Puzzle Pieces | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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Baltimore, Basketball and Beyond

Clifford Owens

Meeting Darrow

Kym Olsen and Trevor Martin

at Tough, March 6 and 7

By Justin Hayford

Minutes before the opening of Tough Gallery's first ever performance series, "Tough Nights," I found myself standing before an ancient toilet tucked behind an enormous pile of wood and drywall scraps. A sign had directed me toward the "bathroom," which turned out to be just this commode housed in a few feet of electric blue plywood in the back corner of a dimly lit storage room. The gallery itself is only slightly more finished: it features patches of exposed drywall, an antediluvian heater that provides more comic relief than warmth, and a cement floor with hardly a level spot in it. As I stood before the toilet, my natural pee shyness exacerbated by the chilly temperature as well as the performer warming up for his piece a few feet away, I breathed a huge sigh and smiled. Although I'd never been to Tough before, I knew I'd come home.

A dozen years ago I ventured forth to discover Chicago's performance scene and spent many an hour in far-flung amenity-free places like Tough. There the mega-hip geek-chic crowd would gather to witness oddities beyond categorization: Brendan deVallance reciting poetry wearing an enormous helmet of ice, Chris Sullivan dancing with a flattened, elongated "girlfriend" pulled from a canning jar, Lynn Book cooing and swaying naked behind a translucent screen, a dozen men from Meatballs Fluxus walking around a darkened space intoning the word "faggot." During these evenings of poetic puzzlement, nonlucid and illogical, resonant irresolution reigned supreme.

Over the years, many prime performance venues have closed: Lower Links, MoMing Dance & Arts Center, and last month Randolph Street Gallery, the onetime mecca of Chicago performance. With the earlier closings, a new timidity began to seep into much of the city's performance. Artists seemed more and more reluctant to mystify audiences, less willing to offer up tantalizing images defying explanation. Tragicomic hallucinations were replaced by melodramatic lecture-demonstrations. Meanings, once merely hinted at, were now spelled out in bold type. The work was easier to package and sell, but it didn't require much more involvement from an audience than an above-average sitcom. All the geek-chic set could do to get that comforting rush of lyrical bewilderment was wait for the occasional piece from Goat Island, Michael K. Meyers, or Mathew Wilson.

I don't know if "Tough Nights" curator Melinda Moran was around during the heyday of Chicago performance in the late 1980s (during her curtain speech she looked to be about 14). But with the opening weekend of this four-week series she's tapped into all the elements that made those days distinctive: unabashed informality, complete disregard for commercial tastes, and, most important, the celebration of artistic ambiguity. The two works presented--Baltimore, Basketball and Beyond and Meeting Darrow--are as puzzling as they come. Both pieces defy passive observation; any meanings lie buried well beneath the surface. Because the artists have no interest in spoon-feeding, you have to bring all your imaginative faculties to bear. In a time when moronically schematic films like Forrest Gump and Titanic are imagined to be great cinema, such work is a tonic.

Of the two pieces, Clifford Owens's Baltimore, Basketball and Beyond is the more successful. An austere, demanding work softened by Owens's candid performance style, the piece begins in darkness with the sound of a basketball being dribbled with funereal solemnity. Then, from an alcove behind the audience, Owens sings a refrain from a spiritual about a mule ready for learning. Next we hear his feet moving in a rigid one-two, pause, one-two rhythm. As the lights come up he shuffles up the aisle, basketball crooked under his arm, dressed in a sensible cardigan and neatly pressed dress slacks. His crisp footwork segues into a kind of syncopated saunter, as he drags his feet across the floor like a homeboy marking his turf.

With this elegant opening Owens creates a sonic time line of the African-American male in the 20th century, a quick tour through some of the dominant images of African-American identity, from the poor southern sharecropper to the well-behaved middle-class black to the defiant street kid. Whether those identities are authentic or stereotypical is left ambiguous, but Owens makes it immediately clear that such a dichotomy is beside the point. "This is a contingent construct," he insists when he first speaks, ridiculing the idea that discrete racial categories can ever capture the diversity of human experience.

From that point Owens works his way through a series of lyrical digressions. He stoops slightly, shuffling and swaying forward, while singing about a black freighter disappearing at sea. "And on that freighter is me," he concludes. Then he adopts the cadences of a fundamentalist preacher, lamenting the fact that he can't identify with a "milquetoast, sissified God" like Jesus. Instead he wants to follow a man of power. Immediately Owens begins to tap his heels in an anxious rhythm, scatting under his breath syllables like "flee" and "fly" until he's chanting "nigger run fly flee." The chant finally expires in exhausted panting.

Owens has structured Baltimore, Basketball and Beyond more as a piece of music than a narrative, focusing on changes in tempo and tone. As a recurrent rhythmic bridge he pauses now and again to dribble the basketball, usually ending by tossing it to an audience member for safekeeping until he needs it again. For a half hour Owens continues in this vein, making subtle shifts in voice and persona, throwing out image after image culled from a century of African-American life. Yet no story develops, no theme evolves. The images appear and disappear like freighters colliding and sinking into oblivion.

Despite Owens's intentionally fragmented imagery, the musical structure of the piece holds it together, start to finish. And through it all Owens preserves an undercurrent of menace. Something is not quite right, though it's never clear whether he wants to lash out at us or himself. He's put himself in the demeaning position of the "darkie entertainer," doing his verbal tap dances for the nearly all-white crowd, yet in the piece's climax he establishes that he controls us, repeatedly insisting that people throw him the basketball although he refuses to catch it. Ultimately he makes us perform for him.

Baltimore, Basketball, and Beyond is a cryptic gem, murky but never opaque. Owens manipulates the pieces of his puzzle with such finesse that the pieces themselves suffice. Perhaps he avoids assembling them into a big picture because there is no big picture of African-American life. The "contingent construct" of race makes it impossible for him to draw any definitive conclusions. All he can do is witness and wonder.

Kym Olsen and Trevor Martin adopt a similarly fragmented approach in Meeting Darrow, although here the lack of structure ultimately causes the fragments to collapse. The two begin the piece in silence standing several feet apart; wearing vacant expressions, they make a series of languid gestures. During their deceptively simple routine they fall in and out of unison, creating moments of wonder with an unexpected turn of the head or twist of the hand. The starkness of this demanding opening is captivating.

But then they begin to speak, reciting dreams, describing scenes from King Kong, singing Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me" again and again in a breathless, distracted manner. The formal strictures of the opening movement section give way to near randomness, as the performers jumble together images from Hollywood cinema, the desert southwest, warfare, and contemporary headlines. They seem to want to hang the entire piece on Fay Wray's performance in King Kong, although it's never clear what aspect of her performance particularly interests them.

As performers Olsen and Martin are never less than likable. Their strongest sections involve pure movement, as when Martin repeatedly lifts a curled-up Olsen off the floor, evoking a great gasp from her every time. But the choices they make in Meeting Darrow are so indiscriminate that the piece seems to start over every ten minutes. Their ambiguity doesn't beguile so much as it frustrates.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Baltimore, Basketball and Beyond; Meeting Darrow theater stills.

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