Outsider Night

Goths at the mall, poets at Penumbra, and Christians on the dance floor

Industrial Strength Sundays

Sundays are a day of prayer--not just for the pious Christian but also for the Twin Cities club owner. Pity the poor soul charged with filling a room with bodies on the night most locals are winding down for that 7:00 a.m. alarm. Desperation and innovation can become indistinguishable from a distance; hence experiments like Industrial Strength Sundays at Gator's in the Mall of America, the gothic dance night Bloomington never knew it needed.

Located on the upper east side of the mall (E408), the well-trafficked bar has a spring-break motif, with fake tropical drink stands, a Top 40 dance soundtrack, and as many drink specials as drinks. One wall even bears a ten-foot-tall picture of the club's namesake reptile wearing sunglasses and Bermuda shorts and brandishing some tropical cocktail. Perhaps the black-lipstick set finds this suburban pickup sanctuary comforting in the wake of the post-Columbine anti-goth freakout.

Dim lighting conceals much of the bar's décor on Sundays, when DJs Craig Boyte and Ryanna spin the sort of hard techno you might hear at Ground Zero's Bondage A Go-Go night. There are always at least a few dancers on the floor throughout the night that I visit--a few more when the DJs indulge the crowd with an old Cure hit. Most of the patrons are dressed in their black-Sunday best, decked out in raven leather or latex, donning sunglasses, and displaying facial tattoos.

The sparse crowd (fifty or so, on a typical night) isn't going to make the bartender's next house payment, but the goths' social warmth at least belies the color scheme of their duds. Maligned as monster Satanists in the media, they seem pretty relaxed about the presumed hopelessness of it all, flitting off to the corner to shoot advancing zombies in the House of Death video game. In the men's room, two guys stand by the sinks--one wearing a Nine Inch Nails tee, the other sporting a mohawk and a black skirt--amiably comparing notes on how they were turned on to KMFDM. Outside by the bar, a black-clad regular tells me she knows most of the people present and cites several reasons she likes coming out to the mall on Sunday nights. There are the people, of course, and the drink specials. And the DJ even lets you bring your own music to throw into the mix. If this sounds like a modest party thrown in someone's living room, it is, except that the living room is in a massive, mostly abandoned shopping complex built to distract humanity from the utter meaninglessness of its existence. Come to think of it, the coupling of the Mall of America and this particular subculture isn't so confusing.

Red Lights and Poetry, Penumbra Theatre, May 7 and June 4

The rejuvenated Red Lights and Poetry cabaret is also cozy, but in a Baptists-on-a-Sunday-morning sort of way. Started two summers ago in a Northeast Minneapolis warehouse, the event has found a semipermanent home in the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, where the now-monthly multiethnic performance night mixes jazz, hip hop, dance, and spoken word in ways you might not expect. During its May 7 incarnation (it will be held again on June 4), the night featured everything from the teenage hip-hop tap dancers called the Tap Twistas to a gospel group that uses sign language, Unthinkable Joy. A fixture of these kinds of events, Truth Maze pushes his poetry-to-a-beat into the realm of jazz-hop, but the creative meat of the evening is pure spoken word. After Nazirah W. Muhammad revs up the crowd with her stark, sharp poems about blackness and womanhood, Thien-Bao Phi takes the stage, alternating between vitriolic rants about Asian self-hatred and poignant flashbacks to childhood.

This is fiery, unapologetically political identity art--always an endangered breed in this state's porcelain literary climate. The poems demand an immediate, unmeasured response, and the audience gives as good as it gets. Members of the 200-strong, mostly black crowd cry out in agreement with one of Muhammad's fiercest lines about the persistence of slavery. Shouts and mm-hmms continue through the night, in stark contrast to regular poetry slams at Kieran's Irish Pub, where the crowd remains attentive but subdued. With its mix of formats, Red Lights fosters a barroom immediacy and theatrical intimacy that makes for the ideal slam atmosphere. When Muhammad asks the crowd, "Please don't clap just 'cause you feel you have to. I want you to clap when you feel it," a voice shouts back from the darkness, "Feelin' it."

Cold Fusion, May 7

Of course, the need for this kind of communal affirmation extends beyond enclaves of feared goths and oft-ignored poetry slammers. Christian ravers, for their part, are as much a minority in their subculture as they are a majority in the society at large. Perhaps these particular outsiders can find their own refuge in parties like Cold Fusion, one in a continuing series of raves held at the FUSE house in Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood.

At first glance, this is your typical raver house party. Down in the basement, kids in baggy jeans dance wildly under heating ducts and spinning lights. But the two-year-old FUSE (that is, Focused Underground Spiritual Environment) is attempting to reconcile its brand of temperance and faith with the excesses of the rave scene. The most visible sign of this mission is a poster asking partiers to refrain from using alcohol or illicit drugs--which could account for the packs of teenage boys smiling and talking reservedly on couches rather than dancing. The obvious challenge for FUSE is to balance an ethic of abstinence with the hard fact that most people (regardless of subcultural standing) haven't yet learned how to let go without some chemical social lubricant.

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