The start of the performance “Evil Nigger: A Five-Part Performance for Julius Eastman” at the Kitchen seemed promising: we were led to our seats in almost complete darkness in groups of four by ushers holding flashlights. I sat in the front row. The performance, conceived, directed, and performed by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and LaMont Hamilton, was, as the liner notes indicate, meant to express their “investigation of Julius Eastman as an archetypal trickster.” Only after the performance was over and I was able to read this, did it become clear that the music I heard was only tangentially associated with Eastman.
While waiting for the performance to begin, I could make out a figure in the dimness who seemed to be kneeling on a large, square mat. I could just detect a white shirt, black tie, white headscarf, and subtle movement now and then, as if the figure moved furtively. I asked my friend sitting next to me whether she was familiar with Eastman’s work and heard “no.” I said that she was in for a treat — famous last words indeed.
When the lights rose up and I saw Hamilton, he had eight small, white bowls arranged in a semi-circle around him. From these, as the music began to churn through the space, he took liquid of three colors: red, black, and white, and began rubbing the colors on his face. As time wore on, the splashes, mixing of materials, and the rubbing made his face into a clown mask. Hamilton is a very focused performer, never wavering, in my witness, from his inwardness, sometimes made palpable by his thousand-yard stare.
However, this felt like a hackneyed performance ritual, where the performer slowly and deliberately gets messy. It’s an overused motif in performance and one that borders on being juvenile — if there is nothing else anchoring the piece. And the music, arranged by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, was not at all like the compositions I had heard by Eastman before. There was no melodic progression or coherent structure to the sound. As far as I know, Eastman made no music like this. I checked with the Kitchen and they confirmed that the music was created by Hamilton and Toussaint-Baptiste: “inspired by Eastman’s life, [but] not based on his musical compositions.”
The music started out grating against the floor of my belly, a low, throbbing bass warble that made me think of the music allegedly deployed by the ATF and FBI in attempting to dislodge the Branch Davidians from their perch in Waco, Texas. The music became more distorted as Hamilton daubed and slapped paint on himself, until it sounded like a slightly muted version of an airplane engine. The last 20 minutes in the space I spent with my fingers in both ears and left the performance before it had ended.
Unfortunately, this was the show that inaugurated the That Which is Fundamental program, a series of performances to celebrate the life and work of Julius Eastman, a composer who made truly astonishing minimalist music and who died before he should have. Experiencing his music again the other night (some of his work is available on Spotify) I felt how he made listeners aware that there are other rhythms that exist in the world, some that touch the void. Listening to him is a bit like being aurally reprogrammed — having an updated operating system downloaded through my ears.
Admittedly, I only saw the first part of a performance program slated to unfold over the course of two days, so it’s possible that the subsequent performances were an improvement. Additionally, there are more programs this week and into the month of February slated for this collaboration among the Kitchen, ISSUE Project Room, and the Knockdown Center. Some should feature his music and therefore are more likely to be worth attending.
Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and LaMont Hamilton’s “Evil Nigger: A Five-Part Performance” for Julius Eastman, took place at the Kitchen (512 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on January 19 as part of the That Which is Fundamental series that continues at several venues through February 10.