“You can’t live in a house that’s built upon your back.” This is one of the more memorable phrases spoken by the scripted lovers of Tschabalala Self’s Sounding Board, what Performa describes in its promotional materials as an “experimental play.” That phrase, uttered by one romantic partner to the other, operates as guidance, warning, dictate, and caring remedy, and is emblematic of the majority of the dialogue acted out during the performance. Though a little stilted, it genuinely sounds like two people struggling to see and recognize each other while affirming for themselves that who they see and recognize has real value for them. It’s in that struggle to see and be seen, to hear and be heard that language becomes multivalent and so charged that I can walk into a room where a couple has been arguing and still smell the whiffs of smoke. The Sounding Board lovers trade accusations about the other not providing them enough space, diagnoses of one partner being “small-minded, unable to see the bigger picture,” ultimatums regarding who should stay or leave. And in a clever, meta-discursive, breaking-down-the-fourth-wall move, one claims that the other cares more about the audience than they do about the person standing in front of them.

Actors Hunter Bryant, Alexis Cofield, Cj Hart, and Imani Love repeat the script a total of four times, in the first act batting the speech back and forth like fighters trading blows, and in the second, each one reciting all the lines themselves. This innovative device makes me think about how these arguments take place in my own head even before my partner hears them, and how, at a certain point in a relationship, I can somewhat accurately guess what my lover would say in response. With a live band (one musician on keyboards and another on a drum kit), a quartet of R&B singers, and an all-Black cast, the play feels like it means to address itself specifically to the lives of urban Black folks. But the language of the script is more global than these props and setup suggest.

Tschabalala Self, Sounding Board, (2021) a Performa commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial; costumes designed by Tschabalala Self with UGG; from left to right: Vuyolwethu Sotashe, April Webb, Alexis Lombre, Mary Akpa (photo credit: Walter Wlodarczyk, courtesy Performa)

Sounding Board does not do what I expect from contemporary performance with its staged acting and scripted plot and dialogue, which are the hallmarks of conventional theatre. Also, I question the choice of making both duos heteronormative, monogamous couples. It seems odd to me, in this cultural moment, to not make space for a queer couple or for other romantic configurations. I wouldn’t describe this play as “experimental” having seen its basic innovations before, but it feels exploratory for an artist who typically works in the mediums of painting and fabric collage.

Tschabalala Self, Sounding Board, (2021) a Performa commission for the Performa 2021 Biennial; costumes designed by Tschabalala Self with UGG; from left to right: Hunter Bryant, Alexis Cofield, Cj Hart, Imani Love (photo credit: Walter Wlodarczyk, courtesy Performa)

Despite these small caveats, the play is affecting. I recall that at the dialogue’s climax, one person asks the other, “What do you do for me?” The other answers, “I love you.” Expected, yes, but also a useful reminder that love is an active and aspirational proposition. It declares that a certain kind of work is being attempted. To love is to work at constructing a space where the other(s) and you can live out all the multitudes that “I” can contain.

Tschabalala Self’s Sounding Board, is part of the Performa festival. It took place October 22 – October 24 at the Jackie Robinson Park Bandshell at Bradhurst Ave and 148th Street in Harlem.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...