In My Fellow Americans, queer performance artist Peter Carpenter blows apart the cliches of Ronald Reagan's presidency by bringing out their surreality, tying them to unexpected emotions, or both. But the piece ultimately runs aground on the personal.
There's plenty of reason to look back, as this fast-paced, 70-minute dance-theater work shows. Weaving together multiple densely packed scenes, Carpenter reminds us of the Reagan legacy: a polarized populace, bellicose posturing, attempts to claim God as a political ally, and the sort of folksy oratory spouted by George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike. But the part that interests Carpenter most, according to a program note, is the "losses due to AIDS," and that gets unconvincing, belated attention here.
Crammed with music, texts, movement, cultural allusions, and ideas, My Fellow Americans addresses heroism, weakness, violence, theatricality, spectatorship, memory, and the slipperiness of identity. Carpenter and his four fellow creator-performers bring a complex mix of conflicting emotions to bear on the era, including nostalgia, anger, and pity for the powerful man who was ultimately powerless against Alzheimer's.
The Teflon president was scary in the same vein as George W. Bush. Who was the man behind the facade? Rubber masks worn off and on by the performers reinforce the sense that Reagan was his own Madame Tussauds waxwork. But Carpenter also subverts the image, setting the masks off against the performers' bodies and movements to create freaky hybrids. A woman vamps in the mask and the aloof Reagan is suddenly slinky. A man struts around in it wearing sky-high stillettos and the uptight Reagan is suddenly showing off his gams. And when Carpenter dons the mask and cradles a wounded woman, suddenly the man who had no compassion is simpering over a victim.
These transgressive fantasy images acknowledge Reagan's iconic stature—and Carpenter's apparently lingering wish to remake him into something more heroic. At the top of the piece, Carpenter recites some of the lyrics from Tommy Womack's not-entirely-ironic song "I Miss Ronald Reagan"; later, he admits that he was both moved and confused by Reagan's first inaugural address, with its lyrical depictions of everyday heroes who were just people like himself. Carpenter, who was a boy then, says he almost cried when Reagan intoned "so help me God."
Reagan was the first of several "cowboy" presidents, and Carpenter plays him as such in a long, memorable dance solo set to recorded snatches of the first inaugural speech. Wearing only one cowboy boot and a cowboy shirt with the sleeves ripped off, Carpenter cuts an oddly vulnerable, half-macho figure, wrapping his arms around himself protectively and pointing a finger to the sky when Reagan mentions a "divine plan."
That single raised finger appears again in a comic section devoted to war, in which the performers make mouth noises to represent gunfire, exploding bombs, flamethrowers, and the grunts, groans, and gurgles of the dying. A dancer raises one hand and counts down with it until only the index finger remains up. Then the digit blasts off like a mortar shell, landing on the other palm, suggesting that when you have God on your side you can kill with impunity.
The other four performers take on roles as well as the ensemble choreography. Suzy Grant plays an ordinary citizen whose longing for renewed faith in her country makes her an enthusiastic Reaganite. Atalee Judy provides a metatheatrical perspective, stepping outside the proceedings to give them a "frame." Donnell Williams is the evening's locus of emotion, closing the show with his memories of the Reagan era. And Lisa Gonzales embodies weakness—but also anger, in a scorching spoken and danced solo, gloating over Reagan "shitting in his diapers" after the Alzheimer's diagnosis.
The image of bodily weakness provides the strongest emotional thread in My Fellow Americans, representing the poor, the mentally ill, and others disenfranchised during the Reagan years. Carpenter clasps himself and breathes laboriously throughout the piece. In one section, set ironically to the Gershwins' "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," the Reagans (Williams and Judy) waltz at an inaugural ball while gazing coldly at a woman (Gonzales) struggling to get up off the floor. And a late scene graphically and sympathetically depicts the disintegrating mind in dementia.
Empathy for human weakness—even Reagan's—opens out the piece, giving it breadth. But that's lost in the end. Focusing, finally, on the "losses due to AIDS," Williams tearfully returns to a memory mentioned earlier, of an uncle's probable lover probably struck down by AIDS. But the tears seem forced: Williams was young, and he doesn't seem to remember much or have much of a connection to the man. Suddenly narrowing the work's focus down to a personal reminiscence that's not really even all that personal makes My Fellow Americans abruptly smaller, just as it has burgeoned into the present.