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Please enjoy this perspective on The Punany Project, our community outreach program for sexual and mental health for desenfranchised humans.
'Representin' the forbidden': The Punany Poets, black female sexuality, and HIV and performance by Monroe, Raquel LaMara, PhD, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES 2006; 3244035
The Punany Poets and their appetite for the forbidden reflect what music critic Nelson George has describe as “post-soul” aesthetics. Neal, following George, defines post-soul as the time period after the Civil Rights movement to the present day. Post-soul attempts to rectify the current and historic schism between the black middle- and under-classes by addressing issues of poverty, globalization, and inequality, as the most marginalized members of the black community experience them. He argues, those folks whom some blacks posit as on the margins of acceptable or even relevant black life—the niggas, the bitches, the queers, the baby-mama to name a few—are as integral to that experience as those who try to keep them at arm’s distance, rhetorically, spatially, or otherwise.
Members of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement desired to silence these identities as they undermined their notion of “positive” black identities. Gangsters, pimps, and hos are how black folks have been wrongfully depicted in the media to incite fear and loathing in white America and justify white dominance and oppression over black people. If the pre-civil rights black aesthetic projects were necessary interventions, their strategy is currently outdated. Members of the Harlem Renaissance could not predict how the hyper-commodification of “blackness” would make it nearly impossible to control mediated images, and according to poet Kalamu ya Salaam the commodification of blackness was partly responsible for the demise of BAM. Salaam maintains:
President Richard Nixon's strategy of pushing Black capitalism as a response to Black Power [emphasis in the original] epitomized mainstream co-option. As major film, record, book, and magazine publishers identified the most salable artists [sic], the Black Arts movement's already fragile independent economic base [sic] was totally undermined.
Currently black artists attempting to adhere to the tenants of “positive” black identities, established in the antecedent black liberation struggles, are undermined by hip-hop and its distressing commercialization. It has successfully commodified the very characters many African Americans have desperately fought to silence. Hip-hop, once the cultural expression of inner-city blacks and Latinos in the United States, has become one of the U.S.’s largest cultural exports. In many of the videos, black men describe themselves as pimps and hustlers, and black women as groupies and hos. As a result, these images are broadcasted globally as representations of all African Americans, further polarizing the intra-class battles among African American communities. The war continues to be waged over how we should be represented, overlooking the potential for critical engagement in what may be embedded in the caricatures of the ghetto. The solution is not to simply eradicate distressing images from black expressive culture, any more than it is to have black booties shaking and thug life aired 24 hours a day on cable television. If we desire to address the interconnectedness between poverty, violence, substance abuse, and HIV then we need to create a space for those black folks who are the most infected and affected, who just so happen to be those members of black communities erased from the traditional black aesthetic projects—women, queers, and the poor.
The Punany Project creates the necessary space. It demonstrates that performance can grapple with difficult issues making them palpable for large audiences to digest in ways that other educational forms such as academic journal articles, and mediated public health messages cannot. Academics tend to be the only ones who read academic journal articles, thus such venues cannot be relied on to transmit important health information to the masses. Mass marketed public health messages reach large populations, encourage HIV testing, communicate the routes of infection, and explain how to protect oneself from infection; but they do not explore the intimate contexts that aggravate the spread of HIV. It is difficult for a thirty-second PSA to convey the intense contradictory emotions a woman or man, may feel when faced with the decision to use a condom in the heat of the moment. Likewise, it is unfair to assume that a thirty-minute sitcom with an HIV theme can provide comprehensive education on HIV. Again, the focus tends to be on testing and the routes of infection, which makes it easy for the viewer to tune out if it’s information they have previously heard or read. The Punany Poets, however, perform the intimate contexts. Their work speaks to women who maintain romantic relationships for financial security, in spite of continually contracting sexually transmitted diseases from their partners. Their work explores how childhood sexual abuse can potentially lead to self-destructive behavior like substance abuse. They show how to make condoms a seductive, fun part of the sex act. They address HIV by depicting the various socio-cultural, emotional, physical, and spiritual issues around it. The Punany Poets perform HIV interventions by specifically encouraging women to be proud of and take control of their sexuality, which is different from merely protecting yourself from a man. In the Punany paradigm, women are active agents, while public health messages tend to position them as passive ones.
While the Punany Project embodies the post-soul aesthetic, because it depicts the experiences of marginalized black folks, I posit that defining the Poets only within the post-soul framework is limiting. First, post-soul aesthetics tend to only consider mediated urban popular culture—music, music videos, film and television, which are inherently dominated by men and are constructed for the male viewer. The Punany Project was created by a woman and for women. Through live performance the Poets encourage women to embody their sexuality. Their performances rely on the African tradition of call and response, which is not permitted by mediated entertainment. Unlike in mediated forms, audience participation is encouraged and at times mandated as I will demonstrate in detail in the forthcoming chapters. Being able to participate in the theatrical experience allows an embodiment implausible through mediated forms.
Secondly, the Punany Poets appropriate marginalized characters in order to directly address social issues like HIV, sexual abuse, welfare reform, and violence towards women. Thus, coupled with the expected interaction between audience and performer, their performances also embody the tenets of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more than post-soul aesthetics. Theatre of the Oppressed blurs the distinction between performer and audience by inviting audience members to participate in the performance, in order to articulate the desired political change. I contend that Punany theatre engages in a series of political discourses about black female sexuality, HIV, and its accompanying issues, but the explicit sexual content is a clear point of demarcation between Punany and Theatre of the Oppressed. The audience participation mandated in the latter is optional for Punany audiences. Punany performances are scripted shows with space for improvisation; they are not inherently improvisational like Boal’s theatrical form, which does not exist without its audience. Hence, I cannot collapse Punany theatre under the rubric of Theatre of the Oppressed.
With erotic performances that intertwine sexual fantasy, pleasure, and desire with treatments of HIV, childhood molestation, and substance abuse, the Punany Poets enact much of Rebecca Schneider’s theory of explicit body performance. The poets author their bodies as the desirous and desiring commodity, only to interrupt the sexual fantasy with testimonies of sexual abuse, violence, poverty and HIV. Like Finley and Sprinkle, they challenge psychoanalytic constructions of the gaze, where “women are given to be seen but not given to see.” But they would never shove yams up their asses and allow them to drop into their boots like Annie Sprinkle. If any tasty nibbles are used in their shows, rest assured they would be whipped cream, honey, or melted chocolate, and some lucky audience member would be invited to fulfill his or her foot fetish by licking it off Holter’s six inch heels. Their work is explicit, but in actualizing standard sexual scenarios that proliferate in popular culture, they are not Schneider’s notion of explicit body performers.
Lastly, Holter describes her work as sex education theatre. Carl, an African American male audience member I interviewed after one of the New York performances, described what he saw as “sex edutainment.” I situate the Poets within a larger discourse on art and activist aesthetics, thus I excavate the limitations in these monikers as well. Given the four categories I’ve determined—Post-Soul, Theatre of the Oppressed, Explicit Body Performance, and Sex Education Theatre, I conclude that the Punany Project encompasses aspects of all four. It articulates the experiences of black folks on the margins by appropriating the aesthetics of hip-hop and the black church. It invites audience participation and desires to incite political change. It challenges the boundaries around sexuality established in the black community and provincial ways of seeing. And it encourages audience members to practice safe sex, explore their sexuality, and perhaps challenge their ideas about homosexuality. As live theatre then, the Punany Project far exceeds the limitations of the mediated post-soul aesthetic. Stewing in eroticism, it appeals beyond the oppressed and the socio-political content of their performances to educate beyond sex acts. I, therefore, take the risk of imposing a new way of describing their performances, by coining a new term: —Urban Erotic Activist Theatre, or U EAT as I like to call it. This theatre created by and for those who are intimately familiar with urban narratives. It possesses an inherent political critique of social-political issues that affect marginalized communities. It embodies post-soul aesthetics; and it enacts Audre Lorde’s notion of erotic power. I quote Lorde at length here as she brilliantly demonstrates how the erotic can be used as a source of liberation and resistance, particularly for women.
There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power with the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.
In U EAT erotic power ignites when the body is simultaneously used for and against itself, creating a schism that teeters between pleasure and pain. U EAT is a directive. It does not get caught up in pretending to be anything other than a commodity. It is conscientious but not condescending. It offers bodies and socio-political discourses for consumption. However, it is more like sticky, rich, creamy finger food than meat and potatoes; so, if you eat too much, too fast, your digestive system will fail you—unless you take a political palliative that comes through discussion and acceptance of complicity in social injustices.
As the act of eating requires a certain amount of agency, U EAT desires to enact agency in both performer and audience member. It is theatre replete with testimonies that transform spectators into witnesses, with the hope that they will then live to testify to how they were impacted by the experience. The Punany Poets, for example, share their personal experiences with sexual abuse, violence, and other forms or race and gender oppression. They ask their audience to bear witness to their testimonies, in hope that they will take what they have experienced and transform it into new ways of approaching their own sexuality.
Raquel L. Monroe, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in Dance The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago 1306 S. Michigan Ave Chicago, IL 60605 312-369-8352 firstname.lastname@example.org