Vp Issue 7: “’What’s YOUR Platform?’ To be a performance artist”

[Originally published in Vp issue 7, intro by Kelly McCartney (2004)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 7, intro by Kelly McCartney (2004)]

“What’s YOUR Platform?” To be a performance artist is to define your art way outside the proverbial box and by doing so, discover the freedom that the artist’s life demands, though often not granted. In a world where commerce generally dictates creativity, the sight of Imani Henry portraying the inner-workings of an FTM is more than refreshing; it is absolutely critical to the progress of our society’s understanding of queer culture.

The same can be said for the spoken word onslaughts of Alix Olson and the poetic musings of Staceyann Chin, two of the few artists bold enough to shout about pussy and mean it in a nice way. And while not all performance artists assault us with righteousness, their messages and presence on the stage is just as important, for we all know that the positive impact of a good belly laugh or a lingering melody goes a long way toward bridging gaps of consciousness.

The hilarious stylings of Poppi Kramer and the rock harmonies of BETTY are also fine examples of these powers. The varied colors, styles, platforms, and volume of the performers featured here beautifully reflect the diversity that is life, queer or otherwise. We are indebted to them, and all of the others who out there rocking the boat without a life jacket. 

Ms. Public Agitator: Alix Olson

“Are you sure you can see me through all of this green eye shadow?!” Alix Olson: wielder of words, de-constructor of socio-political mores, spoken-poetry-artist, all around ‘live it, write it, shout about it’ — kind of grrl, faces me fresh from the photo shoot for the cover of this magazine. We speak of the shoot — the farcical nature of radical, feminist performers ‘glamming it up,’ feigning excitement at the prospect of winning this faux pageant. We also speak of other implications, happy for the edgier photos shot after some voiced discomfort with the subject matter of beauty contests.

Upon entering Meow Mix a few hours earlier, I was met with boisterous laughter erupting from Alix’s mouth. She was crouched on the ground holding the wide-eyed, cooing baby girl of a fellow performer. This seems like the essence of the woman I had come to interview — down on the floor, playing, investigating, investing herself in the beauty of possibility, reveling in the prospect of human communion without judgment. Close to the bone, Alix is hard-wired with social consciousness. There is no ‘leaving work at the office,’ no slapping a bumper sticker on her car allowing the impetus for its purchase to trail behind. “I have a real responsibility when I pick up a microphone or stand in front of an audience to know what is going on in the world, to read the paper, The Nation, watch television — with note book in hand — and educate myself everyday.”

It is important to live as examples for ourselves [and others]. Alix affirms, “This is what helps me to feel full — what engages my senses.” This trickles down into the mechanics of her work — making it a point to work with feminist womyn, using independent, fair trade, sweatshop-free companies to manufacture her merchandise. “Viewing politics in the musty historical way – contemplating who said ‘fuck you’ to the pharaoh first — is incredibly romantic.” She clarifies, that she is not referring to the modern-day, bullshit politics of power, but the whole being a sum of its parts and the parts being a product of the collective — the conflict and the harmony of living in a micro and macrocosm simultaneously. “The sociological aspect of politics is sexy.” Humor and a small group of inspiring friends keep Alix focused and grounded. “I enjoy performing most when my audience is small. It enables me to interact and facilitate warmth and community, to participate in a group of individuals coming together just to laugh, lament, share an experience of the absurdity of our culture, together.”

Joy is a key ingredient in her life. “The only aspect of our community which truly angers me is womyn engaging in speech and action against other womyn.” Alix looks me square in the face, “Tell me, Jen, how can we do it? How can we open a dialogue between womyn? Why is there such divisiveness is our community?” Many of us as womyn, as lesbians, have worked incredibly hard to ‘get where we are’ in this ever-changing fluidity of work, gender politics, sexuality, identity. Alix is no exception. It is a constant struggle against insecurity to find self-validation for the very important work that she does. “Why aren’t there social workers on the covers of our magazines?” she asks. “There are so many vital activist careers out there that are not put in the spot light.” It truly is about re-invention, re-definition, making the mold, rather than pouring ourselves into the ones provided and talking about it along the way. In addition to carrying her story/poems town-to-town “on her back, like a little turtle,” Alix is currently working on a film, the first feature-length film for Samantha Farinella.

Please check in with Subtle Sister Productions or Goldenrod Distribution in the coming months for details and availability. Many thanks to Alix for her on-going work, her candor, and her smile. www.subtlesister.com

Ms. Lick Bush, Ms. Rocker Mom, and Ms. Fit. BETTY

BETTY is a five-piece pop rock alternative band from New York City fronted by songwriters Amy Ziff, Alyson Palmer and Elizabeth Ziff. Their Off-Broadway sensation BETTY RULES is about to hit the road with a six week run at The Lake Shore Theatre in Chicago. I caught up with the triumphant trio to talk about life, love, music, politics, babies and, yes, a little sex.

You have been performing along side one another as BETTY for some 20 years now. How has the band changed since forming in Washington, DC?

Elizabeth Ziff: We’re prettier and we do less drugs. Amy Ziff: A little older, a little wiser, a little better.

Alyson Palmer: Now we are more complex, nuanced and fully rounded, hopefully. We can see a bit more humor now in the things that made us angry.

Has BETTY’s dynamic changed? Has this affected your sound?

EZ: For the first few years it was just the three of us. When we wanted more of a band sound we got a guitar player and drummer. I picked up guitar and our sound changed and became more of a “band” sound, we were still harmonizing maniacs.

AZ: The dynamic of BETTY is a little like a tornado, come along for one hell of a ride. You might just end up in a land you only dream about.

AP: We have grown to treat each other more respectfully and lovingly over the years, which I think is the single greatest accomplishment in any long-term relationship. I think that ease with each other shows in our harmonies, which have become more mellifluous.

Do you maintain solo projects?

EZ: Amy works in paper-mache and Alyson is part owner of a horse farm…I think. I do solo music and am working on an audio historical project of Gloria Steinem’s lectures and speeches. I also write poetry and try and have anonymous sex as often as possible.

AZ: We are really supportive of each other’s efforts. Except me, of course. I’m always really jealous and have to be included in everything — or I could just care less.

AP: Musicians have to play as much, in as many ways, and with as many people as possible to learn as much as possible. I love working with performers I enjoy, including three of my favorites Muzz Skilling (ex-Living Colour), Deni Bonet (Cyndi Lauper) and the incredibly talented guitarist and composer Tony Salvatore (groovedigger.com).

After performing onstage with the same two people for 20 years, what are some of your observations about doing solo performances?

EZ: You don’t have to coordinate outfits or share drink tickets.

AZ: Without my sidekicks, my profile is skinnier.

AP: All the best lines aren’t taken before you can even open your mouth!

If you had the option to collaborate with an artist of your choice who would it be?

EZ: I would choose Amy and Alyson. If I couldn’t work with them, either Shirley Bassey or Bjork.

AZ: Anyone who wants to come over to my house — I don’t feel like taking a cab or subway today.

AP: My favorite collaborators are the band BETTY, hence the marriage. I had a real passion for both Freddie Mercury and Elliot Smith, both of whom left way too early. So I’m going to say Me’shell N’degeocello.

Over the years BETTY has observed a drastic shift in how people listen to and acquire music. How has this changed your approach to marketing your music?

EZ: We use the Internet a lot now to sell our music. www.hellobetty.com or www.bettyrules.com (for the musical).

AZ: I tell people that if they don’t come to our shows and buy our stuff, I’m never talking to them again. It’s an interesting way to keep friends.

How do you feel about file sharing? Is BETTY concerned with losing money from these ventures or is this free PR for independent artists who might otherwise not have any press?

EZ: It’s not the money so much as the fact that this is something that you made with your lifeblood. If someone’s gonna steal it, all I ask is that they spread the BETTY gospel.

AP: If I’m interested in an artist, I still want the entire expression of their idea from start to finish. I want the entire album, the art and all the words that flesh out what they are trying to communicate to me.

As veteran performers of stage and screen, who are some young performers that you are excited about and why?

EZ: Beyonce, Chicks on Speed, Pink, Alex Olson, and some girl I heard in the subway the other day.

AZ: I’m always excited about seeing young artists on stage who command the attention of the audience. I’ve enjoyed some great shows lately. Hmmm, let’s see, Holly Miranda and Natalia Zuckerman stick in my mind.

AP: The young artist I’m breathless about is Ruby Lucca Dangerfield Salvatore Palmer. I can’t WAIT to see what she’s going to do next!

Following the success of last year’s Off-Broadway sensation BETTY RULES, how have your goals as a band changed?

EZ: I would like to see BETTY RULES become a movie. I also want us to play on The L Word in the bar or café or something. I just want us to keep growing as artists. Otherwise what’s the fucking point?

AZ: My goal as a band member is to never again make fun of my theatre friends who complain about doing eight shows a week. It is the hardest thing a performer can do.

AP: It is the same goal —- to entertain an audience, have an incredible time doing it and get great freebies afterward from food to sex.

Has BETTY RULES changed your focus as musicians? Can we expect to hear another original album in the near future?

EZ: We already have a lot of material for a new CD. Look for it next year.


AP: We have two albums we want to put out — some killer songs we’ve been performing and a holiday CD. Lately I’ve been pushing for a kid’s album too.

Is there a future for BETTY RULES?

AZ: BETTY RULES is going to Chicago’s Lakeshore Theatre for a six week run starting May 6th. Yahoo!

AP: After, we’re hoping to tour in the US, and then hop abroad.

You have a long history of political activism as a band. What causes are you watching closely in this year’s election?

EZ: Pro-choice. If you’re not pro-choice get the fuck out of my life.

AZ: All of them. We are doing everything we can to change the “Administration” in November — or else we are doomed as a nation and world.

AP: Equal rights, health care, trade, the environment and education. Americans have the future of our nation in our hands right now. I pray on my knees, facing the rising sun and with all my heart — that the least selfish path will prevail.

Why is it so important for musicians to get involved and to be active in their community?

EZ: Because we’re artists and as artists we are supposed to be the conscience of the culture.

AZ: It is not important. It is imperative.

AP: Music can communicate in ways that speech cannot. Like Emma Goldman replied when someone said that her dancing was too frivolous for an anarchist, “If I cannot dance, I want no part of your revolution.”

How will BETTY be involved in this year’s election? Will you be performing at any major demonstrations?

EZ: As many as it takes to make sure Bush isn’t re-elected.

AZ: We are doing benefit performances of BETTY RULES in Chicago for organizations including Planned Parenthood, Voters for Choice, Equality Illinois, Lesbian Community Cancer Project, V-Day, and Democratic Candidates for House, Senate, and the White House.

AP: Yes. We will be turning up everywhere. We’ll be updating our website at hellobetty.com/concerts with our appearances.

What advice would you give to young women trying to break into the music industry?

EZ: Have rich parents and just keep doing it, if your blood burns for it.

AZ: Follow your dream — no matter what. And always cultivate a wide circle of rich friends and lovers.

AP: If it’s your passion, simply doing it will be success enough. If you never lose sight of that, you can have the confidence, inner happiness and huge fucking eggs it takes to keep going in such a difficult field. BETTY RULES at The Lakeshore Theatre, Chicago, Illinois Watch for BETTY in The L Word next season www.bettyrules.com

Ms. Fagnet: Poppi Kramer

Everything is fodder for comic Poppi Kramer’s standup routine —from her daily conversations with her mother to The View (her bucking chicken version of Star Jones is a must-see), to the change she drops on the floor during our interview. After going to grad school for acting, Kramer fell into doing standup after a lifetime of declaring that she’d never try it. On one fateful trip to New York, she met the owner of The Duplex and has been bartending and performing at the piano bar ever since. Kramer also performs around New York City at swanky midtown gay bars Therapy and Starlight and other gay hotspots elsewhere in the city. You can also see her in a small role in the film Dummy with Adrien Brody.

Kramer originally saw herself as a character actress but wound up in a class on Women and Comedy. At the time, standup was just changing from a joke-and-punch line format to a storytelling mode that suited Kramer’s style. From the first moment she stepped onstage, she felt at home. Kramer’s talks with her mother are a favorite source of inspiration but she says strangers really bring out her funny bone.

“The funny thing is that I write new material when I’m hanging out with strangers. When I work at the bar and new people come in, it’s like this innate thing in me that clicks on and I want to make them laugh. 90% of my material comes from speaking and talking to people.” Her favorite audiences are gay men and out-of-towners. “I really like performing for gay men, like at Starlight and Therapy, because they are smart, and they will come in jaded, but not in a bad way. The only challenging thing they’re doing is making me challenge myself to be funny and intelligent because they’re smart enough to get everything. That kind of audience makes you feel comfortable because they really appreciate a good, smart, witty joke, and you get comfortable enough to almost write new material on stage, especially when you riff with the audience.”

And while city folk, with many a comedy club to choose from, are often jaded, suburbanites take a different view. “When you go to other places outside the city where people have spent a month looking forward to this because there’s not a comedy club there, then you’re gonna have a better response.” Now that she’s been doing standup for seven years, it’s not just a fallback career but a way of life. A finalist for Star Search in 2002 (though she never made it on the air), Kramer’s talent and dedication are sure to keep winning over larger and larger audiences, who roll in the aisles once she gets going.

The ultra busy Kramer often performs as many as six nights a week and seems constantly in motion – her talk weaving quickly from one topic to the next, her knowledge of the business clearly hard-won. Her advice for those starting out in standup? “Tenacity, talent and kindness. What you have to do is take control over the very little you have control over.” Her other tip for success is a seemingly obvious one — performing, wherever and whenever you get the chance. “It’s like practicing an instrument; you’re using your mind, your body, and your mouth to make people laugh. Read as much as you can, read the paper, watch the news, go online, do open mics and get involved with other comedians. Be nice to everybody — the feet you’re stepping on today might belong to the ass you’re kissing tomorrow.”

To find out where you can see Poppi Kramer perform next, visit www.poppikramer.com

Ms. Border Crossing: Staceyann Chin 

At first glance it’s hard to believe that so much power can explode out of the petite and slender frame of slam poet Staceyann Chin. She has an introvert’s politeness and humble demeanor until she is roused into conversation over subjects such as social injustice, sexual identity, the rights of women, racism, and mass media. Chin’s words are piercing, luminous, and provocative.

As a child of a black Jamaican mother and a Chinese father who was raised by her maternal grandmother, Chin was a voracious reader and kept a journal since childhood. She imagined that one day she would travel to Europe, America, and Africa, and that she would sleep with a woman. As luck would have it, sleeping with a woman came first. While homosexuality is against the law in Jamaica, Chin knew that she wanted to be able to “walk down the streets holding hands with a woman, to buy a house together, raise children, and argue about the dishes, to be able to have a normal life with another woman.” At the age of 22, she came out “in an aggressive and vulgar way.”

Chin felt that the attitudes and laws against women’s rights, women’s sexuality, as well as gay sexuality, was so repressive in Jamaica that the only way to combat it was with an equal amount of fierceness and aggression. Her outspoken “out-ness” put her at odds with her community and she quickly lost friends. One day on her college campus she was forced into the bathroom by two male students. Had it not been for someone happening upon the scene, she believes she would have been raped. The experience shocked her into the realization that she wouldn’t be safe in Jamaica and she felt the only thing she could do was leave.

At the age of 24 she arrived in New York City. When a date taking her to the Nuyorican Poet’s Café ended up standing her up, she stayed on to hear the performances. “The energy that night was so high. I was out on my own. I felt so full and so present. And hearing a black woman (Sarah Jones) speaking in her own voice about her life and other ways of living and being, I saw that I had stories to tell. I wanted the world to hear stories of a Jamaican Chinese lesbian.” She waited until the crowd thinned out and during the open mic, stood up to read a passage from her journal about a girl who was being raped. At the end of her reading Lynn Prococe who runs Bar 13, a poetry nightclub in New York City, offered her $50 to perform at her venue. That set Chin on a trajectory into the world of slam poetry that has taken her from her early days at New York City’s poetry clubs to Russell Simmons’s 2002 Tony-nominated “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.”

Chin has been the winner of numerous slam competitions and has been featured in publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. She has also appeared on TV for “60 Minutes” and PBS’s “In the Life.” In Jamaica, Chin experienced what she terms as “shadism” — discrimination based on shades of blackness within the black community. As a lighter-skinned, half-black, half-Chinese girl, the other black kids picked on her growing up. When she began traveling to other continents she experienced racism on a global scale.

On a recent trip to South Africa she felt that even though the laws for racial equality are in place, “the law doesn’t change the deep-seeded discrimination within the minds of people.” Chin recognizes that her art is her weapon to fight discrimination. “Art is a great agitator. It’s through art that social change can take place. Art can pave the way for discussions of sex, misogyny, and race. It can disarm the audience and allow them to listen to the message without forcing the message on them with violence.” Chin continues,“a white woman from the Upper East Side may never be comfortable coming to my home, sitting in my room to listen to what this black lesbian has to say. But she can go to ‘my room’ on Broadway and sit and listen to what I have to say.”

In the last couple of years Chin has been performing and guest lecturing in universities in the US and abroad. Currently she is working on several different projects; her third one-woman show “Cat or Woman” is set to open in New York City in August. She is also writing a performance piece called ‘We Got Issues’ to encourage women to vote. The piece was commissioned by the White House Project. She is set to published her memoirs in October 2005. When asked if she performed at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, she said “Oh, no I went there so that my body would be counted.”


Our Host: Mr. Imani Henry

When Imani Henry first began writing and performing his own work, he didn’t do it simply because he wanted to. As is often the case, he did it because he felt he had no other choice. A young and aspiring actor eager to perform, the disappointment was palpable as in role after role, he found himself cast as the stereotypical prostitute or thug, or, better yet, the more artsy “color-blind” family member. That role, as he so poignantly states, went something like this: “Hi, I have an Asian mom, a white dad, and I’m black.How did this happen? Magic!”

Tired of subtly being told that his reality just didn’t matter, Henry took matters into his own hands. Poetry, and then later performance, became a means to deal with and portray the reality of his own life. A transman of Caribbean descent no longer willing to simply play the part, Henry’s groundbreaking works shed light on his personal world and that of the characters he creates.

In sharing all this, these characters offer far more than an individual tale; they give voice to lives and communities that are still too rarely seen and very seldom heard. Kate Bornstein, performance artist and author of Gender Outlaw, called Henry’s first theater piece, “The best of the as-yet untold tales of the queer underground still belong to the FTMs; and the most exciting of these tales are being told by Imani Henry’s B4T.” The full title, B4T: Before Testosterone, refers to the male hormone often taken by transmen to bring their physical bodies closer to their internal experience of self.

The moving and often funny performance, which Henry quite fittingly refers as “an ode to butchness,” chronicles the lives of three black, masculine, female-bodied people as they delve into memory and powerfully expose the audience to the diversity of their identities. Henry, who plays all three characters, morphs alternately from the confident bravado of Keith, to the beleaguered LaShawnda, to his proud and assertive self, each time struggling to be more fully seen and understood. While not all of the characters find their happy endings as they endeavor to name and accept themselves in a world that doesn’t always reach out with open arms, the message is made clear that life can be full of strength, beauty, and hope.

Having completed B4T during his first of a two-year stint as artist-in-residence at the Brooklyn Art Exchange (BAX), Henry has since performed it before sold-out audiences across the country, gaining much deserved praise and a place at the forefront of cutting-edge queer theater. The experience of touring, and the warm welcome he has received for his work, allied him further to his already fervent belief in the value of community.

“People are isolated. I’m isolated and I live in New York!” he says. And yet he has seen people mobilize and organize to bring him to their campuses and communities, so that this previously silenced voice can be shared. In return, he readily offers his support to local efforts, be it an anti-war rally or advocating for better working or living conditions. After all, he argues, “These concerns are all interconnected.” His goal, in performance as well as in the activist work he does with agencies ranging from the International Action Center to Rainbow Flags for Mumia, is about breaching the divide, envisioning and realizing solidarity for collective action.

Now in his final months with BAX, Henry is putting the finishing touches on a new piece, Living in the Light, which again stresses the value and power of community. Giving voice to another aspect of Henry’s identity, this time his Afro-Caribbean heritage, Living in the Light will likely prove itself as profound and accessible as his previous works. Speaking of the largely Caribbean, immigrant community of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, that served as inspiration, Henry emphatically exclaims, “I love my neighborhood. I can be depressed in my littlehouse and come outside and say, okay, life is okay.”

Since discovering this new and comfortable space to call home, he has endeavored to better understand the experience of his arrival, not only for himself but also for the generations that came before and will follow. One of the intentions of Living in the Light is to facilitate our reflection on the legacy of slavery. In speaking of the performance’s development, Henry says he repeatedly asked, “To get to this end of the world, we were forced here…so what does that mean in the present day, right here?” Again using multiple layers of character and experience, he contemplates this question, traveling from a slave ship off Africa, to the cane fields of the Caribbean, to the sights, smells, and sounds of the bustling streets of East Flatbush. In these times of far too much “reality” and not enough truth, Imani Henry’s engaging portrayals of true human experience as it fits into our broader global community is a welcomed treasure. Without a doubt, Henry will continue to push the bounds of performance art, just as he pushes the bounds of his own identity.

For more information on Imani Henry and his upcoming performances: www.geocities.com/imani_henry.