Ralph Lemon's "Scaffold Room" at the Walker

Okwui Okpokwasili at MANCC residency

Okwui Okpokwasili at MANCC residency

In "Scaffold Room," which has its world premiere this weekend at the Walker Art Center, Ralph Lemon funnels pornography, violence, pleasure, and gaze into a series of solo pieces taking place in and around a large scaffolding structure in the Burnet Gallery. The multimedia work, which includes video and a live score by composer/DJ Marina Rosenfeld, features Okui Okpokwasili and April Matthis in restrained, often distant performances that quell the explosive material. 

It's a rather ballsy move for a male artist to take on the topic of objectification of black female bodies, even if he does so with two black female collaborators. We're in an age where it's not always celebrated to speak for or about a group of people for which you are not a part. On the other hand, this work premieres coincidentally just days after Emma Watson's celebrated United Nations speech calling on men to join in the struggle of feminism. The speech, like the work, neglects to include trans identities into discussion of gender politics. But still, maybe it's not such a bad idea to get more men engaged in feminist discourse. 

The piece juxtaposes violence with desire. On the one hand, you have performer Okwui Okpokwasili inside of a box created by scaffolding as if caged, drawing up the image of Saartje Baartman, the South African woman who in the 19th Century was sold into slavery and put on display under the stage name Hottentot Venus. On the other, you have two black female performers speaking pornographic text that dances around empowerment. It's all engulfed with a running stream of pop lyrics and the music of African American pop divas like Beyonce and white female artists who have appropriated black music, like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse.

Unfortunately, the piece at times gets bogged down by text. Lemon draws from source material that includes punk poet Kathy Acker, science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, and standup comedian Moms Mabley, strung together with original text that often explains which artists are being quoted. There are moments of straight discourse, especially in the second half featuring April Matthis, where the audience basically experiences listening to an essay spoken aloud. 
Most of the time, the two performers display very little emotion and have almost no tonal inflection in their voice, though Matthis's section has a bit more variety due to her taking on the character of Mabley. The words, filled with sexual and often violent imagery, are delivered as if reading items from a grocery list. 
The detachment by the performers on the one hand ensures that the piece -- which was created, choreographed, and directed by a man -- doesn't in any way arouse the audience. Perhaps if the performers spoke more theatrically, the danger would be that all the talk of anal sex and cocks and fucking would lead to perpetuating the objectification on the women's bodies. Their deadpan delivery prevents that from happening, but also creates a wide chasm between the audience and the performers. There are some exceptions. Each of the performers have moments of breaking out of the text, particularly Okpokwasili, whose movement and emotion erupt when she's not speaking.  

Another exception, which is the most jarring part of the show, is when April Matthis gets done reading a piece of text about rape. She lies down in the back of the gallery, and starts making high pitched sounds that are loud but aren't quite screaming. It lasts for a long time, and is the most uncomfortable moment of the piece. It's not totally clear if she's performing getting raped, or if she's supposed to be having an orgasm (afterwards she goes back to the Kathy Acker pornography text, so it's probably ambiguously both). The moment is excruciating and not appropriate for audience members who might find it triggering. At the same time, it finally breaks the detachment, and gets the audience to actually feel something -- even if what you are feeling is a mixture of rage, titillation, and horror. 

One of the advantages of having a performance in a gallery is that it allows both audiences and performers to loosen the constraints of a traditional theater setting. Unfortunately, at the preview performance on Wednesday, the Walker staff brought out chairs, turning the gallery space essentially into a theater space with worse sight lines. The chairs prohibited audience members from being able to shift and move throughout the performance, and they also re-enforced a fourth wall that might have not been so apparent without the chairs. 

Besides the ticketed performances of "Scaffold Room" which take place Friday and Saturday evening, there will be a secondary free show, "Scaffold Room: Refractions," where Ralph Lemon and his collaborators have teased out certain moments of the performance and expanded them. If you really want to see something intense, "Scaffold Room Refractions" (which is free) might be your way to go, particularly because you may have an opportunity to witness Okpokwasili perform an incredibly riveting work that involves standing inside the scaffold and moving convulsively while Janis Joplin plays sporadically at extremely high volume levels. It may sound weird, but it's the thing to see on Thursday evening, along with other "Refractions," which will happen throughout the night on Thursday night as well as Saturday and Sunday throughout the day.


"Ralph Lemon: Scaffold Room"


7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday