Indecent roots

Graphic by Haewon Ma

At 10 o’clock on Tues., Nov. 8, the country found itself glued to TV screens and Internet streams. The election had taken center stage, and it looked tighter than many of us had dared to imagine. But for the Democrats among us, hope remained: a long night lay ahead, and the Republican presidential candidate at least still looked like a buffoon. It was easy to see him as part of a piece of political theater that would soon reach the end of its run. How could he win? Still, we anxiously waited on results from Detroit, from Broward County, from Fairfax.

On another stage, a very different form of theater had begun to play out. F*cking Decent, a Theater Studies thesis conceived and directed by Eliana Kwartler, SM ’17, was in its final days of rehearsals, and at this moment, Emma Speer, BK ’17, the sole performer of this one-woman show, had just taken the stage, looking forward, along with the others in the theater, to celebrating an assured Clinton victory. By the time the rehearsal was over, the unthinkable demanded recognition. A Trump victory had become the likely outcome. All of a sudden, the piece took on new meaning. It dawned on Kwartler, “this is not history, this is what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

F*cking Decent revolves around the story of four solo performance artists (Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller) singled out by Republican legislators for having used funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to create “obscene” works of art. These artists, once linked only by a shared performance format and a penchant for pushing the boundaries, came to be known as the NEA Four. The resulting controversy led the NEA to revoke their funding and Congress to pass the so-called “decency clause.” In theory, the new regulation would prevent the NEA from supporting a work that might offend the sensibilities of the taxpayers whose dollars it depended on. In practice, the ambiguously worded clause amounted to a discriminatory restriction against any sympathetic portrayal of life outside the American sexual mainstream. Hughes’s work, for example, concerns her sexual empowerment, lesbian identity, and close relationship with her mother, who, in a scene performed in the show, gives her a lesson in female anatomy.

“Try as much as you can to play this moment with a sense of wonder. It will probably come off as incest. There’s nothing you can do,” Hughes warns in the stage directions.

The NEA controversy raised issues of censorship, of mainstream rejection of marginalized experience, and of white conservative backlash against progressive values. Its leader in the Senate, Jesse Helms, had risen to power in 1972 on a wave of white resentment and fear following the turbulence of the previous decade. He triumphed, in part, due to a campaign slogan that implicitly cast doubt on the American-ness of his opponent (who had a Greek name): “Jesse Helms: He’s one of us.” The election cycle that put him in office also saw Richard Nixon capture 96.7% of Electoral College votes, continuing his call for “law and order,” a racially charged phrase that may sound familiar.

Kwartler’s production sought to revitalize this history. Between excerpts from the artists’ work, performed by Speer, audio clips of the testimony against them brought Helms and other moralizing critics, many of whom had never actually seen the works, into the theater.

“I was really interested in what happens when you put both stories—the stories of the actual performances and the stories of what was being said [about them]—in the same performance space and force people to confront both at the same time,” Kwartler said.

The project took seven months to come to fruition, with rehearsals starting in late August. The key to its success was its unabashed star. “As you probably could guess, I have no qualms with anything,” Speer said in the first few moments of our interview. Kwartler reflected on how lucky she was to have found such a performer, given the requirements of the subject material. Speer first walks on stage completely undressed, setting the bar for a performance in which she has simulated sex with a cardboard cutout shaped like the state of California and buries her nude body in a pile of dirt, among other acts.

It’s easy to take these moments out of context, to write about them as if, in isolation, they accurately characterize the pieces in which they appear. But this is precisely the approach that allowed legislators to fashion the works into political weaponry aimed at their creators. By focusing on the acts and not their meaning within the works, the moral critics opened up a rhetorical space to make whole identities represented by those works invisible through censorship. To bring this point into the present day, Kwartler and her production team decided to replace the final clip of audio. The President-elect’s voice, recorded at a campaign rally, rings throughout the theater with the same bite as Jesse Helms, yelling for Speer to leave. And she does. Kwartler’s work thus sounds a warning.  

“There’s a Gertrude Stein quote,” Kwartler said. “She’s like, ‘Here’s the thing that History teaches. History teaches.’”

Recently, the problem with history has been that it won’t stay in the past. But if bigotry persists, so too does resistance. Speer, in the final scene, reclaims her place in the American soil. After leaving the stage in response to shouted instructions from the President-elect, Speer returns with a tarp of dirt. “I will plant myself in this world,” she repeats as the lights dim. If we are to weather this storm, we would do well to put down roots like hers.

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