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Wednesday, Jul 2 1997
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Julia Sweeney begins her monologue God Said Ha! by 'fessing right up to why she's an actress: She craves attention. As one of those people who tends to go ignored in daily life, she's subject to repeated injustices, such as standing in line at Starbucks only to have her order forgotten. Sweeney's admission provides insight into what motivates performers in general, and certainly underlines one of the most obvious -- and yet rarely articulated -- tenets of the spoken-word medium. Namely, "It's all about me." In keeping with her sweet-but-overlooked offstage demeanor, Sweeney concludes her Starbucks anecdote by thanking the audience in advance for listening to the impending performance.

I don't know quite why this seems so refreshing. Maybe it's because I've seen one too many "edgy" performance poets act as though his/her audience was lucky to bear witness to his/her overbearing efforts. Perhaps it's because the use of seemingly every spoken-word outing as an endless forum for self-pity and nihilism has become a little bit, you know, wearing. Or maybe it's because, rather than being in Sweeney's audience, I'm listening to her on CD -- a medium in which the emotional connection that many performers attempt to forge with their audience is lost. In this case, that is perhaps a good thing. As raw and immediate as spoken-word performance is meant to be, it's often hard to dismiss the feeling that the person onstage is putting on an elaborate act in order to wow the viewer, and insincerity -- or what sounds a whole lot like it -- is invariably the result.

God Said Ha! combines comedy and acting in a testament to how humor can turn misfortune into something people want to hear, rather than something they're forced to hear. In a series of connected vignettes, Sweeney details the months in 1994 when she moved to L.A. after a divorce, settling in only to find that her younger brother was suffering from advanced lymphatic cancer. In short order, her parents move into her house, her brother gets sicker, and, just as she's beginning to accept his inevitable death, she herself is diagnosed with cancer -- albeit a treatable form. (At one point, Sweeney describes a weekend at home with her brother where both take turns answering the phone with the greeting "House of Cancer!") Other challenges present themselves: One of her cats splits the scene, opting to live instead at a neighbor's house, and her burgeoning romantic relationship is hindered by the fact that she's sharing living quarters with her parents.

Given the generally confrontational nature of most spoken-word performance, it's rare to encounter genuine modesty within the form, and even more rare for it not to come off sounding wimpy. If the spoken-word genre requires that each performer have his or her own personal ax to grind -- against government, racism, homophobia, or, at the very least, the neighbors' high-decibel sexual assignations -- the fact that Sweeney chooses her parents as her central issue makes the resulting monologue seem far more Borscht Belt than Cafe Nation. No speaking in tongues or use of clever pop-cultural references here. Sweeney's vocal impressions of a mother who views tomato paste and salsa as one and the same, and of a National Public Radio-obsessed father who saves surplus cat food in Tupperware, aren't even particularly resentful. Nor are they meant as indictments of bad parenting (resulting, perhaps, in the pay-attention-to-me stance of their daughter). Rather, the impressions shape up as necessary embellishment for a centerpiece -- cancer -- that, unadorned, isn't really all that funny. Spalding Gray's latest offering, Gray's Anatomy -- which deals with the decidedly squeamish subject of eye surgery -- also contains very little that's inherently feel-good, but neither Sweeney nor Gray is out to hit spectators over the head with hospital horror. The best performance doesn't actively demand the empathy of its audience, and both God Said Ha! and Gray's manic saga have organic approaches. They pull surreal comedy from the stranger-than-fiction twists of life without insisting that we go along with them.

While humor isn't the only redeeming part of performance, it can make the difference between moving an audience and pushing it around. I recently watched uncomfortably as a woman took the stage at a spoken-word event and proceeded to whine through a story of woe, daring the crowd with every sarcastic aside to try to match her fury and her angst, while sullenly angling for our collective sympathy. Her motivation seemed to be the same as Sweeney's -- something like, "Even if everyone else in the world ignores me, I know I've got an audience when I get up onstage." But God Said Ha! succeeds where spoken-word exhibitionism like this fails. It doesn't stump for either tears or laughs, and furthermore, it doesn't demand that we share the pain. And then, after all that, it goes on to thank us for listening. If only all art could be so generous.

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler

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