It’s Sunday night in the black box of the WOW Café Theatre where performance artist and sex worker The Magnificent Akynos presents Dark. Nude. Storytellers: In Tales of Conquest. Opening with an irreverent, alcohol enriched welcome Akynos provides the audience with a context for the show, which is a revue of sorts—exploring the theme of conquest.
The performers prepare the space in a semi-circle on stage with a warm up that energizes the space and gives them the courage to come back out to perform in their Sunday’s best. The nudity is not a gimmick to attract the attention of art-averse voyeurs. In fact, Akynos repeats throughout the night how difficult it has been for her to find artists to perform in the nude. Even up to show time, she and the performers struggle over her requirement that all performances be in the nude. An experienced sex radical, she articulates her struggle to live up to her own standards to be nude during the show. But all the performers manage.
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, the first performance of conquest—a reading of an account of the first Thanksgiving—feels appropriate. PJ MacAlpine movingly plays Native American flutes while Akynos reads the text. Because nudity has been associated with a lack of civilization in imperialist discourses, it is intriguing to have nudity repositioned by these two women of color in a critique of conquest in this way.
The only male performer, Dennis Sumlin, is blind. Sitting at center stage, his extemporaneous, autobiographic monologue recounts his conquest of being othered for his blindness. The reinterpretation of conquest as an act of overcoming adversity plays against the idea of conquest as always oppressive. Dennis’ performance—sometimes rambling, other times poignant and clear—combines strength and vulnerability in ways that challenges the audience.
How does it feel when your body is the site of conquest and the conqueror is someone you love? Ngozi Y’ileese lies across a plush comforter on stage with a pillow propping her up as she reads a letter to a lover who violated her. Reading as if it were a love letter, Ngozi takes us through a complicated journey to unearth the pain and confusion of violence from someone so close to the tender parts of you.
Aissa Martel’s performance is familiar to anyone who has witnessed burlesque performance. Lingerie-clad, she appears in a state of dress designed to entice. Her reading is foreplay to her disrobing and her disrobing is invitation to re-imagine her words.
When we tell stories of our childhood, we give ourselves the license to edit out scenes of trauma. We can colonize our memories making them serve our interests. Gaelle Voltaire sits center stage, strategically exposing and hiding parts of her nudity, while she reads Haitian-American tales that seem cut from her own life story.
At the bedside of the dying white motherfucker who owned and raped her, PJ MacAlpine’s character confesses her had in his death with ecstatic laughter and eerie rage. She undresses herself on top of him as she basks in the bittersweet revenge of her work. This powerful performance is among the many highlights of the show.
Important, tattered and unrefined, the show has the makings of a production that hipsters, art mavens, homeboys, and college kids would all like. What if all the performers remain upstage during the performance to further the communal feel of the show? It seems counterproductive to exploit the ways backstage can hid the performers from the audience in a show that foregrounds nudity and exposure. Two of the six performances are off book, which diminishes the impact performers have on the audience because the pages act as a barrier between performer and audience. Half of the stage is abandoned and unused.
As I rise to leave, I hope these performances continue to develop the show. With additional rehearsals, this show could have a successful run. Nudity is not sustainable in this culture. Performers may retreat to the safety of their clothes and other projects. But what if they didn’t. What if they stayed just a little while longer in the dark, held onto their nudity and allowed their stories to settle into a grove. That might be something worthwhile in so many ways.