My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Ralph Lemon—a duende with duende. He is a duende in the sense of that mischievous mythical creature of Spanish lore—an impish and magical provocateur. He knows that the difference between artistic disciplines is that there’s no difference between artistic disciplines. He zips audaciously through and past the dance world, onto which most people would like to staple him, into visual art—drawing, photography, video—and winds up making books. In just the last year and a half, he has toured the country with an exploration of “excessive public mourning” called How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?; exhibited 1856 Cessna Road, an installation of video and photographs based on his collaboration with the late Walter Carter, a black centenarian of Yazoo City, Mississippi, at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and presented an all-day performance installation as part ofParallels at Danspace Project, a 12-hour response to his part in a 1982 series of black choreography curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones.
Ralph has duende in the sense that García Lorca describes it; he’s led along by some ineffable changeling, part muse and part devil, who helps him destroy confines, in his case usually the false border between spectating and experience. As García Lorca puts it, “The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.” While many presumed, because of its BAM premiere, that How Can You Stay was a “dance piece,” here’s some of what they actually experienced:
1. A long, seated monologue by Lemon, accompanied by a video montage about Walter Carter, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, a dance called Ecstasy, and the loss of Lemon’s longtime partner to cancer, parts of which were invented.
2. Ten minutes of sobbing by Okwui Okpokwasili—authentic tears, says Lemon.
3. A foray into dancer stamina (and by extension, unfair labor practices) called “Wall/Hole”—20 minutes of intense physical improv along predetermined guidelines by a group of black performers.
To some, this fare may have seemed artless, but Ralph sees artistic practice almost like a Zen koan. The less we see performance behaving like performance, encouraging us to separate ourselves from what we see in front of us, the better. His answer to the question, “What is art?” could very well be, “Mu!”
In a wonderfully appropriate gaffe, Ralph and I spoke for two hours at the Park Avenue Armory, where he’s in residency developing new work, not realizing that the recorder had stopped two minutes into the conversation. Was it a mistake? Or was it a duende, reminding us that life is the real interview? Later that week, we reconvened and tried to reenact some of what we’d touched on previously without feeling the pressure of history at our necks. This may or may not be the superior conversation; it is certainly the definitive one.
— James Hannaham
Ralph Lemon Why don’t we explain that a couple of days ago we talked for two hours and the tape recorder didn’t work.
James Hannaham No one has this conversation but us. Which I think is weirdly appropriate. The Ralph Lemon Archive—
RL —Oh my God, it’s a mess.
JH It’s much more vast than anything that winds up in a show. Yet the archive is as much a part of your work as what you end up showing to people.
RL I do a number of things, and they all are interrelated. There’s no hierarchy. They all feel quite organic and there’s fluidity to them. It’s all kind of the same thing. It’s a practice: a need to imagine and to give some kind of form to that.
But perhaps I am completely romanticizing this idea of process and form? There’s that wonderful Virilio text, “the pursuit of form is only a technical pursuit of time.” Ultimately, my practice is about time and how memory plays into that, and how we think about the future and present time, and how that’s all kind of dictated by the society we live in—the community and our place in it, what people need from us and what we need from them. I feel like I could play this game eternally and everything would be fine. These days I don’t think so much about if it’s a good work or a bad work, but rather, Have I been satisfied? Have I articulated this thing as best I can?
JH Yeah. Can you tell me about that in relationship to specific things you’ve done in the recent past, for instance, with Walter Carter?
RL Well, the exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem is the last thing we did together, you know, after eight years of a lot of stuff that no one’s ever going to see. A lot of really beautiful, private play between Walter and me, his family members and me. It’s been coming along for many years. But this particular sharing of work has reached a place where it feels kind of complete. And maybe that’s obvious because there’s no more work with Walter. He passed away, so it has to be complete—the material body of it, the photographs, the narrative of the video. I’m very satisfied with that work and it feels like it’s honoring him and that relationship. I don’t have that relationship anymore. Now it’s just material. I’ll continue to work on a project with Edna, Walter’s wife. So the story goes on, but without Walter.
JH Remind me again how you met him. Though I haven’t actually forgotten, it’s just on the lost tape.
RL (laughter) I was doing some research in a little town in the Mississippi Delta called Bentonia, at a juke joint called the Blue Front Café. And the owner, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, asked if I wanted to meet the oldest man in Yazoo City, Mississippi, which is right next door to Bentonia. I was researching, so of course I said yes. The next day we drove to his house, picked Walter up, and brought him back to the Blue Front, where he and I sat for hours and just talked. Here is this close to hundred-year-old black man, who lived in the Delta all his life in this particular little town. He had witnessed everything I had romanticized that had ever happened in the South to black people—a lot of beauty, hard work, and abominable racism. He witnessed a lynching when he was a little boy. The story goes that a black man had been covertly dating a white woman; it was consensual and not a rape.
RL The early-20th-century, backwoods Mississippi dating, where the white woman lets you into her house and you get caught. And they hung this man from a tree—not any tree, but the favorite climbing tree for the town’s little black kids, just to send them a message. They left him there for days, until a white woman in a little horse-drawn buggy was driving down the road and, outraged, asked the blacks in the township to take the body down. Walter’s comment at the end of this story was, “Damn, man. We weren’t able to play in that tree again.”
JH Oh God.
RL But Walter told that tale without a whole lot of rage, not that the rage is not there, of course. I barely got to the surface of this, but there’s a kind of rage of black people of his generation in the Deep South that’s very complex. Things like that lynching happened all the time. And you lived with that and then you found this other productive life that allowed you to be a human being.
RL And in Walter’s case, eventually performing, sort of, in a video about some fake intergalactic travel, spaceship and all. Walter was maybe one of the lucky ones, without taking away any of the horror he grew up with.
JH Well, as human beings we react the way we react, not so much according to stereotype, or “keeping it real” self-stereotyping—whichever term you want to use. There are all sorts of cultural activities we think of as acceptable for black people—and then as soon as anybody goes outside those things, everyone begins to question the truth of their identity. As if they know! Things like playing basketball. That’s acceptable as black, even though it was invented by a white man. But hockey is not as acceptable for a black man.
RL But I would think a black man being interested in hockey is nicely abstract, curiously compelling. And there are some black hockey players.
JH Well, yeah, there are always pioneers who go out and change that dynamic, like the Williams sisters. I don’t know how much blacker they’ve made tennis, but they certainly haven’t made it less black.
RL They weren’t the ones who began the grunting?
JH Isn’t that Monica Seles who does the grunting?
RL Monica Seles. Right.
JH I’m glad that black women weren’t the first to do the grunting.
RL Yeah, the Williams sisters have expanded the boundaries of blackness a bit.
JH Can water polo be far off? You just reminded me of one of my favorite moments with you, which was during The Kitchen showing of early workshop material for Come Home Charley Patton, during the talkback, when Bill T. Jones got up and said, “I think I get it. I think it’s ‘Free at Last! Free at Last!’” I loved that moment! He seemed to be talking about the message of the work and its doing exactly the sort of thing I was talking about before—looking outside conventional notions of what is acceptable for a black artist. And just having a sense of entitlement about the world, like being able to look at, say, Eastern European culture and say, “That’s black.” Or to look at Tarkovsky, and say, “That’s black.”
RL And Neil Young is black, and everyone in that room watching was black.
JH Bruce Nauman is black.
RL Bruce Nauman is black, for sure. “’Cause I say so.” (laughter) I do feel entitlement to play with everything that comes my way, without trying to damage or destroy or dishonor something. I wanna play with it. But it’s more often than not that I’m playing with it racially, because I’m black. I’m an American and I’m black, and that’s part of my reality.
It’s interesting to think about when identity politics are useful and when they’re limiting.
JH Yeah, I’ve always had this difficulty; it’s hard to articulate because the party line is just so strong.
RL I feel like I have taken advantage of being black. There’s a lot of useful profiling that goes on.
JH Useful profiling?!
RL Yeah, I happen to be the one they’ve been aesthetically profiling, and it’s been useful to me.
JH Okay. Can you give me an example of that? With the Trayvon Martin case still fresh in people’s minds, among other events, it’s hard to see profiling as anything but the worst thing that could happen.
RL This is nothing against the people who support my work, but I feel like the support is coming through the lens that I’m black. And that’s reality, right? I mean, that’s who I am, and that’s who I’m being seen as, and presented as, and supported as. For many years, I had a contemporary dance company and my collaborators were primarily white performers. And I loved working in that community, that container. I didn’t disband the company because it was or wasn’t racialized. I wasn’t thinking about it. It just sort of dissipated. That company model had finished its work. Then I started The Geography Trilogy, where I began working with young black male performers from the west coast of Africa: Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea. These were collaborators who happened to be wildly more foreign and unknown to me, my culture, than all the white dancers/performers/friends with whom I had worked before. And then I got more support than I ever dreamed of getting. I feel like it was because I had constituted something that was identifiable to a large audience.
JH Or that was more easily readable. Not, “Why is this black man doing these dances with these white people?” It’s like, “He’s being honest about who he is.”
RL Or just more culturally comprehensible in how we are a racial culture because, you know, that’s just the way it is. By the time we got to Come Home Charley Patton, I felt like, Okay, this is happening. Now I’m gonna fuck with it. So I’m gonna make a work that is absolutely about modern black people.
JH Ultimately, I think that’s a more powerful way to make a statement anyway. People have asked me, “Why are the people in your stories always black?” And I say, “Well, it’s about hiring practices.” I just don’t think there are enough stories out there about black people. And I happen to be someone who can write some of them, and that’s a limitation I’m willing to deal with, though I don’t really think of it as a limitation, necessarily. I write about whomever I want to. I’m just more interested in black people as protagonists because I don’t see enough of that. I don’t even go to the movies so much anymore. I guess I can go see Tyler Perry movies, but it’s rare when there’s a movie that I’m like, Wow! That’s for me! And it’s not just because I’m black. It’s just that the movies are so white. (laughter)
JH If there were more movies that had mixed-race casts, or that reflected the reality I see every day. That’s what I crave rather than these Anglophile pageants about British royalty or British monarchy or British scones … or J. Edgar Hoover. It’s like, Oh! It’s about horrible conservative politicians. I think I’ll go home to Netflix and rent a Korean movie. Which is what I do, actually.
RL We’re both waiting for a James Baldwin movie. Where is it? (laughter) In some of my more recent work, it’s just the black body on stage, or the black body in a photograph, or on video. There’s a part of me that thinks, looking at that visually, I don’t see enough of it. Or I haven’t. So that’s the material I’ve been interested in working with, and I don’t feel it’s limited. It’s just my black period, or something. Or that was my black period.
There’s been something very comforting about being in a room with only black collaborators. It changes the way I talk, the way I laugh, and the way I think about things, even though these collaborators aren’t family. There’s an idea or a mythology that we share something. Actually, we could be as different as night and day, but we all agree to accept the idea of the comfort zone that we’re inhabiting.
JH There’s an artistic mindset. Or there’s an artistic way of life that people subscribe to, particularly in downtown New York. I was in LA last year, and I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in a long time who used to do downtown theater and who’s now writing for a television show. We started reminiscing about all these old-school downtown groups—Tiny Mythic Theater Company, Cucaracha, Premium Bob. And somebody from the group he was with entered the conversation and asked us how we knew each other. I said, “We used to be in the same tribe.” That really captured it for me. Maybe I don’t want to say too much about tribes or tribalism in this context, but it’s not just that you’re working with black people; you’re working with black people of a particular stripe, right?
RL Yeah, who speak a similar Western language about artmaking, so they’re already black outsiders, or marked as contemporary, modern black people.
JH Yes, but they also have within them a critique of that, a kind of irony.
RL They have some history in postmodernism, for better or for worse. They know how they’re situated within the politics of race right now, which I think is fantastic. They want to play around with it. It’s very advanced. But, you know, Du Bois was talking about this a long time ago, how complex and modern black people had to be in America.
JH They’re not afraid to incite rioting—well, metaphorically at least. This conversation used to come up a lot when I was doing performance, and at a certain point some of my friends and I had decided on the one thing that could get people to riot, if you put it onstage: live child molestation, like, without any sort of fourth-wall notion that it’s not real. There was a Thomas Bradshaw play that tried to come close, but, you know, if they had cast a child in the role that was played by an obviously overage person, that might have caused a riot.
RL There’s a hilarious scene in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno where they’re doing one of those caged wrestling fights, and they’re somewhere in rural America, and he and his fake lover start kissing, and there was a riot. People were screaming and throwing chairs. But, you know, with How Can You Stay in the House All Day, Okwui [Okpokwasili] is crying for ten minutes. For the first time in my performance artmaking, I had a reliable point in time when lots of people were walking out. It wasn’t a riot, but it was interesting. I wasn’t prepared for that.
JH Why do you think they were walking out at that point, as opposed to some other point in the show?
RL A woman wailing onstage—or sometimes you just hear her crying offstage—with nothing else going on, it’s a lot.
JH But do you think it was overpowering for people or were they bored? It’s not really for you to say, I guess.
RL I think that they were annoyed. That’s how I would interpret it.
JH I remember thinking, It’s hard not to go help.
RL Well, there was that. But no one ever came onstage to help her. You know, we toured it to a few places, and that never happened. I heard it many, many times. “I wanted to go onstage and help her.” But no one did. In some places, I had my stage manager count the people who walked out. I was trying to collect some empirical evidence, because it was so interesting to me. So I kept a list and what we found is that young people would not walk out but pulled out their cell phones. That was their way of exiting. (in a nasal voice) “Yeah, she’s just crying … I don’t know when it’s going to be over.”
JH Here’s another rioting kind of moment. There’s a long, extraordinarily uncomfortable sequence in an Edward Bond play called Saved that was staged, I think, ten years ago: a group of thugs stoning an infant in a baby carriage to death. The way it was directed—it was done really carefully—was so disturbing and brutal. If people were willing to sit still for that, it’s surprising to me that they walk out when Okwui’s crying for ten minutes.
RL On some level, they know it’s not really happening, right? And they paid for their ticket to be there, so there’s also that “I’m gonna get my money’s worth, unless you really, really, really annoy me.” It’s about one’s tolerance for being a spectator to the pain of others, even if it’s fictionalized. Although I’m constantly reminded of the Colosseum, the earliest theater, where Christians were being publicly—
RL Murder and death was entertainment. And that’s what you went to see. So we have that capacity, historically.
JH There were other things about How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? which could annoy people.
RL Yeah, the “Wall/Hole” dance was a 20-minute dance that I wish had been longer. It was a dance I tried to make by not trying to make it. I didn’t want it to be choreographed. I wanted it to be formless, and that would be its form. A moving, shapeless thing generated from the inside out, the dancers unmaking and making it themselves while I was just observing. None of that happened, but we came close to something like that, where the authorship was nicely confused. On the surface, it seemed to be about exhaustion, but I felt that the performers went beyond that, and found something else to inhabit, energetically and physically. For me, it was some kind of 21st-century trance: the modern, contemporary body, black bodies.
JH A kind of modern voodoo ritual?
RL No. It wasn’t about being ridden by a spirit.
JH Even your own?
RL I would say it was a kind of physical negotiation with one’s own spirit energy. It began with the physical body of these highly trained dancers, and then trying to find a way to exit that, as far as this is possible. I absolutely wanted to have something be that was kindly unwatchable. I say kindly because I wanted it watched.
JH Is that the concession you made by having trained dancers? They moved beautifully.
RL It’s a children’s dance, really, and I’d love to translate that onto the bodies of nine-, ten-, or eleven-year-olds. But it needed a kind of commitment that these mature, trained bodies gave it. It was absurd, what we were doing. The whole work, all of How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? was about a certain kind of aestheticized excess.
JH What is that?
RL The first part, “Sunshine Room,” was about excessive public mourning. The “Wall/Hole” dance was about the excessively energetic body. The crying was about the excess of that sound. And Okwui was really crying, there was a whole kind of preparation happening offstage—we had created a crying book for her, with deeply disturbing images of people suffering all over the world. Modern people, I might add. So she spent a good ten minutes getting ready. The real theater was happening offstage, watching her prepare and get ready to come onstage. It was genius—brutal, wild, ugly, delirious genius.
JH Have you documented that, or are you not going to show anybody ever?
RL I have some of it. I’ve shown a little bit, much to Okwui’s dismay. Then the last part—the duet with Okwui and me, when we’re not dancing. I’m sitting onstage twirling a sock around. It freaked people out that this is how the piece ends. I loved the whole work because it was all kinds of beautifully wrong. I also made the work I wanted to make.
JH What do you mean by that?
RL It’s not how I think an audience expects to be looking at a narrative work or at any kind of theater-dance story.
JH Like, we’re expecting a sort of arc. It’s a huge risk to take—the risk of turning the audience off.
RL Which the work did, in some respects. It certainly confused a lot of folk.
JH What would you say about that long piece of writing that you read at the beginning?
RL A confession, but not to be trusted. Babbling and negotiating with my need to mourn, but needing to obfuscate it, yet also needing to honor that this really happened. I was trying to find that equipoise.
JH Sounds like fiction to me.
RL Is that how you think of fiction?
JH To some degree. I really like to confuse.
RL I hated it. It was really painful because it felt so slippery.
JH I don’t think there’s a better way to deal with painful personal material right now, actually. There’s far too much unadulterated confessional in the arts, and it’s boring. A lot of people are fixated on wanting fiction to be real in some way. After readings, the first question usually is, “So, how much of your novel is true?” Why—all of it, and none of it. That’s the real answer, right? The reason I am writing fiction is so that I can tell the truth from a vantage point that allows me some space. I don’t get people asking me to elaborate on what exactly happened. I can play with that, and control it, rather than it controlling me. People frequently expect a first novel, especially a first novel by an African American, to be a thinly veiled autobiographical story. When I wrote God Says No, I wanted to fuck with that expectation a little bit. And get people to ask why they’re making that assumption. Is it that we feel gypped by fiction when it turns out that the author made most of it up?
JH That’s one impulse that causes people to want everything in a piece of fiction, which announces itself as untrue, to be real. It’s about that desire to make our fantasies come true. My book is about that, too, right? Gary Gray, the main character in God Says No, is really fascinated with Disney World, which is where the mainstream American imagination of itself, of its creativity, and of the future all meet in one place. And many of the employees are gay, but they don’t advertise that.
RL There’s some delight in our capacity for imagining, if one just leaves it in that open place. The idea of God is really about some kind of refraction of self. And then you have a community that makes it a lot more complex. You’ve got control, and more refinement of that particular belief system. But in the beginning, in a more spacious place, it’s just about that need to imagine something beyond just getting up and shitting and eating and getting sick and dying.
JH Well, I have wondered whether there’s a difference between the things that you’re talking about—the need for imagination and … I’m not going to articulate this very well, but … okay, every night we go to sleep and we reconnect with our imagination. It’s one of the only times when we are in direct contact with something infinite. How is that not a way of having a spiritual experience? Imagination, which is boundless, really, is the closest we’re going to get to a real communion with something a lot of people want to anthropomorphize or want to write stories about.
RL Or humanize.
JH Right, or bring it into the waking world. We’re in contact with it all the time, but we’re not realizing it.
RL And even then, even if it’s humanized, as in religion, there’s still that element of the infinite involved. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best and so beautifully: “All religions are the same at their edges, and at their edges there is love.”
JH And at the center, there’s violence.
JH (laughter) But he didn’t say that.
RL Still, there is at least a certain infinity about artistic practice, and maybe that, for me, is connected to that privacy part too that I so adore. As long as I have it in my little world and it’s not defined in the public sphere, it can stay infinite, because I don’t have to call it anything.
JH Like our last meeting that didn’t record.
RL That first discussion was kind of infinite, right? We talked about so many things. But it’s gone. What did we talk about? It’s a beautiful play of memory and stuff I don’t remember anymore.
JH And we can’t show it to anybody.
RL It can’t be transcribed. I can’t correct it and add stuff to it that I never said, like I did with this rendering.
JH We have to keep doing this every couple of days. It has to become a practice. It could be our black version of Wings of Desire. Like, Hot Wings of Desire.
James Hannaham, author of the novels Delicious Foods and God Says No, has published stories in One Story; Fence; Open City; and The Literary Review. A longtime contributor to the Village Voice and other publications, he also co-founded the theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service and worked with them until 2002. More recently, he has exhibited artwork at Samsøn Projects and Rosalux Gallery. He teaches creative writing at Pratt Institute and Columbia University.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.