The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
On a roadside in Kigali, Rwanda, there is a family of craftspeople who make earthenware. Terracotta pots and animals stand in rows, waiting for occasional motorists to stop and purchase a vessel for their garden or home. Away from the road, several lean shelters—the family’s home and workplace—circle a glowing kiln dug into the ground, covered with corrugated tin. Small in stature and sweet in the manner of people who work hard and anticipate business, the family gathers around New York-based theater artist Kaneza Schaal as she begins to negotiate the price of custom pots needed for her performance of Go Forth in two days time at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
As the performance’s designer, I could sketch what these pots should look like, but the subtleties of the negotiation, the tangle of languages, and the request for a rush job were far beyond me. I found a reason to walk away and play with some young potters in the dirt while Kaneza and the matriarch spoke to one another. Niceties were exchanged in Kinyarwanda, then Kaneza and the woman began to dance—one of those elegant Rwandan dances, like taking flight. There was laughter and recognition: an overlap in the complicated Venn diagram of identities, half negotiation and half humor, half foreigner and half countrywoman. For Kaneza, performance is a language, the threading of a needle, precise and useful, and a place beyond words.
Christopher Myers So you’re in residence at the Baryshnikov Art Center, which is cool because this new piece, Jack &, more than any of the other performances you’ve created, seems to have significant dance parts. Do you consider it a dance piece?
Kaneza Schaal I guess dance is dance when it aims to speak to dance traditions. There’s certainly a lot of movement in this new piece, and in my work generally, but I wouldn’t call it dance because the tools we use to develop these movements are theater tools.
CM You seem to have a focused and pretty rigid understanding of these traditions you’re working in.
KS Well, theater is necessarily a collaborative form, and I’m certainly excited by the way all these lines morph and blur. I like that design and visual construction are inherently part of the work, as are bodies in motion, sound, and light. I call it theater because that’s a tradition my work is in conversation with. I’d be just as happy to call it sculpture or performance.
CM But which specific tradition do you strongly identify with or really feel you’re coming out of?
KS I was drawn to experimental theater, to the American avant-garde—particularly because it’s a form that thinks about hybridity. The tools of avant-garde theater were developed
to integrate different mediums onto the stage.
CM Do you think the hybridity found in American theater is better or implemented differently than the hybridity found in, say, the postcolonial traditions of Africa or Asia?
KS I graduated from a university in the United States and the artists near me were in New York City, so that’s where I ended up and that’s the experience I can best speak to. But part of what led me to making my own work was the feeling that I speak more languages than I was invited, or asked, to use as a performer in that part of the theater world.
CM Which languages were you invited to use most when you were with ensembles like Elevator Repair Service or The Wooster Group, or any of those folks? What were their go-to languages?
KS In so much experimental theater there’s a commitment to a classical Western canon, which provides the historical base from which work is made. Orienting oneself within those lexicons is one of the primary demands of participation.
CM One of the things I’ve always noticed about the downtown tradition you came from is that there’s a hierarchy of side players and focus players. There’s a way that so many of these companies, with their emphasis on auteurship and recurring personalities, have people of color serve as texture, providing the landscape upon which the “wildness” happens—a way in which traditionally othered bodies play the straight man of the ensemble. And I wonder if that demand, too, is part of your trajectory? How then do you build a space for yourself? I feel that’s so much of what we’re doing as black artists.
KS One of the things I learned working with both companies is that the strongest tool of an ensemble is the culture of the group. You bring up this theme of auteurship. I’ve always been excited by the complications of power, labor, and authorship in theater. How artistic roles get defined in the West is often really narrow. I think it’s important to keep questioning how we appreciate and record the labor of generating performance. In this inherently collaborative form, just where and what is the role of auteur?
CM It’s interesting that, on one hand, you’re really specific about the genre you’re working in and the traditions you’re building from; but on the other, you also seem to be running roughshod over all of those boundaries. What is the usefulness, then, of being attached to a formal structure if you’re going to critique or break with it?
KS I value the tools that have come from American experimental performance. I also believe that storytelling, that great art, requires speaking many different languages—historical, experiential, formal, and aesthetic ones.
Demographic diversity and formal diversity are inextricably linked. I see the social practice in my work, or the “social justice impulse” as an impulse toward excellence. My desire to gather artists from many different backgrounds isn’t motivated by charity, but rather a pursuit of artistic excellence.
CM Do you see your work as uniquely American? That word keeps coming up. What’s the response overseas? How did the work change in Egypt, Rwanda, or any other context? How do you feel performing internationally has informed your sense of yourself as an American artist—or as a not-American artist, if you prefer?
KS I have an American passport, which is a defining characteristic, so I suppose I’m an American artist. The work lived well in all those places, and what’s most thrilling is the way the legibility of the material expands and recedes in different contexts—which parts are rendered central and which are put aside. Go Forth, for example, traveled to Cairo, to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, to the Wesleyan University Center for the Arts in Connecticut, and before all of that, it premiered in a basement in Manhattan. There are many languages at play in Go Forth, and as a result, in each of those locations people access its references to movement traditions, historical and mythological vocabularies, and humor in different ways. It’s very rewarding to know the work can thrive in disparate environments.
CM The question of being an American reminds me of this Paul Beatty quote: “My principal identity is an antiestablishment black man, but if I get caught with a bag of hashish in Turkey, you can bet money I’ll be shouting ‘American citizen! Soy un Americano!’”
I wonder if the hybridity in your work, the ablity to mix those languages, the fact that it can travel, are together what makes it American? We can just let go of this Trump idea of America as a pure space and realize it’s the radical hybridity that makes American work American. I can see that in your work and in all the things you’re borrowing from. Can you talk about some of what you’ve been thinking about for Jack &?
KS For sure. It’s being built around ongoing conversations with the artist Cornell Alston about how dreaming is built or rebuilt. Specifically, this piece is thinking about reentering society after prison and the internal lives of the incarcerated. How can we consider both the time someone has served and the measure of their dreams given over to the state? Out of these dreaming laboratories that we’ve concocted, so many materials have come forward. One collaborator talked about a three-year period of incarceration where the only thing on TV in their cells was The Honeymooners, which played on repeat. We looked at cotillion balls as ceremonial welcomes to society. We looked at minimalist mid-century feminist painters—contemporaries of The Honeymooners or Amos n’ Andy—to bump them up against the materialism of that ’50s sitcom world. People like Agnes Martin and other descendants of that lineage, such as Ruth Asawa or Ellen Gallagher.
One of the early questions that generated a lot of stories was: Who taught you to act right?
CM I must ask: Who taught you how to act right?
KS (laughter) I don’t think anyone ever succeeded!
CM So, you’ve been acting wrong ever since!
In Jack &, there’s a kind of aspirational question of how one transcends where one is and gets someplace else. Where is your someplace else? Where are you aiming at?
KSI want to build touring networks in the global South. While I‘m delighted to work with luminary Western cultural institutions, I also want to forge new networks for presenting contemporary performance that prioritize exchanges between artists elsewhere. Here in the States, I want to make the environment in which my work can live and gather audiences who wouldn’t otherwise find themselves in the same room. And with Jack &, we’re thinking about how the work can live specifically in each city it will tour. We’ve been collaborating with organizations ranging from Catholic charities to the offices of prosecuting attorneys to grassroots reentry organizations led by formerly incarcerated activists.
CM Is it hard to find organizations that see the value of this avant-garde art piece in relationship to the work they’re doing?
KS Not at all—especially with organizations led by folks that served time. When we talk about dreaming, internal life, and what it looks like to consider these in the process of reentry, people are so enthusiastic. One of the lies people tell about experimental work and about the avant-garde is that regular people just aren’t interested. To say that is to deny the dreaming capacity of all audiences. Conversations about experimental performance don’t often clock or talk about the ways certain people are actively disinvited in the work.
CM I recently found myself in Como, Mississippi, hill country, where all these longstanding theater traditions—music and storytelling—are happening. Yet you wouldn’t find a theater troupe going through that rural town in a million years, much less the troupes we’re most familiar with in New York. I mean, you can see some theater in Oxford perhaps, but places like Como or Pope or Batesville? You’re never going to see these folks. Would you say that those regional places, too, are included in your vision of touring networks in the global South?
KS Absolutely. The American South is essential to a consideration of the global South. Culture moves, and I love the idea of a global diasporic South. There’s also this buzz of late about taking performance across red and blue lines, and I think sharing work across such political and cultural boundaries is essential. However, some of the most Trump-like rhetoric I encounter is actually coming from the people I‘m close with—artists I consider friends. Things like, “It’s just so hard as a white person to get funding right now,” or “I’m so glad you’re on the project, because they’re really programming for diversity these days.”
Ignorance and statistics and insult aside, the foundation of that thinking upholds the very political practices that people are purporting to reach across. There’s a notion of “preaching to the choir” when people discuss sharing work in elite art-house spaces. There is no choir. I think we should look closely at any sermon that leads one to believe that there is.
CM There’s this funny thing about New York City being sixty percent people of color, but then you go into all these spaces where art is being purveyed and realize they don’t reflect that. There’s been an effort made to suppress them. So often in these downtown theaters or museums—though I’m not so sure downtown is a functional idea anymore—you’re not really seeing a representative sampling of the various communities that enrich this city. And you talk about some arts rhetoric as—I like this adjective—“Trump-like,” but does that play into the work you’re making, the stuff considered to be social practice?
KS This goes back to social practice and creative practice being fundamentally linked, particularly if we want to think about great storytelling as requiring many languages. To me, it’s about how we consider both at once—as opposed to this very old idea of one’s civic duty being somehow separate from one’s art. The idea of one’s work being apolitical is false and dangerous. We are political beings.
CM Are there people who, in this day and age, tend to think of themselves as somehow being apolitical? Is that still possible?
KS Totally. Not only in experimental performance, but in broader experimental traditions too. I feel like I hear it a fair amount.
CM If there’s no such thing as being apolitical, as you say, then just what are the politics espoused by these people who claim they’re apolitical? Who are these people? Can you name names?
KS (laughter) I plead the Fifth.
CM The Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination? Interesting…
Where do you see theater going if it follows along this path of development—a definitively political trajectory, unifying social and formal practice? What are some exciting things that inspire you now?
KS I’ve been thinking a lot about authorship and performance. How do we write and think about the process of performance-making and discussions around the work itself. For example, I consider myself the author of the performances I make, yet those performances involve many other artists who generate material in the pieces. Western theater structures have traditionally been built around text, so that history guides lots of conversations about creative authorship. I like that there are so many complications when we’re considering a multiplicity of languages at play. I’m inspired by bringing writers, like you, together with dancers, sculptors, printmakers, and journalists to make work.
What are new ways of talking, writing, and processing content that destabilize traditional hierarchies of these labors and better reflect process? Texts are material in the room, same as light or race, and they’re all to be considered together.
CM I feel the debates of the past thirty or forty years around authorship are so often caught in a binary of either there is or isn’t such a thing. These alternative forms of collective authorship you describe, and other terms that slip that binary, fall by the wayside in our desire to make sure somebody’s name is on the work.
KS In some way that relates to a rejection of theory that I hear from so many theatermakers. People say they don’t have any theory of performance-making, and then go into these elaborate articulations of the philosophy and perspective from which the work is made. Ariane Mnouchkine, for instance, was speaking at the Armory recently and said, “I don’t have a theory of making,” and then eloquently described how actors construct their performances from their own corporal realities and banks of imagination and reference.
CM So, similar to the way one cannot be apolitical, one cannot be atheoretical either. In that case, what’s so attractive about claiming otherwise for so many of the artists you’ve worked with?
KS I think there’s a way academia tries to codify and eat up process and work. Part of what we do as artists is resist calcification in order to keep mining for new imaginative landscapes and reinventing our own processes.
CM You’re saying that these people believe politics and theory calcify artistic production?
KS They have some idea that liberation or freedom is on the other side of this resistance. But by not welcoming, say, political presence into the work, it limits the vocabularies that are being thoughtfully tended. They’re there, but not treated artfully. We live in a historical and political context, and we generate material in relation to one another. And through the stories we tell, we build our world—what a tremendous creative resource to work with.
CM There’s also this notion of neutrality, and as always, people really only use it to absolve themselves, their own tribes. They sometimes mark a kind of disinterest in the world of consequences as being somehow important to their making of art. This can swing on that traditional white male heteronormative pendulum between freedom and bondage. They want to be free all the time at the expense of the freedom of so many others.
CM When you’ve taken your work to other contexts, did anything freak you out?
KS When we did Go Forth in Rwanda, it was a homecoming of sorts. Go Forth was built after I lost my father, who’s Rwandese. The piece is about grief, ritualized burial traditions, and how we make space in our lives for the presence of the absent. So getting to perform it on the Genocide Memorial stage alongside the buried bodies of millions of my father’s countrymen was very moving.
The piece starts out with this really quiet monologue, this hymn of praise to the sun. The actor speaks softly into a microphone, and then eventually gets very loud. We were sitting in this thousand-seat amphitheater, and as this intimate, quiet moment began, there was chatter all around. People in the audience were talking to each other and shifting about. I was like, Oh shit, how could I have pissed people off already? Then I realized they thought the microphone wasn’t working. I was operating with all of this delicacy around the performers interaction with a mic, but in this space delicacy was registering as a malfunction.
I was building this piece about the intimacy between black people and death and global traditions of mourning, integrating rituals from Niger with various sculptural traditions from the continent and black folks in the US. Despite all of this, the work is still fundamentally rooted in the assumption that the lights and power are going to be consistent.
CM So there’s one section of Go Forth that deals with humor—particularly sex and death in relationship to comedy. I remember in Cairo a young Egyptian actor told us what was acceptable to the majority of the theatergoing audience there, whom we assumed to be fairly conservative. But you integrated this and found a way to spin his particular skills, talents, and predilections into the work. How were you able to do this, given that you don’t speak any Arabic?
KS Yeah, that was delightful. The story of the woman sticking her hands down a man’s pants was absolutely unacceptable—couldn’t do it. But the one involving sex with kittens that were on fire was fine. That was the first time I had the chance to direct someone in a language I don’t know. I’m still geeking out on that. The way things switched between formal and informal Arabic was legible within the performance and became a material with which to build. I could hear and adjust the actor’s approach to the text, his vocal texture, his angle on words, all without speaking the language. That felt like magic to me, like the stuff of dreams, and that’s the reason why I love working in this medium. Performance as a material itself is so intoxicating because it’s this language that’s with all of us all the time.
CM It seems the world is catching up with this idea of performance being one of our universal art forms—as museums all have dedicated departments for it now. What’s the difference between performance in theaters and performance in museums?
KS Sometimes it feels like performances in museum spaces are primarily in conversation with the history of visual art, rather than the art history of performance traditions. But what’s exciting to me are the particular ways people move through that space, within that architecture. There’s this constant watching and consuming of ideas in the museum. It’s such a rich environment, though sometimes it seems like there’s a desire for the performance to exist on a pedestal or hang on the wall.
CM So, you don’t like the objectification of performance?
KS I’m not even sure performance can be made into an object at all. It disappears. Isn’t that the glory of it?
Christopher Myers is an artist and writer who lives in New York. While he is widely acclaimed for his work with literature for young people, he is also an accomplished fine artist who has lectured and exhibited internationally. Myers has curated shows in Vietnam, designed theater that has travelled from PS122 in New York City to the Genocide Memorial Theater in Kigali, Rwanda, and collaborated with Hank Willis Thomas on the short film Am I Going Too Fast which premiered at Sundance.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.