These United States have never been united. Riven by racism, haunted by homophobia, policed by patriarchy and pervaded with violence, the divisive history of this country perpetually belies the unity it claims to represent. This tragic irony initially seemed the central message of the remarkable performance-based installation I witnessed in the cavernous (and un-air conditioned!) space above the Deadwood Tavern on the evening of June 18. Designed most urgently as a memorial for and testimony to the 49 people, mostly queer and Latinx, who were murdered at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, the performance also ensured that the audience didn’t forget the shameful legacy of genocidal violence of which that massacre was only the most recent, and by far not the “largest,” example. And yet the ultimate message, in the spirit of the celebratory events that preceded it during the Gay Pride parade earlier that day, was one of love, reconciliation and healing.
It would be impossible to summarize fully the experience of witnessing, and participating in, this remarkable performance event, but I want to follow one persistent image that, for me, distilled the political challenge it engaged. That is the image of the American flag. From the opening scene on the sidewalk, when Barber, body quavering and tears running down his cheeks, holding a cluster of cotton balls dyed red, white and blue, slowly approached Esther Baker-Tarpaga, in tight red shorts and red-, white- and blue-striped tube socks, the flag and its signature color scheme pervaded both the outfits and the sets. Duane Lee Holland, a dancer of remarkable talent and strength, sported flag-themed socks and a red, white and blue Stetson; Baker-Tarpaga donned and doffed American flags throughout the hour-long event; Barber, during the second part of the performance, stood in the corner of a smaller room to the rear of the building, legs apart with his back to the audience, vigorously waving an American flag; Courtney Jones, a brilliant trumpeter, played a panoply of patriotic standards throughout. The clearest message of this pervasive imagery felt obvious at first: America, bastion of white supremacy and cauldron of gun violence, is the perpetrator, the enemy. No one would pledge allegiance to that flag.
And yet, as the event unfolded, I realized that the United States, for all its liabilities, has also provided much of the language with which we express our hope for unity, equality and democracy. And while the love that Holland extolled us to embrace in his final eloquent speech was surely not (or not only) love of country, and the larger “we” that he invited us to join in the group’s final thanks to the audience is not (or at least not exclusively) a nation, American ideals and American identity nevertheless undergirded the entire experience. The question remains, as it has always been: “Can a country founded by genocide and built on violent oppression live up to its political ideals of justice and equality, ideals which continue to inspire our hope and love?” I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know I’m proud to be a citizen of a country in which art like this can be shared and discussed.
The residency that resulted in this service was commissioned by the Englert Theater. In addition to Baker-Tarpaga, a choreographer and performance artist based in Philadelphia; Barber, a recent graduate of UI’s illustrious Intermedia program; Holland, a dancer, choreographer, singer, actor and director recently appointed as the Boston Conservatory’s first faculty member specializing in hip-hop dance; and Jones, who is just finishing a stint as Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Voxman School of Music, the group included Raquel L. Monroe, a scholar, artist, and activist based in Chicago; Heidi Wiren Bartlett, a sculptor and performance artist based in Iowa City; and Adam Burke, a local videographer who recorded the entire event. And if you missed it, don’t worry — they’ll be back at the Englert in fall 2017.