It’s difficult to create art about white privilege. Though one can easily enough declare that white privilege is bad, distilling all its paradoxes into a poignant artistic image is challenging. And when an artist succeeds, it commands attention.
Ten years ago, Rashid Johnson took on the challenge in a now-famous image of text on a mirror reading “I Talk White” (2003). Now, in his first major foray into performance art commissioned for 2013’s iteration of the Performa festival, Johnson further explores the meanings of talking white, re-staging one of the civil rights era’s most intense plays in a bath house: Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman” (first performed in 1964) played at the historic Russian and Turkish Baths on 10th Street in the East Village.
To crudely summarize the play, it opens with a white woman speaking rudely to a black man on the subway. What starts out as a few jokes and mind games that hit below the belt soon devolves: by the climax, Lula’s vitriol reaches a breaking point. Clay, the recipient of her abuse, looses his cool, slaps her twice and goes on a monologue. She, spoiler alert, then stabs him in “self defense.” Was it justified? It doesn’t matter. It’s clear Lula will manipulate the ambiguity to get away with it.
What’s makes this performance art instead of theatre is how Rashid Johnson cleverly took advantage of the bathhouse environment to accentuate the play’s content, making metaphors vivid in ways that a traditional stage can’t.
The venue itself is rife with conflict. The Russian and Turkish Baths are notorious for the ongoing feud between the two co-owners that result in an eccentric and economically inefficient operating model. The extraordinary and inconvenient measures staff undertake to respect this rivalry is similar to the extraordinary lengths the subway riders must go to permit the fight between Clay and Lula in the play. No one intervenes.
By staging the play in the bathhouse’s saunas, Johnson also forced everyone into close quarters. A sauna does a far better job at recreating the play’s cramped subway than a distant stage. We felt the conversation between these two characters degenerate right next to us and did nothing. The close proximity gave emotional immediacy that characters on stage couldn’t achieve.
Heat was a major element in the work. The play progressed through three different areas of the bathhouse with different heat levels. It did justice to the playwright’s vision of the conversation taking place on a hot summer subway car. But it went further: the different physical temperatures in each room mirrored the plot’s changing emotional temperatures.
The play began in the warm Turkish room. Its moderate heat evoking the uncertainty of the woman’s intentions for so aggressively striking up conversation with this man. Was she into him? Or was she bullying?
The play then moved out into the area near the cooling pool. It was here that the characters kissed, sublimated their tension into more twisted but witty banter, and fantasized about what to do after the train ride. It felt like things were cooling off and a happy ending seemed possible.
The play then moved to the hottest room in the house — the Russian sauna. And it was here that shit hit the fan between the two characters. Verbal sparring escalated. Last ditch efforts to try to cool the burning rage between them were made material by the actors splashing cold water at each other. But she still killed him.
The actors both wore swimsuits in these hot rooms, the beads of sweat forming on their exposed skin alluding to the text’s latent sexual tension. Nor does this or any other baths have an entirely chaste reputation — the entire environment heightened the characters’ sensual interplay.
The audience, too, sweats, but the sweat breaking out on us was cold. We were complicit in a hate crime we didn’t stop, the environment forcing us into that physical space of the bystander’s moral failure.