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Friday, September 22, 2017

Performing Gender

by Nora Tjossem

A gentle voice fills the courtroom: “If you stop thinking of yourself as a stable identity, it changes the whole game.” Two figures in suits face the cavernous space of the Borough Hall courtroom, transformed into a destination for Brooklyn’s book lovers on September 17th for the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Olivier Py and Peggy Shaw, artists whose work centers their own ever-dynamic identities, take the mics for “Performing Gender,” a talk highlighting themes of Olivier Py Sings Les Premiers Adieux de Miss Knife, part of the 2017 Next Wave Festival.

Olivier Py as Miss Knife at BAM Photo: Rebecca Greenfield

This glamorous, dark performance in the Next Wave features Py—in a way. It features, rather, Miss Knife, an old-style cabaret singer modeled after Py’s grandmother. “It was very difficult to sing without drag,” Olivier Py explains. As himself, he was unable “to do the thing I loved.” When he began performing as Miss Knife, Py was young, self-professedly “very sexy,” and excluded from a community of political leftists in France. To them, he explains, gender was not a political matter. But for Py, who observed a growing momentum around the gay rights movement that often excluded gender-nonconforming and gender-fluid individuals, it was both political and necessary to his art. To sing, he needed to become Miss Knife. “I had no idea 30 years later, Miss Knife would still be singing,” Py chuckles.

“I only do work about what I know,” says a new voice, a Boston gravel speaking into the mic. “So age is new material.” Peggy Shaw, tie undone and gray hair ruffled in the style of a disheveled professor, is one of two members in the lesbian performance duo Split Britches. For her, work about identity begins with the people in the room. She starts with the assumption that no one is as progressive as they purport to be, that everyone harbors prejudice. Then it becomes each participant’s responsibility to upend that assumption.

For Py, gender is an issue tackled almost entirely onstage through his radical transformation into Miss Knife. For Shaw, whose gender expression both on- and offstage is as a butch lesbian, the question becomes even more complex: who can play with gender, and how? And what do we call that? “First I got the feminist gender police. Then the theory gender police. The police keep changing every five years,” she explains. “The word drag is mostly policed by men.” And the men she got her start with, she says, taught her drag in 10 minutes with three rules: be louder, taller, and more fabulous. But this, to her, is not at the heart of drag. “I love drag because all my life, I wanted to wear my father’s clothes… I wanted to be him. Drag is a beautiful thing and I think it’s magic. It’s one of the few magic things left in the world.”

The conversation around gender has changed greatly over the careers of both Py and Shaw, who in their work have been fascinated by gender for decades. Py has transformed from a glamorous, young Miss Knife to an aging songstress. Shaw is now in her 70s, and has created work on such subjects as her stroke from a few years ago. Today, the prevailing dialogue recognizes the distinction (and the politics) of gender as its own categorical model to be questioned. “Being gay is not subversive anymore,” Py says with a wave of his hand, “it’s getting very beige.”

Olivier Py as Miss Knife at BAM
Photo: Rebecca Greenfield
To Py, preserving a sense of being different goes beyond sexuality and into the even more granular, interior realm of gender identity. Drag is that precious space, he says, where you find “your inner freak.” Beyond the overtly political, it’s about embracing yourself as different. It’s about using your own identity to disprove a model laid out for you by the status quo. “I use the stage to grow as a person,” Shaw adds, “not to become a better performer. The stage has become a place where I can figure things out.”

Performance takes place on stage and off. But none of these performances can be called fictions. Rather, as Py puts it, drag is a “truth you cannot say.” With artist and moderator Daniel Alexander Jones, whose work as Jomama Jones has garnered him (and her) acclaim, Py and Shaw speak about drag as performance, and as yet another facet of their lives. Shaw declares that she is not wearing mens’ clothes, but her clothes. Py speaks of Miss Knife as “a bit scary,” with a devious smile. “It’s not a character to me, it’s a part of me,” he explains. Jones speaks of Jomama as his “altar-ego,” connoting an ancestral energy that overtakes him, that speaks through him.

When it comes to gender, the phrase “theater magic” takes on a special glow. That magic is a conduit, he continues, for passion, joy, and desire—a way to access a part of yourself. “It’s the hour of happiness,” Shaw says, cracking a smile. Py nods and turns to the courtroom, eyes lit up: “It’s pure joy.”

Nora Tjossem is the Education Coordinator at BAM.

1 comment:

  1. As I enjoyed Olivier Py's seductive and rousing performance last night, I became aware of how gender kept tugging at the background of my thoughts. It's an insidious, barely examined unconscious noise. Loved the show!