading Salon
The Jazz in Plays panel led by Oliver Mayer, with performances by Lynn Manning and Giovanni Ortega, brought the house down and had the audience caught in call and response bliss. Panelists Lynn Manning, Joann Yarrow, Christopher Oscar Peña, and Giovanni Ortega fielded questions from Mayer on the relationship between Jazz and Theatre with both descriptive and performative responses. The conversation moved from defining the word “Jazz” to grasping a deeper understanding of its intrinsic connection with theatre, and especially concerning the theatre of “contact zones” and localities of “cultural collision.” For Lynn Manning, jazz lends itself to playwriting through artistry of sound, rhythm, and vital improvisation that creates spontaneity and liveness in storytelling. Chris Peña echoed Manning’s observations, but also located drama in jazz and jazz in drama through the principle of dissonance. Giovanni Ortega defined jazz through a sense of cariño and heat that makes theatre alive for him, and for Yarrow, jazz is “the sin that feels good.” Placing its origins in early Jazz Houses of Sydney Bechet, Mayer led of the panel with proposition that jazz means sex, the word being sonically similar to “jiz,” the emission, or descarga. New Orleanian, José Torres-Tama added that jazz was innovated by Jelly Roll Morton and played from the brothels of New Orleans.
Joann Yarrow, Giovanni Ortega, and Oliver Mayer likened the role of Jazz in American culture to gumbo. Like the “ajiaco,” of Fernando Ortiz, the metaphor of gumbo is a rejection of the homogeneous “melting pot” narrative, asserting that the distinct flavor of unique diasporic cultures from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe merging in New Orleans in the nineteenth century are all preserved as distinct elements within the living form. Whether regarding the history of jazz or its sonic appeal, a running theme in the discussion was the notion of sin—a trespassing, or transgression of social norms or boundaries that “feels good”— pointing to a sense of morality which values cultural purity; a morality whose irresistible taboos are undermined by diasporic cultures implanting themselves in the “collision of cultures,” like bodies rubbing up against each other in the Jazz Houses and Brothels of early twentieth century New Orleans.
The “Jazz in Pays” discussants looked at jazz as a cultural conjoining. Jazz in this sense can be seen as a specific creativity at the cultural crossroads where diasporas meet, making a refuge for oppressed people, a transgression of the hegemony of cultural purity and colonial hierarchies, creating a utopic impulse within the present moment. As José Esteban Muñoz would describe it, jazz provokes an astonishment that “helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Cruising Utopia).
Teatro Luna: excerpts from GENERATION SEX
If panelists on Jazz in Plays conceived of the creativity of jazz through a masculine symbolic lexicon of “jiz” and “descarga” in the brothel house, than Teatro Luna’s excerpt performance of Generation Sex contested the lexicon of patriarchy by staging a forum on sex, sexuality, and the body that moved the center, reorienting paradigms of sex and creativity for Latinas and women of color. In the day’s first presentation, Solimar Otero quoted Ramon Rivera-Servera on his theorization of “communities of affect,” who writes that performance can create “moments where the aesthetic event becomes temporarily a felt reality and instantiates the imaginable into the possible.” Teatro Luna’s Generation Sex was crafted to create such transformative temporalities for Latina spectators.
Generation Sex is a devised piece combining theatre, spoken word, dance, song, projections, and short film, which was currently on tour in Texas. Generation Sex addresses how new media has changed sex, love, and relationships, exploring the emotional attachment and affect of wall posts, text messages, photo tags, and instagrams, the role new media plays in seduction, and what new media means for femininity in the twenty-first century. The “sin that feels good” was again evoked as a metaphor for cultural interaction as transgression, but here understood as sexting, DMing, and posting provocative selfies.
The opening number of Dusty Springfield’s 1950’s hit “Wishin’ and Hopin,’” set the piece in conversation with outdated notions of femininity. Luna’s Generation Sex underscored the inadequacy of such models of femininity that still hold ideological weight over women, creating self-destructive behavior, exemplified by one vignette, thick with irony, where the characters gushingly discuss the date rape of a co-worker by an executive as a “fun game.” The women characters excuse the rapist saying their fellow co-worker, “was practically begging for it in that skirt,” calling the perpetrator “considerate” for dragging his victim’s body into his office, and, “such an amazing guy,” for “knowing what we [women] want, more then we do.” At moments, mainstream images of femininity were disidentified, like the 1950s doo-wop singers, or the synchronized swimmers that advocated for the use of the diva cup, calling for their fellow sisters to be liberated from the use of pads and tampons. Muñoz’s disidentifications strikes me as one of the most succinct ways to discuss Teatro Luna’s performance of these majoritarian and mainstream images of femininity, sexuality, and romance, which were reclaimed and repurposed to express the experience of the creators of Generation Sex, to critique patriarchal gender norms, to create new possibilities, and to make a space for Luna’s audience, twenty-first-century women of color.
José Torres-Tama ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS Unplugged Excerpt
When Caridad Svich and I began planning for the NoPassport Theatre Conference on the Diasporic Imagination, I could not imagine the conference happening without José Torres-Tama, whose work aims to create visibility for Latinos in New Orleans and the U.S. South. Torres-Tama’s latest performance piece ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS, as José Torres-Tama describes it, “is a sci-fi Latino noir performance solo exploring the current persecution of Latino immigrants across the land of the free. Satirizing the status of immigrants as ‘extraterrestrials’ through a sci-fi prism informed by short films that spoof The Matrix and Star Wars, the artist shape-shifts into numerous ‘aliens’ who bilingually challenge the hypocrisy of a country built by immigrants that vilifies the same people whose labor it readily exploits. Politically provocative, profoundly moving, visually engaging, and strategically comic, ALIENS puts a heart and face on the vilified ‘alien other.’”
Watching José’s performance from the light booth I could not help but notice the mark of his past experience as a street performer on his acting approach and costume design. Through his aesthetics, José carries the French Quarter with him wherever he performs Minneapolis, Fayetteville, Phoenix, or Baton Rouge. In this unplugged excerpt, Torres-Tama presented three “alien” figures from his larger performance: a masked alien that bares a cross with dollar bills in a movement montage set to operatic vocals, the monstrous image of the demonized immigrant as “evildoer,” and the SWAMP BRUJO, a hybrid character that is imagined through multiple diasporas bringing together figures of African-American and U.S. Latino imaginaries. Specifically, Torres-Tama was inspired by Louis Armstrong’s voice on the recording of St. James Infirmary, and Torres-Tama interpreted that voice through his unique way of imagining all things Latino. With green alien face paint, a collar of dollar bills, and green alien gloves, the Swamp Brujo disidentified with the criminalized status of Latinoamericano immigrants, but not through an established stereotype. Rather the Swamp Brujo embodied a satirical amalgamation of the formal symbols, markers, and rhetoric surrounding the label of “illegal aliens.” For example, the Swamp Brujo freely associated between the green color of his alien skin, the green of Torres-Tama’s resident alien green card, and the green of cash flows moving freely across borders devastating economies across the Americas. The Swamp Brujo’s meditation on the color green combined disparate aspects of the demonization of Latinoamericanos and Latinos that were reclaimed and creatively deployed towards Torres-Tama’s political critique.
THE KATRINA EFFECT: Performance Response to Gulf Coast Manmade Disasters
This panel led by Anne-Liese Fox (LSU) and included panelists Nick Slie of Mondo Bizarro, Kathy Randels of ArtSpot Production, playwright John Biguenet of Loyola University, Leigh Fondakowski, Reeva Wortel, and Kelli Simpkins of the Tectonic Theater Project. The panel discussed the work of these artists whose plays and performances were made in the Gulf Coast and NOLA region in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill. The discussion grounded cultural intersections, creativity, and art making as necessary responses to disaster, trauma, exile, and recovery. How does culture survive catastrophe and displacement? How does the culture of New Orleans and South Louisiana survive after so many inhabitants have been “diaspora-ed” in the wake of these tremendous preventable manmade disasters? How does art respond to disaster of this magnitude? How can it challenge mainstream representations and alternatively document history? The panel began by introducing the work of John Biguenet whose Rising Water trilogy are some of the best known and most widely produced plays regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levee break disaster. Biguenet talked about Samuel Beckett’s influence on Rising Water, explaining that Beckett’s work created a vocabulary for depicting catastrophe. Rising Water was the largest grossing production in the history of Southern Repertory Theatre. Biguenet argued that the production was so successful because it had a strong connection with the City, and audiences recognized themselves and their experience in the work.
The panelists focused on their process, including a discussion of insider/outsider dynamics in interviews with those closely impacted by these disasters, a method that was a part of all of their work. Fondakowski, Wortell, and Simpkins shared about their process and goals for Spill a co-production between the Tectonic Theatre Project and Swine Palace that depicts the BP oil spill and its aftermath. Fondakowski expressed that she was never interested in creating a docudrama as a representation of the facts, but rather thinks of theatre as a way to address human suffering through art-making. Fondakowski sees her work as an artistic document of the event, taking productions first to those most closely affected by the tragedy. Reeva Wortell talked about how part of the creative process of Spill was asking interviewees if she could paint their portrait. Here Wortell’s portrait work changed her relationship with interviewees and the kinds of stories shared with her and other Tectonic Theatre Project collaborators.
Kathy Randels spoke about the importance of a process that could heal New Orleanian artists after the 2005 levee break disaster. In 2006, Randel’s organization Artspot productions produced Beneath the Strata a site-specific piece located outside of New Orleans in the Studio in the Woods, an artist retreat and nature preserve. The performance created by the majority women cast featured Calinda dance, a West African dance that survived the middle passage and still practiced in New Orleans. Their production of Loup Garou (2009) expanded on one of the figures originally a part of Beneath the Strata. Loup Garou, a Cajun werewolf represented the insanity that comes to people who have lost everything.
Finally, Nick Slie discussed Mondo Bizaro and Artspot’s collaboration on the performance Cry You One which is a performance addressing the erosion of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. The production was an ensemble generated and devised piece staged on the levee in St. Bernard parish, taking the audience on a 1.7 mile walk across the levee to view installation performances staged in the adjacent wetlands and witnessing the landscape of the “last land before the sea” before it erodes away into the Gulf.
This panel clearly defined performance response to disaster as a response that must emphasize process, creating increased connections between performance and audience, between theatre and city/community. The work of artists included here spoke to the power of performance in working through the trauma of disaster, whether by documenting alternative histories, embodying and transferring culture, or giving cities and citizens a space to recreate and reflect on the tremendous loss of their worlds now gone or now threatened in the shadow of inevitable destruction.
CARTHAGE/CARTAGENA is written by Caridad Svich, performed by the Signdance Collective International and directed by Beatriz Cabur
Before the final performance began, Isolte Avila, David Bower, Francesca Osimani, Hearns Sebuado, and assistant director Pedro de Senna of the Signdance Collective International (SDCI) awaited their audience in the cavernous LSU dance studio. NoPassport Theatre Conference participants gathered among LSU dance students, and members from the Baton Rouge Deaf community that had been interacting with the Signdance Collective members all week in performances and workshops. Clearly, Signdance's appeal to students and locals was about much more than sign language and access to verbal content alone. Something demonstrated by the fact that local ASL signing spectators came to NoPassport to see Carthage, even though many of them did not fully understand the BSL of the Signdance Collective in a performance of their piece Bad Elvis earlier in the week (a disconnect, by the way, that the company worked to solve before their performance of Carthage). The continued interest in SDCI was the attraction to their method of Deaf “world-making.” Their movement style of fused dance and sign forged a utopic space for Deaf audiences and performers, while the “making” of this world centered around the cultural sensibilities and experiences of Deaf communities.
The much-anticipated performance of Carthage/Cartagena, written by Caridad Svich and developed with the Signdance Collective International under the direction of Beatriz Cabur played to an enthusiastic audience overcrowding the large dance studio. The text of Carthage/Cartagena is a series of multi-lingual letter-song-poems connected by themes of displacement, exile, and human trafficking. This verse play dramatizes moments of “desterrar,” or being ripped away from homeland and finding oneself in a foreign land. The piece stages the violent origins of diaspora, a recurrent topic raised throughout the conference. For instance, the “Jazz in Plays” panel discussed song as the only thing that diasporic populations carry with them when they have lost everything. The Katrina Effect panel discussants returned time and again to the shock of total loss in their discussion of disaster response performance. Performances by José Torres-Tama and Margaret Kemp both addressed the struggle of diasporas to survive in places, like the United States, where immigrants face hostility and violent exploitation. The verse of Carthage/Cartagena enacts its diasporic imagination in its rendering of voices of individuals displaced by wars, human trafficking, and acts of violence. As a previous reviewer had pointed out, the play on words within Carta-ajena, could mean letter from afar, as well as a letter written in a foreign language. These “letters from afar” are not only written from spaces of dislocation, but also speak from the borderlands of the real, a space beyond representation and language, encircling the edges of trauma. The performed text of Carthage/Cartagena drew on multiple languages, English, Spanish, Italian, BSL, and ASL as a strategy to approach this “unspeakable” space of trauma through the disconnected space between languages, and the gap between meanings lost in translation.
The SDCI was the perfect company to interpret the piece because they move between so many registers of language: spoken, sung, and embodied in their specific fusion of dance and sign. Images of homeland, like a lemon tree, a cake, or a spinning top, were invoked as the final vestiges of subjectivity from the edges of the traumatic experience. The SDCI’s approach was to interpret the loss of homeland as the structural loss of innocence. Coming of age in the blown-out wasteland of Carthage/Cartagena means grappling with the shock of total loss, a retracing of the missing pieces of self, and transformation in a state of absolute exile. The ritual structure of the choreography, a spiraling transcendental meditation, made room for the co-presence of these lost voices—the casualties of violent acts of displacement—as they were re-imagined in performance. Carthage/Cartagena made for an intense and riveting end to this 8th annual meeting of the NoPassport Theatre Alliance. The successful one-day engagement forever altered the threshold of possibilities and opened new roads for LSU theatre and participating artists from Baton Rouge and NOLA.
Louisiana State University