I wasn't going to write this piece. Oct 29, 2013

by Tessa Hulls

I wasn't going to write this piece. 

When I was asked to be a guest blogger about Gregory Maqoma's Exit/Exist, I declined because I was leaving town early the next morning to fly to the east coast for a memorial. My family had plans to converge on Cape Cod to launch my grandfather's ashes out of a rocket, and so I was already thinking about mortality— about the transmission of cultural narratives and the weakening of collectively held stories that occurs when a generation dies. And as such, I didn't think that I had the mental or emotional capacity to take on a writing assignment.

But Exit/Exist absolutely floored me. It delivered one of those solar plexus hits that demanded a generative response. It echoed the reverberating questions that were already in my mind, and I found that I needed to write about the performance, needed to use words to sift through the power of what I saw. So I am writing this specifically because I am on my way to a memorial. I scribbled notes onto my playbill as my friend drove us home from the show, and I typed some fragmented sentences into my computer before packing for my flight. And now I am writing this from a plane en route to Boston. 

Exit/Exist is ostensibly a story about "a renowned chief of the Xhosa nation… at odds with the English over the possession of cattle," but the storyline is ancillary to the point of being immaterial. The performance opens with Gregory Maqoma's back. Diffuse stage lights catch the folds of a metallic suit as the lone dancer flutters his hands with the tremulous intensity of a self-created strobe light. His body, backed by the eerily resonant guitar compositions of Giuliana Modarelli, winds sinuously upstage with a frenetically punctuated fluidity. Before we ever see Maqoma’s face, we recognize him as a man that owns his story—and, by extension, owns us.

The visual richness of the performance immediately overwhelms the thread of the narrative and becomes an act of purely visceral resonance. The voices of the Complete Quartet facilitate this sense of transportation, and Bubele Mgele's bass avalanches across the stage with the transformative inevitability of tectonic plates. Mountains will rise. Mountains will fall. We do not necessarily understand it, but we are within it. 

This is my third family death this year. 

There were not many of us to begin with, and now we are down to eight. It feels like fall this morning, and the bus stop is empty at 6am. I catch the number 10 to downtown and am on the light rail by 6:30. The early morning train feels like an intimate gift: I watch the people around me in unguarded states, their fatigue allowing them to acknowledge their vulnerability in the interstitial space before they put on their armor for the day.  Half-awake bodies use their environments, trail their tired forearms against seat fronts as the white noise of the train washes over them to cover the early morning absence of conversation. 

Exit/Exist is a performance about being haunted by the past, about our obsessions with our own rumbling ghosts. It is about the stories that shape us. The stories that we do not know how to connect to. The stories that will always be one degree removed.

This is my first year as an On the Boards subscriber, and the knowledge that I will be seeing every performance has changed my relationship to myself as a viewer. I intentionally do no prior research about each show, and I go in as blindly ill-informed as possible. And as such, I am viewing the season as an arc, a building sequence in which each show informs my understanding of the last. I am discovering the emergence of a performance-art revisionist history: my opinions of the previous show become cemented only after I view the next performance in the series. 

Half of any On the Boards experience happens in the lobby, and I love arriving early to quietly watch the interactions of the milling tides of usual suspects. I have a fantasy of pitching a tent and living in that lobby for a week. I would make cowboy coffee on my camp stove and create field sketches as a sociologist in the field. The lobby is an intricately choreographed melding of the professional and the personal, and the room hums with subtexts of context and history: there is so much to see. I would note the instances of that particular breed of understated sartorial flamboyance that epitomizes OtB fashion, and have pleasantly insubstantial elevator-speech catchups with my peers. 

Two weeks ago, before seeing The Quartet, I had a passing conversation about El Ano En Que Naci with some AWAs (Art World Acquaintances (I enjoy unnecessary acronymization). They hadn't thought much of the show, and felt that, given the context of its political setting, it hadn't made any substantial historical commentary:

"I felt sorry for their parents for having such shallow children," one said.  "I once saw a performance by children whose parents had been involved in the Nazi party, and it was about being complicit, and El Ano En Que Naci didn't touch on anything substantial like that."

I wanted to talk about this further, but The Quartet was about to start so we took our whiskeys and shuffled in. But that conversation has stuck with me and it has raised its own pantheon of questions: 

How many generations must take on the suffering? How many cycles of children must cripple themselves by assuming the burden of their parents' pasts? How many lives must we sacrifice to the atrocities of history before we consider ourselves atoned? I do not mean sacrificed lives in the terms of the sweeping restitutions of countries, but sacrificed lives in the reality of individual people, individual bodies, who have willingly calcified their bones into aching protrusions of penance. 

There is a Q&A after the show. The performers and musicians sit in chairs on the stage, and Vivian Phillips makes small talk as she waits for the microphones to arrive. "We have to wait for the microphones," she tells us, "because Gregory [Maqoma] is soft-spoken." This fact astonishes me: this man who transported us with the power of his body, whose supple ferocity caused an entire audience to hold its breath as a collective entity, has a quiet voice. Maqoma talks about growing up in South Africa in a Euro-centric culture, and about his confusion as to how to engage with the cultural narratives of his past. He tells us that his Catholic upbringing left him feeling disconnected with his ancestry, and how Exit/Exist is an attempt to find his way back to it. 

Exit/Exist not a performance about victory. It is about defeat and impossibility: for all of Maqoma’s fighting, for all the power of history that he dredges up, the tale he tells is one of loss, of the failure of justified anger.  

I have watched two generations of women in my family devoured by trauma.  My grandmother (whose passing kicked off this year of family deaths, this year that has held so much grief and so much rage) was born in China, near the city of Suzhou. Her village was destroyed by Japanese troops, and she and her family survived by cooking street food and selling it to those same Japanese soldiers. My grandma watched her cousin raped in front of her, and watched her uncle hung.

Later, she became a journalist in Shanghai and darted through gunshot-laden streets in pursuit of stories. She stayed until the political situation became too tumultuous, and then smuggled herself and my then five-year-old mother off of the mainland hidden beneath the false bottom of a fishing boat. It was a dangerous and desperate move; half the people who attempted to flee died, and my mother tells stories of corpses floating in the water of the harbor.   

And then my grandmother lost her mind. 

Diagnosed at various points as either bipolar or schizophrenic, I realize that it would be more politically correct to say that she developed a mental illness. But I believe it is more honest to not equivocate with semantics and state this loss with the brutality of fact: she broke. And her life effectively stopped. 

And my mother, who never met her father, loyally tied herself to the sinking ship of her mother’s mental illness. At the age of eight, the usual relationship inverted: my mother raised her mother, and this continued for fifty-four years until my grandmother passed away last fall.  

Where is the line between trauma and mental illness? Was my grandmother’s mind laced with enough internal triggers that the manifestation was inevitable? Or was her breakdown simply a response to a life that held too many injuries? A life in which something had to give? 

After the opening movements of Exit/Exist, Maqoma strips off his modern suit and shuffles himself into the confines of an animal hide tunic. There is no give to the inflexible pelt, and the process of writhing his body into the garment is an inelegant act. At one point he pauses with the costume half on; it rests about his shoulders and his head has not yet emerged, and he begins to dance within the hide as a half-human chimera, blind and bold and beautifully feral.

What causes us to put on hair shirts, to take on self-imposed burdens? My mother made her hair shirt a part of herself in response to her mother's past, melding it to her skin until self and sacrifice became indistinguishable. And she followed the only parental framework she knew and lovingly wove the same mantle for me to inherit. But it was a narrative I refused to complete, and I look to this as the genesis of what would become my greatest talent and my greatest flaw: I learned that you can always end the story by leaving. 

And so I left. 

How do we make our way back to the stories that we have deliberately disowned? We civilize ourselves, we Westernize ourselves: we deny the impacts of historical trauma to protect ourselves from their injuries, but in doing so we also throw away the power contained within the past. Maqoma’s body dances this tension, and his limbs give words to something I have never quite been able to articulate. 

Maqoma has incredibly misleading thighs. Their appearance gives no hint of the power they contain, and rather than the expected muscular demarcations of an athlete, they have a round and understated softness. The kinesthetic visual artist in me is mechanical transfixed: I want to seize those thighs, light them in contrast and turn them beneath my pencil until I understand the interactions of their movements, the chorused whispers of gracilis, satorius and vastus lateralis. 

The past is clarified by the present, and it was watching the supple impossibility of Maqoma's thighs that finally gave me the means to articulate what I thought of Heather Kravis's The Quartet:

I found it incredibly annoying. It glorified the sensation of being rigidly trapped by the constraints of the self, and I kept wanting to blurt out-- Yes, yes we are all trapped. We are animals with large brains that provide us with an awareness of our own mortality, and we all ill-equipped to deal with this knowledge. So we create hierarchies and constraints and neuroses. We know all this. But show me what you DO with that universality of entrapment. Show me how you find force in it, how you lean into the tension and free yourself from it. 

We find definition through counterpoint: the difference between The Quartet and Exit/Exist was that the former was steeped in the narrowness of having something to prove, whereas the latter drew from the expansively ambiguous richness of having something to channel. I would not have been able to say that without the gift of Maqoma's thighs. 

My friend and I talk as she drives me home. What was your relationship with your grandfather like? she asks me. Were you close? 

I do not know how to answer this question. There is a danger to learning the trump card of leaving: the act gathers momentum, and begins to perform itself of its own accord. I leave before I realize I have done it, and as such have led a life characterized by wide expanses of interpersonal distance that I never intended to build. 

Were we close? I am not sure. 

My grandfather was a brilliantly eccentric engineer and mathematician who windsurfed into his seventies and rode his bicycle into his eighties, who always had a mischievous grin and a detailed plan to go along with it. He always said that his first response to any problem was to drink two Manhattans and see if that fixed it. If it didn’t, then he would come up with a plan B. He had wild eyebrows and a passion for orchids, and we loved to play chess. There was a period of my childhood in which I always had some portion of my body in a cast (I have not lost my love of climbing tall things, but I have gotten better about not falling off of them), and together we would create encasement systems of rubber seals and gaskets so I could still jump in the ocean. We were alike in many ways: stubbornly individualistic, profoundly inquisitive, and perhaps not particularly easy to get to know.

He always said that he wanted us to flush his ashes down the toilet so that he could get a good view of the residential plumbing system, and we do honor that wish. But we also scatter some of his ashes off a jetty into the ocean, and we launch the rest of him from a rocket. The rocket is a team effort. My father, the aerodynamics engineer, is in charge of the logistics of construction and launch. My cousin—a graphic designer—and I spearhead rocket decorations. The night before the launch, we sit in the living room and the family shares stories of my grandfather as my cousin and I use sharpies to cover the rocket in visual depictions of these anecdotes. 

We meet on the shoreline of a lake and set up the launch pad. The first countdwown fails to ignite: there is a puff of smoke, and then nothing. So we repack the motor, double check the wiring, and try again. This time the effect is spectacular. The nose cone breaks off and my grandpa bursts across the sky as a cloud of ash. The release parachute opens, and as the rocket falls into the lake (as planned; we drilled holes in the casing so it would sink), my mother yells out, “Enjoy the ride, Robin!” And he would have enjoyed it. It was exactly what he would have wanted. 

I turn and look back at the people assembled on the shore, the friends and family who have gathered to celebrate my grandfather’s passing. We stand in pairs and trios, arms wrapped around one another’s waists and shoulders, hands shielded against the sun as we stare across the water. Together, we inherit my grandfather’s story. And now we are the generation to carry it on. 

Maqoma does not know where he fits within his own past, and decides that the best way to find out is to inhabit it.  In doing so, he does not just reconnect with the past, but resurrects it. And it is a powerful thing to behold. 

Isn’t this precisely what we, as artists, do? We mine the past and bring it to life to find the answers we need in the present. 

By the end of Exit/Exist, Maqoma has stripped down to a pair of small gold shorts, and he kneels at the front of the stage, a broken warrior who is defeated but not penitent. The performance ends by coming full circle: Maqoma slowly pulls his modern suit back on and becomes his contemporary self. But the act of this retelling has altered Maqoma: the man beneath this suit is not the same one we met an hour earlier.

The morning after the launch, my uncle drives me to the airport. The traffic heading into Boston is terrible, but it gives me time to re-become myself.

I ease my sleeves into my modern suit beneath the red glow of early morning taillights, and I board my plane.  I watch the sun come up across the tarmac, and I think about power and connection and loss. I am putting my gold suit back on, but I am doing my damndest to own the stories contained beneath it.

Watch the video of the rocket launch.