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William Pope.L
by Stuart Horodner

William Pope.L "erascism"
Performance view

I am early, as usual. Sitting in the melting pot that is the Port Authority Terminal in New York, I wait for the Vermont Transit bus to leave for Amherst, Massachusetts, where William Pope.L is performing in the Fifth Annual Ko Theatre Works Festival. I have 45 minutes to kill, so I get a haircut--down to the scalp with the no. two clippers.

When I get on the bus, an obese young woman sits behind me and is soon snoring loudly. It is a breathing pattern I've never heard before (and I've heard a few): several quick throaty inhalations, and seemingly no exhaling. I listen for a while, then fall asleep myself.

Four hours later, I get off the bus. Trying to find the performance hall, I ask several people for directions. No one seems to know where anything is.

"Where's Walnut Street," I ask the gas station attendant.

"In Amherst?" he replies.

I find it myself a few blocks away, and stopping what seems to be a student, I try: "Do you know where Fayerweather Hall is?"

"It's on the campus?" she responds, "Never heard of it."

I walk between the red brick buildings perched on the rolling green lawns, and take note of the abundance of white people. I mention the color of things and briefly note aspects of my getting to the performance, because it is exactly these issues--the self/body in context, and the condition of color in America--that give shape to William Pope.L's work, in general (performance, object making, teaching), and "ERACISM," in particular.

Just prior to entering the hall, I hear the crack of thunder. The sky blackens and a torrential rain starts. (It does get one's attention.) Inside, Pope.L has punctuated the entranceway (from the ticket counter to the stage door) with small fetish offerings--a black dog chew, a white wax skull, a RiteAid hair product called "Tar," licorice strapped to mayonnaise jars, modified plastic action figures and stuffed animals. Each of these B&W markers is a taste of what's to come and a reminder that the performance frame is not limited to the "stage."

In the past few years, I've seen "ERACISM" twice: once at Drew University in New Jersey, and then at Snug Harbor Art Center on Staten Island, as part of the "Outside The Frame: Performance & The Object" show, a survey history of performance in the U.S. since 1950, organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Both times, Pope. L performed alone, firmly establishing a "me against the world" tenseness. He is a black man in construction boots, white shirt and a white cotton skirt. He wears prescription glasses, has a modest afro, mustache and a beard that tapers to a point. The stage is outfitted with a chair, a metal lectern that holds a stack of white papers and various small objects, a black pedestal with three white styrofoam cups and two black freestanding mini-walls that face each other. Pinned to one of the walls is a drawing labeled "Africa" (actually the continent's shape has been cut out of a large sheet of worn paper), and on the other, a rough contour of the United States with "So?" written on it.

During the course of the lecture/rant/confession/endurance test that is ERACISM, Pope.L will throw images, ideas and himself around the room. He'll conjure shifting positions--funny then serious; autobiography then fiction; pure and impure; rehearsed and accidental. He'll sing about hate, try and explain the freedom that the skirt bestows, and cut an onion (one half painted black, the other white) in two, holding the halves under his eyes to see which one brings more tears. The onion is part of a group of "transparencies" (glass, water, ice) that the artist positions against obdurate "solids" (body, stage, darkness). Presenting himself as a seemingly friendly chap, he will call that persona into question, although not before calling Mike Tyson, O.J., Bill Clinton and others "into question." He will occasionally break down theater's "Fourth Wall" by interacting with an audience member, or by burping (not "in" character). He insists that you know, that he knows, that you know, that... you're watching a performance that you have come to see; one that Joseph sees himself performing; and that hours before the performance, you and he were both busy buying groceries, or paying bills, or running errands...

It is this bond--that he and the audience are just folk, working out the details of what Cesare Pavese calls "this business of living"--that assures him a sympathetic crowd. And he'll need one, because during "ERACISM," Pope.L will point fingers, he will accuse, challenge and spit in the face of the fears, economics and acts of denial that allow American racism to exist. He knows he must have the audience on his side before he indicts them. It is a complex situation that will not be, as he says, "arted away."

I mentioned that the previous versions of this performance featured the artist alone. This time around, he is joined by Michelle Hendrick, in the role of Howard (Beach). She is a young white woman, who relieves Mr. Poots (Pope.L's character) of some of his tension--taking his coat; bringing him (white powdered) donuts during "snack time"; joining him in song for "R-A-C-E, You See" (a bittersweet ballad that parodies Aretha Franklin's anthem "Respect"); and generally, providing a foil for comic relief. This is not to say that there is no tension between Poots and Howard. At times she seems scared shitless, considering the venom being spewed and the tendency for props to take flight.

Backing up the songs and contributing spare musical accents are Dustin Bowlin (acoustic guitar) and Erik Noonan (electric guitar). Lighting by Sabrina Hamilton is straightforward, and the entire production under Pope.L's direction ebbs and flows, shifting mood on a dime and doesn't compromise it's themes by oversimplifying.

Race and sex, power and the lack of it, stay mangled together, like a horrible car wreck at the corner of Love and Hate. Mr.Poots is filling out the paperwork, notifying the next of kin and staring intensely at the skid mark, the residue of black rubber showing where the vehicle left the road.

Stuart Horodner

New York, New York
1996

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