“Shall I tell you something?” asked Pinocchio, who was beginning to lose patience. “Of all the trades in the world, there is only one that really suits me.”
“And what can that be?”
“That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering around from morning till night.”
“Let me tell you, for your own good, Pinocchio,” said the Talking Cricket in his calm voice, “that those who follow that trade always end up in the hospital or in prison.” — Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio
On the surface, Kyle Abraham’s new dance work at On the Boards, Live! The Realest MC, seems to be about gay issues. It is a queer retelling of The Adventures of Pinocchio. Certainly that is the way it’s presented in the press, likely because gay issues are currently chic for both liberals and conservatives to discuss as though they actually have an opinion on the matter. It is easy therefore for people sympathetic to the thème du jour to view every gay artist as always treating gay issues directly. The reality, however, is more complex. Live! The Realest MC is as much about how sex roles and gender and homosexuality are framed largely by the context of race as it is about individual struggle and acceptance. This brings up other questions of race, of course, but in ways that most of the critics of dance and theater–who tend to be white and largely bourgeois–do not care to grasp because such a discussion, too, would prove reality more complex than currently fashionable when it seems much easier a trope to reduce it to psychodrama.
What makes Black folks “Black”? Are there degrees of “Blackness”? Is my sister less Black than yours because her hair happens to be wavy instead of curly without the use of lye relaxers? Am I less Black than you because I prefer Ornette Coleman to Nicki Minaj? Am I not Black enough because I actually like to read and not only read Black authors? Am I not Black at all because I think August Wilson is a marginally talented, middle-of-the-road writer and I would rather play soccer than basketball?
If you are a stereotypical white male or female, you’ve probably never asked yourself such questions. Caucasian men and women rarely have discussions about what makes them white, and rarely have posturing matches whose entire purpose is to prove their own street cred as white folks. Black men and women on the other hand must and do hold these discussions virtually every week. As Gil Scott-Heron wrote:
We deal in too many externals, brother.
Always afros, handshakes, and dashikis.
Behind all these discussions is that there is a streak of essentialism, a belief there is some “essence of Blackness” under the control of a small, unknown and invisible cabal who pass down their laws to the laity from on high. What “Black women” should do with their hair. What “Black men” really want. What “Black people” really wear. While it’s true that other men and women hold these discussions, however less frequently, they also may rest secure in the knowledge that if they don’t happen to fit the stereotype they are nevertheless men, nevertheless women–they are just “weird” or “eccentric” or some other quaint adjective. In the world of Blacker-than-thou discussion, not to conform to type is more serious than to be merely “weird,” it is to be “not Black.” Posturing in various ways is a vital social more for Blacks. I am, for instance, posturing right now: deliberately using the word “Black” when I know there are those who will insist the correct term is “African American,” and still those others will argue the term should be hyphenated. And this will locate me and my words somewhere on that essentialist scale of “how Black” the author is.
The brilliance of Kyle Abraham’s work is that it converts this metaphorical posturing into physical, kinetic form. It isn’t that he deals with homosexuality as such that is the heart of his piece but that it deals with Black homosexuality. Homosexuality in the Black community has many added layers of connotation that many Black men still cannot discuss–especially in the world of hip-hop, where the fear of queer is rampant. One need not dig too far into the hip-hop library to prove the point. But even the brightest Black intellectuals, who should know better fall prey to it as a matter of course. Witness Amiri Baraka on the subject:
Amiri Baraka: The use of the term faggot, although obviously it’s derived from homosexuality, from homosexuals, was not meant in the black community simply as “homosexual.” It meant, essentially, a weak person, you know, somebody who could not do what they were supposed to do. That’s what it really meant.
D.H. Melhem: You’re saying you absorbed this.
Baraka: Oh, sure. So that a lot of times, calling people “faggots” did not mean specifically that it had to do with homosexuality. It had to do with a question of weakness, although obviously it is taken from that and as such still is a kind of what you call it…attack. (Amiri Baraka, “Revolution: The Constancy of Change,” an interview with D.H. Melhem, 1981)
In a community like the Black community that values strength and prowess quite often above all else–witness the worship of entertainers and sports figures on Black History Month calendars, or listen to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. talk about his rapturous admiration for that incredibly swell guy, Mike Tyson–being a faggot is a sort of living death sentence. A Black male who is a faggot is not only weak and “unable to do what they are supposed to do” and in need of daily beatings to toughen him up, he is also fundamentally “not Black” in many ways.
Mr. Abraham’s work makes this pellucidly clear throughout. While many dance writers apparently wish to reduce the show to being all about one subject, it operates on numerous levels throughout. Within the show are females and males who all have something to live up to. I have found that in all the writing about Mr. Abraham’s piece, for instance, not a single writer has mentioned the presence, role or purpose of a decidedly not Black woman on stage as if somehow the choice were pure happenstance. Other than being a very fine dancer, Rachelle Rafailedes also serves another function on stage. She serves to ground the explorations of race and gender in what is allegedly a dominant cultural norm. She is beautiful–not unlike most images of beauty to whom Black women compare themselves impossibly every day, and not unlike that other trite Black male fantasy of the beautiful White woman to conquer and subdue. But she is just as trapped by this image of beauty as anyone. Her movements often fold in on themselves, incapable of really turning outward, as her character, too, must live with her introspection of what it means to be treated as a surrogate toy, a doll in hot pants onto whom the rest project their desires, fears and anger.
Too, Elyse Morris, Rena Butler and Brittanie Brown are dressed to represent three very different kinds of Black woman. Certainly they’ve all had discussions about straight vs. nappy hair in their lives–every Black woman has, I think–and they serve as something like a variation on Nina Simone’s “Four Women” with their various hairstyles, various levels of “thugginess” and various levels of “femininity.” It is highly significant to me that when one of the male dancers finally moves to put the mack on one of the female dancers, he chooses the one with the least feminine appearance who is herself trying to find the box that she fits into. The male dancer accuses her of frontin’, of course, because anyone who doesn’t fall for the tough male come-on is surely queer or “funny.”
Mr. Abrahams explores all these aspects of race, gender, sexuality and their nexus by proving that all of these labels are just that: labels. They have little bearing on actual reality. His most deft demolition of these notions comes when he projects the notorious Dena Rizzo video, “This is Hip-Hop” on the rear screen and shows two Black male dancers learning how to be hip-hop from a middle-aged white chick from Louisiana. On the surface it’s comic. But there is a dagger in the laughter: in truth, the words in the video are no less silly when they’re said by posturing young Black males, or by millionaire artists talking about riding in their Bentleys sipping Courvoisier while “keeping it real.” Mr. Abrahams simply applies the reductio ad absurdum to it. The pose, the posture can be taught, not only to Black males but to anyone–and define them equally, which is to say barely at all.
Many people including Mr. Abraham himself refer to the Pinocchio story at the core of the dance. Forgotten in all the references to Pinocchio as a marionette who wants to be a real boy is that the story extends well beyond the Walt Disney version. In fact, the main premise of Carlo Collodi’s story is not that the marionette wants to be a boy, but rather that the marionette is already alive, as it is carved from wood with a living spirit; the boy exists already, within the marionette. Pinocchio becomes a real boy when he leaves behind his marionette self. Similarly, the characters Mr. Abraham has drawn on stage do not need to become anything: they are already who they are. They simply need to free themselves of all the social expectations that make them marionettes, controlled by unseen hands by that same cabal who passes the laws on What Real (Black) People Do.
In Live! The Realest MC, the character becomes “The Realest” by turning his pain into a shout in one of the most emotionally powerful scenes of the evening. I’m not convinced it’s always quite so easy. Becoming “The Realest” is a legend in Black America, where expectations are that Black men “make it in the world” by throwing a ball, or having a rap career. Other options are limited. But as Murs would put it
Contrary to what the legendary B.I.G. had to say
You don’t have to sell drugs or make the NBA
It’s easy to get a grant and get an MBA
To achieve these goals there’s more than one way
Black people on the whole we have lost our way
That is exactly what Pinocchio fails to understand and exactly what keeps him from being a real boy. He has no goals, no duties, no meaning and consequently remains constantly manipulated by those around him and their views of what is valuable and what is important while ignoring all advice that would set him on a path of real work, valuable work. In so many ways Pinocchio’s plight is the plight of many Black males. They often only wish to engage in that trade of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering around from morning till night–just look at your favorite hip-hop artists and how often the ultimate goal is simply one of material luxury. As the Talking Cricket suggests to Pinocchio, such (Black) men often reach the age of 30 and note that all their friends are either dead or in prison: they have skipped the Cricket’s hospital and gone straight to the mortician.
Pinocchio spent most of his marionette life screwing up, searching for easy luxury. Such are the problems when “keeping it real,” as the cliché goes. But the realest MC is, above all, a master of ceremonies, particularly the ceremonies of his own life. That, I think, is Mr. Abraham’s primary message. It is difficult to be real and with being real comes great pain. Being an African American means walking a difficult path. Seize your identity and accept it. Make your contribution, whatever it is, through honest work. Do not let others hold you down or define who you are. Drop the posture and find the poise behind it all. The wood out of which Black people are carved hides a beautiful spirit, a real spirit; if only one will let it become flesh and leave the dull wood behind, one can be as real as The Realest MC.
Is it enough? No one knows. It is, however, worth a try, just as Mr. Abraham’s show is worth more thorough discussion than the superficial nonsense that has been thrown at it.