The Luminous Laurie Carlos and her Nourishing Pork Chop Wars

Last Friday, September 16th, I heard Laurie Carlos give the opening lecture of the Fourth Annual Performance as Public Practice Distinguished Lecture series at the University of Texas at Austin where I teach. Carlos is an Obie award-winning artist whose work has long influenced American theatre: she was the first woman to perform “The Lady in Blue” in Ntozake Shange’s foundational choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. She was a collaborating founder of Urban Bush Women, and performed with Jessica Hagedorn and Robbie McCauley as Thought Music in the 1980s. She received a Bessie award for White Chocolate for My Father in the 1990s, and continues her career as a writer, choreographer, performer, and all around inspiration. Introducing Carlos’s lecture, Prof. Omi Osun Olomo/Dr. Joni Jones said that when she’s around Laurie Carlos, she feels her “humanity is expanded.” Carlos’s lecture, “Walking the Edge with Instructions from Conversations with Robbie,” offered one of the most thoughtful, immediate, moving artist’s lectures I’ve heard in some time.Carlos wove food metaphors throughout her talk, suggesting that the hybridity of the American palate stands for the diversity of our lives. She described growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, where life bombarded her with flavors, smells, and tastes of the neighborhood’s immigrant culture. This she juxtaposed with her current life in St. Paul, Minnesota, where putting mayonnaise, for example, on corn beef and rye might not be considered the culinary faux pas it would be in New York.

Food metaphors also ground her art-making. Carlos says that her ritual-like, improvisatory process of creating performance is like cooking and offering nourishment, a method both public and private. We often make food for others, but cooking can also be a singular, musing event. Likewise, her “performance novel” The Pork Chop Wars, a third of which was presented last weekend in the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT, co-sponsored by the Center for African and African American Studies (CAAAS), is like a plate of food that she’s cooked up in the moment, some of which the audience might like, some of which they might have to develop a taste for, some of which they might not like at all. Her work, Carlos says, is intensely personal, but she hopes other people will accept and be nourished by parts of the repast she spreads.

The “performance novel” is an art form with which Austin-based playwright/poet Sharon Bridgforth first experimented in Love Conjure Blues (Redbone Press, 2004), premiered by CAAAS at UT last year. The novel, on the page, plays with typography, attempting to evoke in words, letters, type, and line what on stage becomes the nuances and idiosyncrasies of character and relationships. On the page, Bridgforth’s story jumps through space, teasing and seducing the eye; on the stage, the story jumps through space and time, conjuring overlapping stories through simultaneous histories and multiple voices and bodies presenting their versions of the same tales.

Both Bridgforth’s and Carlos’s work comprise what Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones calls a “jazz aesthetic,” a living, breathing, embodied narrative performance form that riffs in unexpected ways like music, and equally depends on the careful, collaborative ensemble work of each musician. Watching Love Conjure Blues last year and The Pork Chop Wars last week, I was struck by the importance of listening, as the performers, texts in hand, both performed their own pieces and paid vigilant attention, honoring each other’s words and presence. The performers in these pieces look like jazz bands, in how they compose their presences around each other, waiting to riff, to pick up a line like a melody and blend it, shout it, make it sing.

Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones heads The Austin Project, a local performance ensemble that has experimented with “performance in a jazz aesthetic” for the last several years. The Austin Project is a “collaboration of women of color artists, scholars, and activists” who “use art and art-making for social change,” performing autobiographical narrative choral pieces. Omi Osun Olomo/Joni Jones is writing a book that will theorize the jazz aesthetic’s roots and influences and will predict its future; performer/poets like Bridgforth, Carlos, and Daniel Alexander Jones have been part of the process of originating the form. As Carlos said in her lecture, “We don’t even know if it’s even a form except between seven of us, but here we are.”

The Pork Chop Wars finds ten women of various races assembled in a semi-circle on a stage adorned with flowers, pictures, the artifacts of a life of family and work. A musician sits at the end of their row, punctuating their speech with his tenor sax, occasionally walking behind the women to second their words with his voice and his presence. The women read, together and separately, stories of Carlos’s multilingual, international family, evoking in words, movement, and the depth of their feeling the complexities of a history both public and private.

While some of the stories resonated for me more than others, I found myself appreciating the tenor and texture of the experience, listening for rhythms and patterns in movement and speech as well as content. I took seriously Carlos’s injunction to experience what I want from the piece. She says her art serves her own purposes; she doesn’t feel obligated to her audience. She creates performance because, she says, “I’m good at what I do,” and so that audiences can “watch it happen this way” instead of another way. To that extent, watching The Pork Chop Wars became an exercise in meeting the artist halfway, and in letting myself create my own internal dialogue with the work.

Carlos spoke again at the performance’s end, in dialogue with director Deborah Artman, a longtime collaborator, Sharon Bridgforth, who served as dramaturg, and the ensemble cast. Her eloquence and generosity as an artist are offset by the clarity of the reasons she does her work. She feels no need to convince people of its value or validity; her refusal to kowtow to dominant cultural standards of meaning-making or aesthetic significance is admirable and inspirational. “What is it you want to do as an artist,” she asked her audience, enjoining us to cast out the institutional voices that inhibit or censor what we want to say (“The editor bitch has to die,” Carlos said, referring to the voice of the institution she hears in her head and constantly rejects). An artist is compelled, Carlos insists, to say what she has to say despite the possibility of censorship and danger.

Carlos’s own history exemplifies her credo. She sees her art in an arc, as a long-term conversation with a group of collaborators who’ve both challenged and sustained her for over 35 years. When she first started working in the 70s, Carlos said there was no where for people like her to be. Women of color were cast as maids, as mammies, as prostitutes in American theatre. To escape the constraints of convention and racism, Carlos worked in bars, jazz clubs, dance halls to express herself with other performers and musicians who were also resisting the dominant discourse of the time. Carlos, Shange, performance artist Robbie McCauley (the absent presence throughout Carlos’s talk, whom she credits as her “spirit guide”), and other women constantly created rituals that dressed their own experience in symbolism, action, costume, and smells. She said that her artistic foremothers are “piles of renegades” with no funding for what they wanted to say, but the urgency of their need to speak changed forever the contours of American performance.

Then, Carlos said, they “invaded” the Public Theatre in New York, and Joe Papp gave them a new artistic home. Papp nurtured For Colored Girls, even though Carlos said that eventually it became a tenth of what it was in the bars. The piece had developed through an interracial, organic process of creating work from ritual, in which looking at each other, touching each other, and loving each other in performance was as important as the words and the movement for which For Colored Girlsis known. In current productions of the play, Carlos says she most misses that original impulse among the performers, and regrets that the piece is too often reduced to the tragic story about Bo Willy Brown.

Carlos insists that artists have to make their work. You have to “go into the house and make a mess, pour the cornmeal on the floor, and then we can talk.” She said these are slave strategies, subtle ways of resisting hegemony and ownership. Carlos dances in her seat when she speaks, punctuating her language with gestures and short responses to her own calls. “Hmm,” she’ll say after a phrase, or “yeah,” after another, the rhetorical flourishes of a woman who knows exactly what she wants to say and wants only to make sure you’re listening.

1 thought on “The Luminous Laurie Carlos and her Nourishing Pork Chop Wars

  1. Great Posting! I have to say Laurie struck a cord in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. The passion and intent behind her words were compelling. There is something magical about artists who live for their art. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Is it the way an artist looks at the eyes of another in such an intense manner? Is it the lyrical quality in her movements and gesture as she speaks that captures my attention?

    I found her to be compelling as an artist. She knows exactly what she wants to say through her work and is not afraid of doing so.

    My favorite part of Pork Chop Wars was when the ensemble did their ritual dances and movements together. Those images stand clearest in my memory, and remind me of the “jazz aesthetic” Carlos was tallking about. The ensemble dance moments seemed improvised yet coordinated through a shared collectiveness of historical memory. When the ensemble of women rolled their shoulders in synchronicity, I felt an ease of tranquility wash over me.

    All my best,

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