Paul Outlaw: So Funny It Hurts, April 14

Each in their own way, the seven artists of “So Funny It Hurts” responded to Getnick’s curatorial request by sharing stories of themselves. Rather surprising, considering the invitation was to “start with something you oppose” and then to “move toward it.”

Paul Outlaw acknowledged at the discussion that he often uses personal and family stories in his multi-media performances. He told us that he struggled for weeks to find a way to work with the rather insane seeming TV and political blogosphere personality he had chosen as an opposition. This Black Tea Party member, a creature so camp that he comes across as a truly bad queer anti-comic parody, made rich material whose richness became almost a sterile joke on itself. I think Outlaw found this character too tempting not to mock yet also too much of a mockery already. I think he was stumped.

But thoughts of a brother, long deceased, kept rising in his mind – only to be pushed away. Perhaps this one family story was just too close to use, or maybe his working mind needed time to wend its way through its own ideas before accepting this offering from his heart.

For the first time in the series we were seated in chairs, two angled groupings facing two low angled stages, with a similar low stage to the rear between us. There was wonderful music – I’ll call it Disco beat, not knowing if there is a proper techno term for the style – with videos and slide projections on the wall before us. I remember seeing “Condy” Rice and Clarence Thomas and other African-Americans of the conservative movement. They were featured in news clips such as Thomas’s notoriously impassioned “black male sexual prowess” defense during the Senate hearings into his fitness to serve as a Supreme Court Justice and Condoleezza Rice extolling the virtues of Johannes Brahms and George W. Bush. Juxtaposing these were clips from other black narratives created by white media: clips from early Twentieth Century black-face cartoons, despicably racist maunderings from the Klan and other less than charming visages from our shared American past – including films like Gone With the Wind.

That last was difficult for me – I’ve probably never watched any of that film without a queasy mix of flushed discomfort at the racism and appreciation of… well, now I wonder what I did appreciate when I saw GWTW? Do you know I’ve never watched the film with black people before.

Outlaw entered the gallery from behind us, singing “Be My Husband” to that Disco beat, wearing a topless lace wedding dress and a high lace headdress/veil. His skin was whited with chalk or ash. The music, the voice, the entrance and the costume (by Curt Lemieux) were fabulous. (I think I am a theater-bitch for certain kinds of dramatic grandeur.) His stalk became a dance and then a ballet as he circuited the low stages and the floor. It was as though he was working the interstices between the media projected on the wall, all history and horror – and we in the audience, in our challenged present day. I felt that Outlaw was inviting me into a space between, a space of performance where I might consider things outside my ken.

And then he introduced his character: mister horrible from the tea party. He told us later that he was simply quoting from this person’s blog. The jokes were so bad they hurt my head. But they weren’t jokes, not to our now friend the rabid and closeted-appearing nightmare. Screed, cant and rant, those three little pigs of the political world, capered through my mind as I squirmed. Becoming angry I looked to the film for respite – only to view a scene from “Mandingo,” showing a black man being boiled alive as an example to his brethren – on the front lawn of some court house. Actually at first I took this for some sort of disgusting early home movie of an event – I’ve never seen that particular film and David told me of it later. That it was fiction at least gave me the comfort of not implicating myself in the act depicted. (I think.)

Outlaw’s character began to stutter, his words repeating and falling from sense. The very language this man had used to convince himself (and others) of the rightness of his causes began to break. Such a misuse it was, or so it seemed to me, as in the myth of Babel where a god took the sense from language to destroy the evil that man had become.

He lay on the stage and began to speak quietly, in a  matter-of-fact tone. His hands, to set up a physical rhythm perhaps, and to limit where we might place our attention picked at the many tape and paper decorations on his dress. This became a comforting and homely repetitive action – as when a grandmother fusses with one’s clothes while she speaks. Here Paul Outlaw spoke with an eloquence and a grace that I admire. This oratory of Joe was simple, beautiful and very very moving. I was quieted, I was humbled – I felt Outlaw’s sadness and also his love.

The transitions of this performance had been seamless and still startling. Several of them – the “Wife” stalking and singing, the political crazy, the images on the screens – each can be read as stereotypes from among the many attributed to blackness. Too, some of Outlaw’s characters – again the “Wife,” but also the political success stories and the business leaders – may be examplars of a more positive nature. Nothing is easy here. At long last, after pleasure and appreciation and outrage turn to guilt and to shame, in this final act we were presented with a human person. With Paul Outlaw and his memory of the brother he missed.

“There was a time when every black person was a Republican. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president and after Emancipation millions of newly freed black men, as soon as they could, registered with the progressive “party of Lincoln.” It was Southern Democrats, often allied with the Ku Klux Klan, who tried to disenfranchise them. Some of my father’s grandparents were born slaves, and Daddy was a lifelong working class Republican.”

“His second son, my older brother Joseph, was a genius. Joe spoke six languages, wrote with great eloquence, excelled at math and science and had a gift for sketching with charcoal and pencils. He was also ambidextrous.”

“Joe started college as a scholarship student in the late ‘60s, at a moment when a brilliant young black man in America had more options than ever before. The Republican Party had not yet become what it is today, but it was no longer the party of Lincoln. It was the party of Goldwater and Nixon. When Joe entered Princeton University in the fall of 1966, he was an ambitious young conservative intellectual; when he left Yale Law School in the spring of 1973, he was a junkie on his way back to the projects. My father was still a Republican; Joe was not.”

“What happened?”

“Over the years, Joe’s fall from grace has become family legend, a rarely discussed mystery. To this day I couldn’t say if he had a nervous breakdown in his last semester of law school after a bad breakup with his girlfriend or if he got rejected by a major law firm or if he’d already been led astray as an undergraduate by bad influences from the old neighborhood or if he buckled under the burden of family aspirations. Or all of the above. Or none of the above…”

“Twenty years later, I was living in Germany when Joe died of pneumonia on March 29, 1993, only two months after one of his classmates at Yale had been inaugurated as the 42nd President of the United States; that guy’s wife, another classmate of theirs, later became a US Senator and is our current Secretary of State; and less than two years prior to Joe’s death, another of those Yale classmates had become the second person of color to serve on the Supreme Court.”

“Yeah, my big brother went to law school with Hillary Rodham, Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas.”

“And I’m going to put it right out there: I have asked myself more than once in the past eighteen years why a toad like Clarence Thomas is where he is and my brother Joe is gone. Joe had been clean for years when he died, but even in a heroin stupor he possessed one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered.”

“Maybe it’s because of the three strikes—black, gay and poor—but I used to become physically ill at the thought of supporting an institution whose goals are antithetical to my own interests. And if that institution accepted my support in the first place, it would only be to exploit me as a means of increasing its own power. There are enough obstacles to healthy self-esteem as it is. Why make it worse by succumbing to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of oppression?”

“But I’ll let you in on a secret. Something I’ve never told anyone and that I‘ll deny if you ever bring it up outside this room. I actually now believe that my brother’s flirtation with conservatism, one that never became an embrace, was perfectly reasonable. It is a perfectly reasonable choice. It’s a way of coping with the absurdity of living in a country self-nicknamed “The Land of the Free,” where a century and a half ago our black ancestors were the human property of our white ancestors, and their descendants pretend that they’re not related. The same Land of the Free where it took the Supreme Court until 2003 to rule that sodomy laws targeting people of my sexual orientation were unconstitutional. (Clarence Thomas, by the way, was one of three justices who dissented. Surprise.)”

“In the face of such absurdity, some of us go insane; some commit suicide; some turn to a life of crime; some become terrorists; some leave this country forever, never looking back…”

“Some fall prey to drug addiction.
Some become artists.
And some, black or gay, or black and gay, become Republicans.
It’s a nice day for a…
It’s a nice day to start again.”

Outlaw left the stage singing again, this time the music escapes me, and he strode slowly, exquisitely, through our silent and amazed selves out the door.

Geoff Tuck, Saturday, April 16 2:13 AM, with additional text contribution from Paul Outlaw on Saturday, April 16 at noon. As a point of clarity, Paul offered that his final song in the piece and the title song was “What did I do to be so black and blue” by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, 1929.

Complete Native Strategies and So Funny It Hurts posting:

So Funny It Hurts, March 9, 2011

So Funny It Hurts, Part 2, March, 17, 2011

Native Strategies – Brian Getnick helps us look at Performance Art in LA, posted on March 20, 2011

NoL: April 7 thru tbd, (scroll down to “Someone’s finally tellin’ mah story…” for Asher Hartman review), April 7, 2011

So Funny It Hurts, last night, April 15, 2011

Paul Outlaw, So Funny It Hurts performance April 16, 2011

Nathan Bockelman: UCR Thesis show and So Funny It Hurts performance posted on April 19 and 23, 2011

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