Deaths, Revisited

Blacklips Performance Cult at the University of Southern California 

July 9, 2024
By Raymond Kyooyung Ra and Alice Siyuan Zhao

Review

The Blacklips Performance Cult reunited at the University of Southern California’s Wong Hall to relive “her many, many deaths,”1ANOHNI, Marti Wilkerson, and Lia Gangitano, eds., Blacklips: Her Life and Her Many, Many Deaths, (Brooklyn, New York: Anthology Editions, 2023). or, more specifically, their infamous Monday nights at New York’s Pyramid Club in the 1990s, where the experimental theater collective made queer fantasies come to life with goth, punk, surrealist, and fabulous renditions. Throughout the evening, original members Lost Forever, Paul Twinkle, Ebony Jet, Herr Klunch, and Claywoman presented their performances in succession.

Lost Forever, a New York City-based photographer, performance artist, vocalist, and lyricist, christened the evening with an instrumental elegy for the dead members of the Blacklips Performance Cult, or as fellow Blacklips member Johanna Constantine referred to them, “The Away Team.” Lost Forever was accompanied by the electric guitar riffs of her musical collaborator, Paul Twinkle, as she clinked two crystal glasses, walking across the stage with ritualistic esotericism. Lost Forever addressed death and the past with style and whimsy, returning to the mic to sing along to Paul Twinkle’s guitar, her overextended lashes fluttering to the beat. Respectful of the venue’s smoke-free policy, the unlit cigarette that Lost Forever left hanging from her lips throughout the cult’s original track “Your Cigarette” (1993) harkened back to past Blacklips’ performances, for example, when the group had notoriously brandished blazing tiki torches as part of their Monday plays at the Pyramid Club.

Lost Forever and Paul Twinkle, USC Wong Hall, event sponsored by USC Dornsife’s Center for Feminist Research, 2024. Photo by Amelia Jones.

Decked head-to-toe in black and gold sequins, Ebony Jet sashayed onto stage next, their jazz stylings and storytelling style winning adoring hearts at queer community venues in San Francisco, where they are now based. Ebony’s vocals reminded us why they were appointed by ANOHNI as her mentee and favorite undiscovered artist. Ebony tributed the track “Life” from Blacklips’ play The Birth Of Anne Frank to everyone who was doing anything to affirm their gender that wasn’t assigned at birth. “Arizona’s trying to send uteruses back 160 years. With everything going on, I’d like to do a live version of this for you,” Ebony lamented, voice cracking. But with giggles and shimmies, Ebony eased back into the show. “So I have to call on the actress gods – come, Viola, come Octavia, come Angela!”

Accompanied by Ebony’s cover of Aimee Mann’s “Suicide is Murder” – their novel contribution to the original Blacklips play from 1995 titled “13 Ways to Die,” otherwise referred to as the death of Blacklips – Herr Klunch, the suicidal clown and dance artist Stacy Dawson Stearns’ alter ego, ‘killed’ himself eight times in succession. The performance’s silent reaper, played by graduate student, dancer, and the collective’s newest recruit Ray Valentine, was veiled and suited in funeral-black. Gliding around Klunch, the reaper did all he could to make the clown drop dead: slitting his wrists, popping pills, sticking a fork into an electrical socket, and downing a whole gallon of bleach. Klunch’s waltz with death finally came to an end when the clown collapsed with a plastic party cup of poison in his hand, and the reaper sat behind him in a pietà. But, in a classic Blacklips twist, as Ebony finished their cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Klunch’s corpse came back to life! “Well, it’s difficult to follow your own death with a monologue!” Klunch drawled, wiping green, foaming juice from his mouth.

Herr Klunch, Ray Valentine, and Ebony Jet, USC Wong Hall, event sponsored by USC Dornsife’s Center for Feminist Research, 2024. Photo by Paul Donald.

Klunch then introduced Claywoman, a 500-million-year-old extra-terrestrial from the fictional Mirillion Galaxy played by Michael Cavadias. From the auditorium entrance, Claywoman staggered down the seat aisles at a snail’s pace, bells from her cane jingling with each step. As she stepped out into the spotlight, Claywoman’s mudcrack-like wrinkles betrayed her age. Claywoman’s trademark offbeat comedy ended the evening on a high note. She delivered a 20-minute monologue as an outsider looking down upon her earthlings caught up in the climate crisis before coaxing them with mental dissociation exercises. Under Claywoman’s absurd directions, the audience found themselves leaning against each other in an attempt to move the planet a half a millimeter to save it from cosmic destruction.

Claywoman, USC Wong Hall, event sponsored by USC Dornsife’s Center for Feminist Research, 2024. Photo by Paul Donald.

A rite of revisitation does not necessarily have to be driven by nostalgia, especially when Blacklips’ legacy still remains “a living thing, in a process of becoming.”2Min Chen, “Blacklips Was a Performance Troupe That Thrived in a ‘Dank Corner’ of New York’s Late-Night Culture. A New Art Book Is Bringing It Back Into the Spotlight,” Artnet, March 17, 2023, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/blacklips-performance-cult-anohni-marti-wilkerson-book-2271199. What social possibilities do public performances of grief, death, and failure proffer, and what does death that persists “in a process of becoming” tell us about living queerly? A panel with Blacklips members (and ANOHNI on Zoom), curator Lia Gangitano, and artist-scholar Jill Casid that took place the night before the performances forefronted the sense of community and futurity derived from Blacklips’ embrace of loss and grief as creative forces. Their subcultural aesthetics prioritize ridicule, kitsch, and mortality, and offer emotive alternatives to capitalist positivity in the world we live in, or, as Casid put it otherwise, a necropolitical state structured around violence and death.

In the wake of the AIDS epidemic in 1990s New York and its disproportionate effect on queers of color, a devastation that was dismissed by the Reagan administration, Blacklips performed “the ways we resist, rupture, and disrupt [death’s] immanence and imminence aesthetically and materially.”3Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 13. In other words, their over-the-top colors, noises, and monstrous gestures staged resistances that departed from organized and perfectly visible political movements. In this world that still gives us many reasons to grieve, for Blacklips, death lives on.

 

The authors would like to thank the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research, Dr. Amelia Jones, Dr. Andy Campbell, and Kolton Conklen for making this event possible.

Share Review

More Reviews