(on behalf of Peter Rachleff, Professor of History at Macalester College in St Paul)
I was deeply moved, to think and to feel, by this piece. Thank you all, the artists, the Walker, for making this piece possible. There is much to say, but, for now, I want to explore one theme — what I choose to call the “politics of representation.” This is a topic I teach and talk a lot about, particularly the ways that our culture has asked/compelled/paid/rewarded people of color to “act” for “the rest of us,” we who are members of that dominant culture. Slaves were compelled to sing and dance, to “perform happiness,” as Saidiya Hartmann writes in SCENES OF SUBJECTION, so that their owners and other white people might feel themselves to be “good” people, despite their heinous acts. Slave women were compelled to provide young white men with their first sexual experiences, and then to carry the burden of being condemned as “jezebels” as a regime of rape and sexual abuse grew along with tobacco and cotton. As minstrelsy, the creation of white northerners, grew into American culture’s first form of commercial entertainment, white performers and audiences projected their fears and fantasies onto black bodies, cross-dressed and transgressed, worked out their “issues” with discipline and repression, and found ways to fit into the ever-narrower slots that capitalism had to offer. Thank you Eric Lott (LOVE AND THEFT) for these insights. These patterns and practices have persisted, evolved, and persisted, down to the present day (so painfully depicted in Spike Lee‘s “Bamboozled“). And, like a cancer, these practices have spread outwards, so that our culture of commodification and spectatorship expects these services from all performers, not just (though, still, perhaps, especially — see “Scottsboro Boys“) the women and men of color we buy tickets to watch. In “How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?” Ralph Lemon and Company refuse to provide us, their audiences, with such services. They ask us to be “witnesses” rather than “spectators,” and to think about the differences in those roles. They “play” themselves, in front of us, and ask us to feel what we feel, as we contemplate what they feel, how their bodies move, what sounds they make. They provoke us rather than gratify us. If we are uncomfortable, uneasy, sad, they ask us to notice those feelings rather than run away from them. This alone makes “How Can You Stay in the House?” an all too rare cultural work. But there is more. Ralph suggests, at several points, that their work is the product of “reduction,” which I now understand as more akin to cooking (the boiling down of a liquid into thicker, richer, more essential ingredients, a concentration) than to diminishing size (like losing weight or getting a bargain at the store). Ralph suggests that he and the dancers are a “reduction” of Walter and Edna, of Ralph and Asako, perhaps of all of us in the audience. They are not “representing” us; they are not standing in for us; they are not our surrogates. They have concentrated our experiences, our feelings, our energies, and, in and through their own energies and movements, they are expressing and honoring them. I am intrigued by the possibilities opened up by thinking about replacing the practices of “representation” with practices of “reduction.” And I am happy to think more about this…
About Peter Rachleff:
Peter Rachleff conducts research in U.S. labor, immigration and African American history. He teaches courses in these areas, as well as theme-focused courses between the Civil War and World War II. Rachleff has tied much of his teaching and service to interdisciplinary programs, such as Urban Studies, African American Studies, Comparative North American Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Active in the community around Macalester, from the Minnesota Historical Society to the labor movement, he is a frequent sponsor of internships and student research projects. Rachleff has been teaching at Macalester since 1982.