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Legitimacy Can Be Stifling: Rotimi Agbabiaka’s Manifesto

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If there’s one 20th century genius whose reputation has only continued to grow in the 21st century, it’s James Baldwin. Not only are people reading deeper into his oeuvre than merely Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, but his epigrammatic and occasionally mournful observations provide posthumous intellectual heft to many of the struggles over racial and sexual identity in America today.

A few years after debuting his marvelous Type/Caste, Rotimi Agbabiaka returns to San Francisco with another one-person show, Manifesto, which uses the persona of a young actor who seeks the wisdom of Baldwin and other artistic forebears to break through certain structural obstacles. In doing so, Manifesto takes a bold perspective to get beyond the increasingly calcified habits of socially conscious theater. Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, it takes place at the African American Art & Culture Complex on Friday, June 21 as part of the National Queer Arts Festival, with an interactive workshop the evening before at Brava’s Cabaret on 24th St.

SF Weekly spoke to Agbabiaka about his heroes and sheroes, the challenges of embodying multiple characters in one solo show, and Grace Jones’ kaleidoscopic quality. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

I know you worked on Type/Caste for a long time. Did Manifesto just pour out of you?

In many ways it’s sort of a follow-up to Type/Caste, and it’s been almost three years since I premiered Type/Caste, so I’ve been thinking about this show and the themes of this show — and now we’re putting it together to debut.

I don’t want to read too much into this necessarily, but the accompanying image next to what you included in the release is you in a red wig with white face paint. Is that particularly symbolic?

There’s some symbolism. [Laughs] I don’t know if you can tell in the photo, but the look that I have is a look that Grace Jones has in a movie called Vamp. If you’ve seen the movie, she’s a vampire and does this dance scene where her face is perfectly whtie. Keith Haring did the body paint, and it’s a look that she returns to a lot — the body paint and those specific symbols that he painted over her body — and she does this dance. It’s really beautiful and weird, and very Grace Jones-esque, but it’s a photo from a performance that I did a few years ago at the Keith Haring exhibit at the de Young.

For this show, I’m summoning up and conversing with some of my artistic ancestors. Grace Jones is one of them, and I also summon James Baldwin and Nina Simone and Amiri Baraka and Fela Kuti and David Byrne. There’s a wide array of people who we’re referencing in this show. For me, part of this show is communing with them and engaging with the questions and the concerns and values that drove or drive their art-making, their approach to art, the questions they were asking, the reasons they made art or how they approached their creative practice. So, as the title suggests, I’m creating a manifesto over the course of the show, so I thought it would be great to go back in time and interact with people who created literal manifestos or who have in their works or writing laid out certain values or principles that I think I want to draw on and figure out where to go as an artist today

Name one or two of those principles for me.

James Baldwin said that the role of art is to reveal the questions that have been hidden by the answers. We love that quote because I think Manifesto’s central plot line — as much as there is one — is about this artist who’s previously been excluded from the practice of theater, and from some of the more quote-unquote theater houses. Now they’re beginning to be accepted into this realm and they’re beginning to question their role and whether the work they’re beginning to do is reflective of their mission of an artist — especially of an outsider artist, someone who’s defined themselves so far as being on the outside, as being someone who is opposed in many ways to the status quo. And I think one of the things that I’m responding to is that, a lot of times, there are certain narratives — especially when it comes to Black art or Black characters, or even Black artists making art — there are certain narratives or certain boxes you begin to get put into to have your work to get shown at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. There’s certain tropes that get repeated: character tropes, storytelling tropes, political tropes. When I’ve been part of this work, the answers seem to have been already figured out. The work is replaying a particular conventional wisdom when it comes to race or politics or human interactions.

There’s so much talk of the theater dying, and “Why does no one come to the theater anymore?” And so much of the theater that we see — and I would even say especially the quote-unquote woke theater that we see — is not even questioning. It’s so assured of its answers. It’s often very self-satisfied, and it’s preaching to a choir that has come to not necessarily be challenged but to have their good liberal assumptions validated. So we’re running with that quote as one way to really interrogate what do we as theater artists. What’s our role in the world which seems to be divided into camps of people who are unwilling to consider that they might be wrong, or that there’s some other nuance or other dimensions to the conversations that they’re having? We seem to be at a stalemate.. So much of James Baldwin’s writing could be seen as expressing a vision for the world for life and for art and I think that’s what a manifesto is: It’s a statement of vision for the world, for art. So that’s one quote we love.

There’s another one I love, a Grace Jones quote: “When you’re in doubt, all you need is a chair and to put your leg up on the chair, one light on your face, and that’s theater.” Voila, that’s theater! I love that. What is a play? It’s one person in front of another person telling a story. It could be anywhere or any setting, doesn’t have to be a big building with murals on the wall or a stage and a curtain. It doesn’t have to be in a quote-unquote legitimate setting, and we’re sort of looking at the notion of legitimacy and how can that be stifling. The pressures we have these days to feed ourselves or pay our rent make it difficult to do our work that is not commercially viable or following some commercial blueprint, and so how do we resist in our art and in our lives, the immense pressure we have to day to really conform to a notion of art that makes nice with marketing and business. There was a time when the notion of selling out used to be a bad thing nd now that’s the goal. The goal is to sell out and to be — I don’t know, Beyonce.

I want to ask about how mechanically, as a single actor on a stage, how are you setting up the engagements with these heroes and sheroes?

It’s gonna be just my body. We’re still working out the details in the rehearsal room, but it will definitely be through embodiment. We’ll use sounds, we’ll use lights, there’s some costumes, but ultimately, it’ll be me. I think in Type/Caste I played 17 characters, and we don’t know how many we’re going to have yet. But that’s how it’s going to come alive: through this actor and some theater magic.

Since you play so many roles in a short burst of time, is there one particularly that’s difficult, be it a gender or an accent or an age?

It’s funny, Grace Jones is difficult for me. I’m still figuring her out. Something about her that’s so —

— Otherworldly?

That, but she’s also a bit of a shape-shifter. There’s something about her that’s so kaleidoscopic that I’m having a hard time getting down. Usually, you find a tic that they have or a motif they repeat and you kind of base it on that, but for her it’s difficult because her accent changes with every single sentence she says. She’s mercurial. She turns on a dime, so she’s been kind of tough — so I’m curious to see how she’s going to emerge. I’m relishing the challenge.

In your performer bio, you use humor, glamour, and drama to challenge the status quo. Obviously, as an actor humor and drama are second nature, but glamour is not an easy thing to pull off in an isolated setting. What is glamour on a stage when it’s just you?

The Grace Jones quote, of putting your leg up on a chair. That’s glamour! I think glamour comes from a word for magic, and true glamour is taking something ordinary and casting it in a light that transforms it into something magical or something extraordinary. I think glamour is less in the object as in the way it’s presented or worn or displayed or inhabited. So for me, I think glamour is about taking things that might be ordinary or scorned at, and turning them into something beautiful. Showing the beauty in them. Sometimes there are literal beautiful coats of fabric, and sometimes it’s putting your Black, queer body on a chair — artfully breaking yourself on a chair.

Manifesto, Thursday, June 20, 7 p.m. at Brava Cabaret (interactive workshop), 2773 24th St., $0-$25, more into here, and Friday, June 21, 7:30 p.m., at the African-American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., $15-$20, more info here.

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Peter Lawrence Kane @wannacyber

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