keyon gaskin pouring blacknesskeyon gaskin – its not a thing

At first when we arrive he puts himself at our service. We are all waiting for him but he is waiting on us, serving each person a little blackness in a glass and branding each of us with his kiss. Mostly it is that awkward feeling of just standing around in a bright room looking at each other, not quite knowing what is going on, stumbling on remembering who the person next to you is even after you thought you had, while sweat drips down your leg. Then he stops serving and commands us to go into the other room – okay now the performance will begin and I will get to be the audience rather than this body uncomfortably aware of not quite knowing what to do with myself. Front row seats, darkened dance floor, audience chit chat. And then slowly a dead space grows in the middle of the wall of voices emanating from the back of the room, pulling us around and we shut up. He is looking down on us from a balcony above the back row of the audience. Just staring and surveying the scene of our seated selves. Eventually he climbs down into the audience, his black backpack swaying at our faces.
Again he commands us to move, to get out of our seats, take our belongings, and never come back – filling the dance floor with our milling bodies.

I’ve seen two versions of this dance before, once in a dirt pit slated in be a new development in NE Portland, and then in the extravagantly expansive room upstairs at YALE UNION (YU). And yet that prior experience didn’t provide me with much of a sense of being in the know, each time I feel on edge, not sure quite when the performance begins, what will happen, how to be the audience that is needed for this show, or when it has ended. That feeling of not knowing how to be the audience was especially present at this TBA version. Or maybe what I mean is that we were much less able to just watch him do his thing, because we as audience were all in the way of each other, blocking each other’s view and even the sound of his voice as he moved through the crowd, sometimes sobbing with what looked like fear, sometimes knocking into us, sometimes swinging a cast iron pan within inches of someone’s head. Or maybe what I mean is that this time he told us what to do more than ever before, and yet instead of that settling what our role was within his performance it put our presence even more into question.

And more than ever before I thought about the contrast and convergence of theatricality and presence. The conundrum of realness. We know what feels real, but sometimes even what our senses feel to be the most real, present and sincere is a kind of fronting – not fake but constructed for affect. I deeply believe keyon as a performer, I feel him living with and responding to everything and everyone who is in the room with him in each moment. And yet especially in this version there were elements, like the sobbing, that felt both acted and real. That gnaws on my Quaker upbringing’s purist definition of real.

With his repeated audience orders he brought out the complicated power dynamic of a largely white audience trying a little extra hard to follow the commands of a black artist so we can ensure we are not agents of racism. When he asked for helpers we rushed to do what we were told, to be given that chance to do right. Would we have tested his authority a bit more if we were not a touch afraid of being racist? In our eagerness to do what he told us are we leaving him to continue carrying the weight of our racist history? By pulling us to pay attention to our unreconciled relationship to race as it manifests in our jumpy desire to be a good guy he is offering a generous and yet uncomfortable gift to this NW nice audience.

20150911_205122The audience looking at their reflection.


-Ariana Jacob

photos by Mack McFarland