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A Crash Course in Playing Kalup Linzy’s Characters, Led by the Artist

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Set-up for Kalup Linzy’s “Art Lesson U Perform” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MIAMI — In Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, The Hero’s Journey, the heroes tend to follow a basic narrative arc. They are often called to action — an intended mission — and though they doubt themselves, they leave home, pursue their destined goal, and are reborn. While these heroes are traditionally, overwhelmingly, male, for Campbell and his cultural kin, there is something universal at the core of the monomyth: we are all embodiments of this archetype, living out our own particular stories, trusting and rebirthing ourselves.

At “Art Lesson U Perform,” one of the seminars in the Miami-based Institute of Contemporary Art’s educational ICA Seminars initiative, multimedia and performance artist Kalup Linzy lovingly referred to Campbell. He described his discovery of the writer in college as an experience that “set me free. It opened up so much … We all identify with those themes, these twelve plot points based on our human desires. I try to use those themes in my screenplays — each character is on their own journey. They have their allies and enemies. Some of the allies are external, some are internal.”

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Kalup Linzy (image via ICA Miami) (click to enlarge)

Born in Clermont, Florida, Linzy was raised primarily by his aunt and uncle, Diane and Isaiah, as well as his grandmother Georgianna Linzy, with whom he was very close. Georgianna and her own mother were fans of the soap opera Guiding Light in both its radio and television incarnations, and the sticky complexities of those fictional families proved influential for Linzy. The body of work he’s produced since 2002 — self-directed live performances, web series, and music videos, featuring over 30 characters, all part of the same family tree — for which he’s received countless accolades, mirror the soap opera archetypes and Hollywood melodramas so loved by his family. His characters, played mostly by Linzy himself, love and fight each other, and toy with stereotypical Hollywood narratives, posing larger questions about racial and sexual identity, and offering a slickly humorous examination of art world hierarchy. The characters are also ongoing references to Linzy’s own life. “I started creating works that explored my identity as an African-American, as a gay male, as an American — growing up in the church, wanting to be a singer, feeling like I wasn’t going to obtain some of those things,” he explained. “Some of those elements started to insert themselves into the characters.”

Quite literally, too: in all his video works, the characters are voiced by the artist, no matter who enacts them; the actors — whether family members or famous friends — lip-synch his words. This, Linzy explained, is a reference to the radio soap operas of his childhood: “Once people realize it’s coming from the same person, they start to tune in. They become like audio pieces — like Guiding Light on the radio in the 1930s. They were dramas, but you really had to listen and envision the environment.”

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Kalup Linzy and participants in “Art Lesson U Perform” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami

As an introduction to “Art Lesson U Perform,” Linzy screened Conversations Wit de Churen IX XI XII: Dayz of our Ego — the final three episodes from a series starring Katonya, a Southern belle and artist — and then a retelling of those scenes, created in a workshop Linzy held with Xavier University students in New Orleans. An uncomfortable family saga unfolds at Katonya’s expense; raised by a nasty aunt, Katonya is continually heartbroken by her attitude. Without seeing earlier episodes, it is hard to fully grasp the magnitude of Katonya’s situation, but once she’s visited by the ghosts of her birth parents, there’s almost no need. Their words — prayers to the Lord and then advice to Katonya to forgive herself, her own ego, and the rest of her extended family — resonate with anyone who’s ever felt familial tension. We’re relieved and cheering her for by episode’s end, when she and her beau, Big Feet Freddy, are married.

When volunteer participants at the ICA Miami workshop donned wigs and played Katonya, Big Feet Freddy, and other roles for Linzy’s camera, the exaggerated theatrics only felt silly until the weight of Linzy’s stories grew heavier through their repetition. The actors eventually slipped into their roles comfortably — and, considering the workshop’s two-hour length, rather quickly. Linzy explained this as part of his personal process, too:

These Hollywood archetypes and cultural stereotypes — a lot of that was used as propaganda. It keeps us from connecting with other people, because we get stuck on the historical stuff that’s supposed to keep us separated. We’re really not that separate. I have to work on that in my day-to-day life, because even as an artist, it becomes so insular. My work keeps me connected to something bigger than myself, where I can connect with people and have a dialogue.

With the help of the participants at ICA, Linzy literally envisioned Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. “It helps people think about race, gender, and sexual politics, but I try to write my stories with universal themes,” he said. “Each character has a motive, a desire, a goal. Although it might sound cliché or superficial, we all want love, to have engaging relationships, to experience a higher consciousness.”

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Kalup Linzy and participants in “Art Lesson U Perform” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami

Linzy is right, about both the need to listen and the applicability of Campbell’s myth: to hear the story through many people, with a singular voice, certainly recontextualizes the applied roles, but there’s a poetic universality, too. In spite of all the participants using Linzy’s voice, they made the characters their own. It was, unusually, quite similar to what happens when actors use their own voice — they are still forced adapt the script to their own personal language. Here, the language took the form of expression and movement, or of upending gender norms — such as when a male-bodied person played Katonya, or a female-bodied person played Big Feet Freddy. The same phenomenon occurred at the level of race and ethnicity.

It’s testament to the characters’ relatability — or maybe to an audience’s ability to empathize — that it matters little who plays the roles or that Linzy’s voice echoes from their throats. We can still feel what, exactly, the characters are bellyaching about. As two participants coupled together, playing Katonya and her lover, they stopped looking at the script and exaggerated their mouths to mime Linzy’s words, beginning to look like a natural couple as they discussed the stresses of their daily lives and personal struggles. “She was the only one I had,” said the personified Katonya, in reference to her aunt. Despite multiple layers of farce and play, I believed her.

Kalup Linzy’s ICA Seminar took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (4040 NE 2nd Ave, Miami) on Saturday, February 20. See the ICA website for more information on the Seminars program. 

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