Happy That They Shared It: My Date With a Stranger for Dana Michel's Yellow Towel Mar 9, 2016

by Tessa Hulls

Part of the fun of lugging total strangers to On the Boards is that I get a dual surprise: I never know what to expect of either the show OR the person I'm about to meet. Awren Schwartz, my stranger for Dana Michel's Yellow Towel, did something awesomely unexpected and arrived at our platonic date with presents. They brought me a mammal-themed mix tape (which I am listening to right now, thank you; I don't think I've been given a mix tape since people were freaking out about Y2K) recorded over a copy of Charlton Heston's The Word, and a copy of the first issue of their zine, Unicorn Party.

Awren moved from North Carolina to Seattle–well, to Kenmore; they work as a cook for Bastyr and deeply loathe the idea of a mandatory long car commute, so opted to live close to work—six months ago because they “hate winter” and are interested in ecology and plants and trees. But they've been decidedly unimpressed with Seattle, finding it “loud, crowded, and expensive” and depressingly lacking in public transportation, and are planning on moving to Olympia. Awren came to participate in my social experiment by way of my last Date with a Stranger, Anna, who was thankfully not too traumatized by the last show to deter others from participating.

While they describe their relationship to the arts as “burgeoning,” Awren's curiosity and comfortable belief in the value of creativity are apparent in the way they gushingly talk about their favorite authors and inspirations. Awren is fascinated by soundscapes, and is about to head down to Fancyland (described on their website as “a small queer land project in Northern California”) to spend two weeks working on a series of radio theater audio collages. They also wanted me to give a shout out to Portland's Residency in a Garden program.

Awren's mix tape opens with a man's voice dryly reciting, “Human beings are the only mammals that stand, walk, and run on two legs all the time... This leaves the front limbs, called arms, free to carry things,” and this seems as good a segue as any for starting to talk about Yellow Towel.

Dana Michel's set is white. Swaths of white fabric hang from the ceiling forming a set of enclosed walls, and the floor is coated also coated in something white with a vague sheen. Dotting the room, we see a large piece of crumpled white paper, some sort of white pool floaty device, and an innocuous folding table topped in faux-wood laminate that actually seems remarkable because it's not coated in white. Michel nudges one of the curtains aside with her body and she nudges her way on stage with limbs that twitch as though in the soft throes of delirium tremens. She wears baggy black sweatpants and an oversized black hoodie, and we can see the edge of a trumpet protruding from the back of her waistband.

I could describe the sequence of what happens next, how she cycles through a series of stereotypically black voices while interacting with things like scarves, saltines, q-tips, milk, plastic bags, steel wool, and wigs, but I'm not convinced that doing so would lend any clarity. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to get out of Michel's performance. Her movement patterns were hypnotic and fascinatingly uncomfortable, and one got the sense that there was a deep sense of vulnerability and intent behind her actions—but I couldn't find a way in. I felt that I was watching the breakdown of a system, a collapse in which there was never any expectation of comprehension because no part of any of it made sense. And maybe that was the point?

In the playbill, we read that Michel's work is of “...performative ritual free of cover-ups or censorship. Blending austerity and absurdity, she digs into black culture stereotypes, turning them inside out to see whether or not she can relate. We witness her allowing a strange creature to emerge from this excavation in a slow and disconcerting metamorphosis...” Seen through this lens, I could reverse-engineer a thematic narrative to Michel's piece; but that through line only felt present in retrospect.

Later, as Awren and I decompress about the show, we find that we have similar responses. “I wasn't that into it,” they tell me, “but I'm happy that they shared it.” We each felt that we had been let into something earnest and studied, and that Michel's work invited the viewer into witnessing a level of uninhibited behavior that is usually kept invisible. “It was like a watching a child alone in their room. There was a total lack of self consciousness, ” Awren comments.

I ask Awren how the show lined up with their initial expectations, and they say they weren't expecting it to feel so untethered. “I thought it would be more narrative,” they explain, “more thematic—that it would be more linear.” I have long since learned to abandon any expectation of narrative when walking through the doors of OtB, but I found myself agreeing that, in the case of Yellow Towel, I needed more help in finding a way in. But perhaps that was precisely Michel's point; that dominant systems do not leave coherent room for those who do not fit within their dictates, and while I can't say that I understood the piece, there was value to be found within the unease that it left. 

Tessa Hulls is an artist/writer/adventurer who is fascinated by the concept of home.While in Seattle, Tessa is a compulsive genre hopper and has worked in various capacities as an illustrator, cartoonist, editor, performer, chef, muralist, conductor of social experiments, painter, writer, and teacher for The Henry Art Gallery, On the Boards, The Project Room, Washington Ensemble Theater, Vermillion, 826 Seattle, Annex Theater, Microsoft Research, Lit Crawl, Hugo House, Sprout Seattle, Canoe Social Club, City Arts, Smoke Farm, Cafe Nordo, The Breadline Performance Series, and others.Tessa also writes narrative vignettes about the hopes, dreams, longings and fears of Honeybucket portable toilets, and when not in Seattle, she can often be found (or deliberately not found) in Alaska. The Adventures of Honeybucket |