Identity politics is perhaps one reason for Kathy Acker’s ambivalence towards feminism and this is thoroughly explored here in Belarus Free Theatre’s interpretation of her seminal short story New York City 1979 and then reimagined in the socialist dictatorship that is Belarus in their production Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker.
New York ’79, staged predominantly in a burlesque bar, explores, using the text as a guide, resisting traditional power structures while acknowledging the legitimacy of female heterosexual and heteronormative practises.
At one point the character of Janey repeats, as if talking to herself or as if being directed to do so by the audience, that she must “lick (Johnny’s) ear because that’s what there is” as if she is a prisoner to normal accepted sexual practises or because this is indeed, all that there is. At another point, when Janey and Johnny get together, their mutual orgasm is accompanied by the sounds of furtive excited notes played on toy saxophones.
Previously, we hear, in Kathy Acker’s words, that “Janey has to fuck. This is the way that sex drives Janey crazy.” Janey we learn, is “Want” personified and it becomes her identity. Kathy Acker was all about the ability to operate outside normative sexual practises; she examined and perhaps re appropriated the term ‘queer’ for herself, yet we see here, just how confusing, just complicated, just how wrapped up in capitalist forms sex and identity actually are: Janey is a product, perhaps even to herself, and there is some recognition of this when she answers her friend Bet’s assertion that “we’ve to start portraying women as strong showing women as the power in this society” with “but we’re not.”
Whilst New York’s sexual underbelly struggles with its liberty, still shaped by patriarchal and capitalist norms, how can Minsk 2011, and the company’s corresponding inventiveness respond?
There are connections between both pieces. The microphone that Janey spoke and sang down in New York, a symbol of power and protest – everyone wants it at the start of Minsk 2011. But no one can have ‘space’ to express themselves. In a society where one cannot be openly gay or do anything that goes against patriarchal norms, a canteen becomes a sex club at night, eye contact in the street is forbidden and only regulated sexual practises like striptease, intensely controlled by the state, is allowed.
Kathy Acker’s orgasmic climax between Janey and Johnny, is here transposed into a series of groans into a microphone; the partners cannot touch, they can only vocalise their sexual expression. We realise that “to be sexual in Minsk does not mean to be sexual.” You can look – if you dare – but you can’t have. Subjugation means perversion and even the tube network becomes sexualised. Minsk itself is not sexy enough for European leaders to take an interest in Belarus’ plight, and so it becomes a “black hole.” Janey may have a split identity in New York ’79, but director Vladimir Shcherban shows us that Minsk is itself split and split most horribly.
As New York ’79’s last line ends under the sun, so, in a way, does Minsk 2011. We hear all the actors describe why they love Minsk and why they still want to go back and live there. Just as Kathy Acker steered away from answers by posing questions which were sometimes unanswerable, we get the same feeling of ambiguity here: Minsk’s sex life and sexual freedoms and ability to love is regulated by a dictatorship which means its underbelly is imbued with a sense of patriotic nostalgia but also a hope for a better future.
The post-show discussion, the panel including Sam Roddick and Jide Macaulay, reflected on some of the themes prevalent in both shows: that the last taboo when it comes to sex is about not being profitable, where even in liberal London spaces designed for sexual expression are being closed down (although the venue we are in, the Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s best known gay venues, has just been saved from redevelopment). Are we in danger of becoming robots, the great fear expressed in New York ’79? It was noted that in Uganda and Kenya, a law has recently been passed to prohibit women from wearing short skirts and Nigeria arrested 84 men in the last four weeks for being gay. The penalty is extended prison sentences, or, under Sharia law, death. The impression is that, increasingly and all over the world, people are still afraid of be free.
Staging a Revolution, a two week festival of performances and discussion platforms from Belarus Free Theatre to mark their 10th anniversary, takes place from 2nd-14th November.
Performances and discussions will be live-streamed here: http://belarusfreetheatre.com/livestreaming