By Priya Frank
Working in the arts in Seattle for several years, I have had the opportunity to see many types of performances in a variety of spaces. Many entertain and inspire; some have let me know what I don’t like, so that I know in the future what not to go see. And there are a few that have stayed with me long after the stage has gone dark. Those performances I cherish and keep in my mental memory box, feeling that what I saw couldn’t be reproduced and how fortunate I was to have been able to witness this unique and groundbreaking moment in time. At Re-Bar in October of 2008, Dirty Girl Productions’ “Hot Grits” exploded onto the Seattle scene, with a unique concept that producer and conceiver of the play, Denee McCloud, refers to as a “3 a.m. idea.” This was one of those moments.
“Dirty Girl” Productions was a production company dedicated to supporting modern and pioneering work produced by African American women. Written by Jude Hill and directed by Tyrone Brown of the Brownbox Theatre, the story of “Hot Grits” followed the lives of four Black women as they entered into the punk rock world where they were not necessarily welcome, and although the focus of the play centered on a band, it was set within a theatrical production. They intentionally cast actors who did not know how to play the instruments they were cast for, so not only did the dialogue have to be learned, but also the instruments, they played, the songs they sang, and the challenge of being able to come together as both a musician and an actor hats within this multi-layered performance. Incredibly all of the songs and music were written by the cast and produced by Dirty Girl productions.
During the play, the audience follows the Seattle band as they struggle to achieve notoriety while facing their own battles with drugs, alcohol, sex, racism, sexism, love, and their search to find their own identities within these issues. Through this journey, Lola, Jordan, Amber and Kenya find one another, and to an extent, themselves, through their common love of punk rock music. McCloud, who was the founder and producer of the production company, said that “Hot Grits is the result of an extraordinary team of artists and creators that have come together to wake Seattle up from a self-induced coma.”
Because of its exploration of a genre seemingly new to Seattle, reviewers of the play seemed confused and unsure about this introduction to a new concept. The Seattle Times Misha Berson called it an “…an attention-grabbing concept…” while Seattle Weekly’s Virginia Zech stated, “Ordinarily I couldn’t care less about swearing in a play, but when a show has nothing to tell me I would rather be told gently… I was deeply disappointed to see semi-glorified drug abuse. On the upside, the costuming and set design are excellent. Many respondents to these articles felt completely opposite, but were not surprised by the lack of support from mainstream news sources. In response, many that had seen the play challenged these negative reviews stating:
• I'm really not surprised that once again, the Seattle Weekly is completely out of touch. I…LOVED it. I think it would have been odd if there were NO obscenities in a punk performance/play…
• "I am so tired of folks assuming that if a play/story/film is about black women that it has to be political or serious. If this was a play about white women in a punk band it would have been glorified as empowering."
• Hot Grits is a unique, original and fun show! I applaud Dirty Girl Productions for raising the bar on what music and art can be in this city, and for exploding the assumptions on what Black females can be & do.
It seems like when a concept is introduced that has the ability to fall into more than one category and addresses issues in a variety of ways, the reception it receives is less than supportive, even in a place that seems to boast a “progressive” attitude, such as Seattle. It seems difficult to place an identity on something when it cross more than one “boundary” such as race, class, sexual preference, etc. Confronting these complex forms of identity calls into question not only the redefinition of acceptable culture and acceptable art forms, but also as Jocelyn Guilbault refers to in her piece, Interpreting world music: a challenge in theory and practice, calls for “a redefinition of bonds, boundaries, and borders…through music people position themselves differently according to specific spaces, times and interests and, by doing so, mobilise different politics of identity.” (P 34, 40)
More than just entertaining, seeing these kinds of performances allows me to examine the critical work that art does to highlight theoretical concepts within the context of an artist’s craft. When the artist performs, they ask questions and create a kind of dialogue within the representation of their bodies and voice. This in turn provides an opportunity for certain messages to be spread in a powerful way. Unfortunately, it isn’t surprising that folks in mainstream media felt that the story didn’t have anything to say. Unlike Misha Berson, I believe that the story had many things to tell us, relating to relationships, music, struggle, and being finding comfort in your own skin. It was exciting to see women of color living their lives and dealing with issues many other women of color also do, and whether or not we would have chosen the same actions is irrelevant.
Check out a performance by Hot Grits at a Magic Wheels motorcycle club gathering in Georgetown in 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvIXM4PajUE
Guilbault, Jocelyne. Interpreting world music: a challenge in theory and practice. Popular Music (1997) Volume 16/1. Copywright 1997 Cambridge University Press