Streaker With Purpose: Pondering Black Identity

Dean Moss Program, Part of Parallels at Danspace Project


Published: February 20, 2012

What Ishmael Houston-Jones said in a recent interview that he was most fearful might happen, happened: Ann Liv Young showed up in blackface.

As part of the Parallels series focusing on the notion of black dance and organized chiefly by Mr. Houston-Jones, Danspace Project hosted a sold-out program on Saturday evening with a tantalizing concept. In “Black Dance,” conceived by Dean Moss, three artists were selected for their nonconformity rather than their ethnicity. Mr. Moss explained it this way in a program note about his choices, Pedro Jiménez, Young Jean Lee and Ms. Young: “None of them are African-American, but all of them are Black.”

Mr. Moss’s consideration of black dance is a metaphorical one. How does black identity embrace the quality of otherness, and what does that produce in terms of art?

Ms. Lee’s “Hitting Video” from “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” opened the program. In that 2006 work she layered stereotypes of Korean identity with the faltering relationship of a white couple. The video, directed by Mr. Moss, who is also a choreographer and media artist, shows Ms. Lee’s reaction to being hit repeatedly. Ms. Lee fit the evening’s theme, but the video selection, out of context, didn’t penetrate deeply enough.

As Mr. Jiménez’s “SNooopy” began, sound dominated: in the darkness stomping footsteps, increasingly heavy, filled the space. Suddenly the lights came on, blindingly bright, and Mr. Jiménez, naked and holding a yellow flag, ran in circles around the stage with a maniacal grin and his tongue hanging out.

It was a brief yet chilling appetizer to Ms. Young’s boisterous “Sherry Show,” one of her ever-evolving performance pieces in which she plays with the vulnerabilities of individuals in a room to reveal something real. Sherry is Ms. Young’s alter ego: part Southern preacher, part drag queen, part therapist. She’s also an incredible work of art that fosters as much devotion as abhorrence.

In a fuchsia dress, an Afro wig and blackface (with wrists peeking out between sleeves and black gloves) Ms. Young announced, “I have been waiting my entire life for this night.” You could sense that she was searching for bait in the crowd. “I am doing something here tonight that could be offensive, right? Cause look, you can wipe this off.” She swiped her face. “I am very white underneath.”

It’s never good to be less than truthful under her gaze. “Are you gay?” she asked an audience member. “Good for you. Gay is like being black in some ways.”

The performance, which included Ms. Young’s rendition of songs by T. I. and Lionel Richie, became heated when a woman asked her to talk about the history of minstrelsy. “Why do you say that as if you’re attacking me?” Ms. Young asked, later adding, “Sometimes we know the answers to questions that we ask.”

But really it was as if she had been waiting for the question all night. People who are too obvious or too knowing fare poorly at her shows: That’s the risk you take when you argue with a character. Sherry always emerges unscathed.

Pedro Jiménez in “SNooopy”