High Femme Mind-bending Mashup at the Winningstad
By Christine Gwillim
Water Will (In Melody) by Leigia Lewis
As we settle into our balcony seats with glasses of wine, a foot wrapped in feminine ankle socks with lace trim at the ankle and pointy shoes jets out from the front curtain. The long, milky pale leg attached to the foot reveals a tall white woman with a cascading ponytail of lush red curls. She wears jean overall shorts, a tank top, and a clear vinyl jumper. The costume is childish, femme, and oddly edgy. In a vernacular loosely associated with the American South she tells and acts out the tale of Grimm’s The Willful Child. Immediately I think of race, of Beloved, of Paulette Jenkins characterized by Anna Deavere Smith in Four American Characters. I wonder if maybe Grimm was an unintentional feminist rendered docile by respectability politics in the 19th century and then repackaged as cautionary tales with which to police young people in the 20th century.
Credit Sarah Marguier
Before my mind can sort out any of these thoughts the scene shifts. The curtains open and a person wearing a black derby hat and white gloves moves to centerstage- signaling back to blackface minstrelsy through slapstick, pantomime, and my own racialized gaze. The citations are thick, opaque, and endless. The high production value of the performance is omnipresent- experimental, and nonnarrative. It’s the type of performance one would imagine seeing in a speakeasy warehouse at midnight, not at the Winningstad Theatre, a traditional space in the heart of downtown Portland. Director Leigia Lewis designed the work purposely to be produced in a proscenium theatre- it makes no sense- until the curtains flutter closed at just the right moment- or misty rain falls delicately onto the stage from the hidden grid behind the teaser curtain
In their talk with scholar and artist Bart Fitzgerald on Saturday, Leigia Lewis opened with a quotation about the swamp as a site for Black potentiality. Suddenly, the strange accent at the top of the show made sense, the misty rain less metaphysical, and the illegibility necessary.
Credit Maria DiRosa
One of the themes emerging from the programming at TBA 19’ is messiness. Lewis and others cite messiness and absurdity as aesthetics that feel and make the most sense in response to the overproduction of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ in live performance. Lewis leans into the artifice- pulling techniques from miming, Brecht, melodrama, slapstick, musical theatre, literary fiction, and contemporary dance. The ensuing mashup of technique is an unsettling, stunning work that doesn’t make any more sense at the end than it did in the beginning- but that doesn’t seem like that was ever Lewis’s intention.
Credit Sarah Marguier