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Unfinished Feminism 

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PERFORMANCE CHICAGO

Joanna Frueh and Heidi A. Lang

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

February 24 and 25

Debora Duez Donato, originator of "Performance Chicago," needs to raise the standards for these works. Both pieces presented on the second weekend--Joanna Frueh's Mouth Piece and Heidi A. Lang's Breaking It--seemed thin, unfinished, and flat, giving complicated problems simplistic solutions.

Mouth Piece, according to program notes, "focuses on the importance of individuals speaking for themselves, the significance of learning and using one's own voice in terms of personal and social empowerment and the necessity of being one's own mouthpiece." Frueh spends about an hour reading a collection of lyrical texts, her own and others', that present images of women's powerlessness, of misogyny, and of sexual obsession. She begins standing at a microphone, where she reads snippets, sometimes in a stream-of-consciousness style, that reveal layers of hidden meaning and forgotten associations in everyday language. The verb "sing," for example, is from the Gaelic meaning "explain." Every few minutes she moves to a chair a few steps away to read a monologue addressed to an unseen man with whom she appears to carry on an addictive, destructive sexual relation.

The figure of Wordswoman, described as "armed to the teeth, never biting her tongue," appears throughout. She is a woman who can devour men with her words. Frueh intentionally leaves it ambiguous whether Wordswoman is her own alter ego (Frueh is a well-published art critic) or a purely fictional woman who happens to wield language as a tool of self-empowerment.

What makes this piece so unsuccessful is its naive, even dangerously ignorant view of contemporary feminism. Frueh wants to empower the female voice, to fight against the silence imposed on her by a patriarchal culture. Yet the place where she purports to find her own voice is in sexual union with a man. She says, "We [she and her lover] create a language of our own, but known in variations by everyone who fucks." Is Frueh unaware that sexuality has been for millennia the very locus of masculine control over women? That men have reduced, codified, and colonized women's sexuality? That, as Adrienne Rich makes plain in her groundbreaking work Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, heterosexuality can be seen as a coercive system designed to keep women socially, economically, and psychologically dependent on men? How can any well-read cultural historian equate fucking with freedom, especially when the fucking is as brutal and obsessive as it is here? Indeed, the man she addresses exists only in sexual terms, and by and large he's someone whom she services.

Never does Frueh examine the possibility of a woman-created language, of value woven out of experience between women as women and not as the helpless victims of male oppression. Wordswoman isn't finding her own voice, she is merely whining, capitulating to an oppressive system that denies the validity of her speech in the first place. And since Wordswoman is presented as armed and dangerous and yet seductive at the same time, she simply continues the pornographic fantasy of the whore, the dark temptress who can destroy men with her feminine wiles. Mouth Piece accomplishes nothing in terms of creating "personal and social empowerment." Rather it reinforces some of the ugliest misogynist fantasies our culture has to offer.

Only the image of forced silence, briefly examined, offers a moment of insight. Frueh touches on it early in the piece in a story about "Everett Everhart." Everhart is a voice teacher who wants Frueh to be a chanteuse, and demands a certain kind of vocal placement from her. This is the perfect image for a tacit gag order: the man would have the woman be a chanteuse, an "explainer," yet will force her instrument to duplicate his own ideal. This episode, which is marvelously illuminating and full of powerful associations, is not further developed.

Lang's Breaking It has a more responsible feminist agenda. The piece chronicles the psychic journey of a young woman, Stefanie, who attempts--with the help of a narrator/archaeologist--to reclaim a part of her psyche that has been perverted by masculinist fantasies. The different parts of her psyche are here represented as goddesses from ancient Greece: Artemis, Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, and Hera. These characters all sport contemporary kitsch--Athena, goddess of knowledge, wears a mortarboard and shoots pool, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest, wears leafy lettuce on her head and eats Jolly Green Giant vegetables. Stefanie's quest is to "remember" each goddess's story, not as she has heard it through a patriarchal filter but as it was originally. Aphrodite, for example, is not a love goddess who infects men with desire. She is the ideal of self-sufficiency.

The ideas here are certainly worth exploring, but unfortunately the script lacks ingenuity. Once Stefanie arrives at Mount Olympus, where the goddesses hang out, each goddess simply recounts her history and explains how her standard depiction is simply the projection of a male fantasy. Everything is very broad; the piece is really a skit. In order not to appear amateurish, it must be either outrageously clever or very swiftly acted, and unfortunately it is neither. The actors seem generally self-conscious and hesitant, with the exception of Stefanie Stephens, who plays Stefanie with an arresting sincerity and passion.

Breaking It could probably carry a coffeehouse or poetry reading. But with the formal demands imposed on it here, it seems embarrassingly awkward.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Huntley Barad.

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