The PSWG blog this week presents a curated series of responses to Joey Plaster’s paper ‘Vanguard Revisited: Co-Performing Queer Histories in San Francisco’s Tenderloin’. Joey has selected for us an iconic object of performance around which his fieldwork has crystallized and which uniquely expresses the performance genealogy his work traces. By ‘objects of performance’ we mean things which embody, depict, surrogate, reflect, describe or resonate with a performance in the past and which constitute the focus of our critical attention. They could be films, audio recordings, clothes, anecdotes, buildings, gestures and so on- in short, objects by which we know the presence- or disappearance- of a performance.
You are welcome to extend the conversation.
2 thoughts on “29th January – Joey Plaster: Vanguard Revisited: Co-Performing Queer Histories in San Francisco’s Tenderloin”
Peggy Phelan and I have an on-going joke between us,coming up on its twentieth anniversary now. I was chairing the Department of Performance Studies at NYU in 1993, when UNMARKED was still in page proofs. As a historian (of a kind), I was struck by the line that later would be the most quoted one from this oft-quoted book: “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance . . . [performance] becomes itself through disappearance” (p. 146). That’s pretty tough on historians of performance, I thought. Sure, I took Peggy’s point about a recording of a performance not being the same as the performance, but still–what about the performance the next night, or the next year, or the next decade. It is just as true, I reasoned, that performance becomes itself through reappearance, reiterating, as it must, something that is prior, something that allows its beholders to recognize it as performance, and often as the kind of performance it is. That something, which is past, is alive in the present too.
Anyway, here’s the joke. It takes the form of a dream. Peggy and I are skiing down a steep slope–somewhere near Fort Da Colorado–traversing in closely parallel lines but opposite directions. After every turn we hurtle back toward each other as we approach the center of the course, coming close enough to feel the wind of our passing. At the moment we pass, she shouts “Disappearance!” at the exact instant I shout “Reappearance!” and so forth on every traverse down the hill.
The joke is that we’re both right.
Wait–it gets funnier. Toward the end of our run, Rebecca Schneider comes shooting straight downhill, completely out of control, and at the exact moment Peggy and I cross, she blows right though us, knocking us out of our skis, not looking back as she shouts “Remains!”
So, to me, Joey’s vivid re-enactments are about what remains of disappearance. In his gently determined research and re-staging, that’s a lot. He animates the still and silent record of the past by bidding it to reappear in the faces and gestures of the living–not the Vanguard exactly but not exactly not the Vanguard either, traversing the Hills of San Francisco.
While I don’t have a performance studies joke in my repertoire anything akin to Joe’s, I’d like to introduce an image almost (but not quite as) incongruous as the Phelan-Roach-Schneider ski weekend: In 1951, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel star as well-known but not as well-remembered as Mahalia Jackson, wed Russell Morrison at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. before an audience of about 20,000 people, many of whom came dressed in their Sunday best and bearing gifts for the couple. Tharpe was radiant in an over-the-top gown, and was attended by the Rosettes, her backup singers, who wore their stage costumes as their bridesmaid dresses. To the naysayers who believed the wedding to be a publicity stunt, Reverend Samuel Kelsey, a well-known COGIC minister, said of the marriage license in his hand, “You know, somebody said it’s a fake! But anytime you see me stand on the floor with a piece of paper in my hand, you may know it’s not a fake.” The fact that this was Tharpe’s third marriage was only vaguely alluded to by Kelsey, who remarked, “I know how to marry people. I know how to put them together. If they don’t stay together, it’s not my fault!”
Tharpe’s baseball stadium wedding, capped off with fireworks and (naturally) a concert, troubles any easy dividing line between the performativity of the religious ritual (the wedding is, after all, Austin’s example par excellence) and the theatricality of religious practice. Gospel blues singers, in particular, regularly destabilized this line between performativity and theatricality of religious expression–as did the young Vanguard leaders of the Tenderloin who established their own churches, ordained themselves and each other, dressed in clerical costume, and staged public rituals of inclusion and healing. Part of the significance of Joey’s work on Vanguard and its religious dimensions, it seems to me, is the way that his work–like the street churches of Vanguard– invites us to consider the theatricality of religious practice as well as its performativity. Such theatricality in no way diminishes the efficacy or significance of the work done– to speak of religious theatricality as “hoax” or “sacrilege” is, perhaps, analogous to the mistaking of camp for parody. Joey has reminded us that there is much to learn about performance and religious practice by looking to churches formed apart from institutionally recognized structures.