Staging Activism: New York City Performing Artists as Cultural Workers

Article excerpt

TO EXAMINE THE IMPACT OF ARTISTS AND CULTURAL WORKERS WHO ARE influencing social change, I might start by asking: What if as a middle-class, queer, white girl growing up in the United States, I had learned about the fluid and transformational nature of gender through creative, mind-provoking male cross-dressing performances? What if I had seen a Caribbean cultural activist talk to an audience about current events I never heard about on the 6:00 o'clock nightly news? What if I saw an out Argentine butch lesbian play a male monarch, commenting on social class, religion, and homophobia? How would my world have been shaped differently had I been exposed to performing artists such as Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, Imani Henry, and Susana Cook, whose performances and activism establish them as cultural workers?

Imani Henry, Susana Cook, and Diyaa MilDred Gerestant are performing artists based in New York City that produce original work addressing cultural themes related to sexual, gender, ethnic, and class identities. These three artists have been strongholds in many of New York City's alternative performance spaces, such as The Kitchen, La Mama, WOW Cafe Theater, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and Dixon Place, to name a few. In these spaces, audiences can anticipate thought-provoking work that often challenges established theater norms. Audiences comprised of social activists, gender and sexual minorities, outsiders, and people with low or fixed income are, unsurprisingly, drawn to the work of these artists since it reflects their worlds. These worlds are different from the typical upwardly mobile status quo that many mainstream performing arts programs and Broadway theater highlight in content and/or form. I will consider these three performing artists as activists and cultural workers who persistently create political work in an artistic environment where many cultural institutions and alternative arts spaces struggle to keep their leases and maintain low ticket prices.

The work of each artist/performer reveals their mulitiplicitous identities, and explores and gives voice to racial, national, class, gender, and sexual identities that are not the dominant norm in the U.S. Such intersections of multiple identities make their bodies of work unique and allow audience members who share those identities to see images of themselves that rarely get front and center stage. Moreover, the artists' positions as cultural workers allow them to bridge activist movements and communities that might not otherwise form alliances. Besides the creative work itself, their activism extends to the creative processes in their work, touring with their work, as well as other aspects of their lives.

Susana Cook, a self-avowed butch lesbian from Argentina, celebrates butch/ femme lesbian identities and exposes class structures that exclude the working class from resources and power. She plays male roles to reveal and dissect the incongruence and instability of masculine identities. Using humor and ironic representation, her performances challenge the status quo. Diyaa MilDred Gerestant, a Haitian-American, queer (1) performing artist, made her name as Drag King Dred. Her sophisticated blend of styles raised the bar of expectation and anticipation for drag king performances. She dons gender from many corners of the spectrum, creating confusion in often unsuspecting audiences who are not keen to drag. Gerestant educates her audiences by elucidating her own potential to unmask gender and has begun to produce full-length plays that explore her own personal transformational path through gender, drag king performance, and spirituality. Imani Henry identifies as a queer, Caribbean, female-to-male transsexual activist and creates characters that express masculine gender identities in his plays, ranging from butch women to playing himself. He does not use gender in a playful way, as Gerestant or other drag kings might, but rather explores real stories through characterization. …

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