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New York '79 and Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker - Belarus Free Theatre at Vauxhall Tavern

Identity politics is one reason for Kathy Acker’s ambivalence towards feminism and it seems to be thoroughly explored here in Belarus Free Theatre’s interpretation of her seminal short story New York City 1979 and then reimagined in the socialist dictatorship that is Belarus in their production Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker

© Nicolai Khalezin

New York ’79, here staged predominantly in a burlesque bar, explores using the text as a guide, resistance against traditional power structures while acknowledging the legitimacy of female heterosexual and heteronormative practises.
Half way through, when main protagonist Janey has her man Johnny,  she repeats, robotic like and talking to herself or as if being directed by the audience, that she must “lick (his) ear because that’s what there is” as if a prisoner of normal accepted sexual practises or because this is indeed, all that there is. Later, when Janey and Johnny get together, their mutual orgasm is accompanied by the sounds of furtive excited notes played on toy saxophones by two young men, whose sexual orientation is ambiguous, yet somehow, through their hyper capitalist dress, contrived. Previously, we hear, in Kathy Acker’s words, that “Janey has to fuck. This is the way that sex drives Janey crazy.” Janey, we learn, is “Want” personified and it becomes her identity. Kathy Acker concerned her whole life with the ability to operate outside normative sexual practises, she examined and perhaps re appropriated the term ‘queer’ for herself, yet we see here, just how confusing, just how complicated and just how wrapped up in capitalist forms sex and identity actually are: Janey is a product, perhaps even to herself, and there is some recognition of this when she answers her friend Bet’s assertion that “We’ve to start portraying women as strong showing women as the power in this  society” with her answer “But we’re not.”

© Nicolai Khalezin

Whilst New York’s sexual underbelly struggles with its liberty still shaped by patriarchal and within capitalist frameworks, how can Minsk 2011, A reply, and Belarus Free Theatre’s corresponding inventiveness respond?
Objects, themes connect. The microphone that Janey spoke and sang down in New York, that symbol of power and protest: well, everyone wants it at the start of Minsk 2011. But we see that no one can have it or ‘space’ to express themselves. In a society where one cannot be openly gay or anything that goes against patriarchal norms, a canteen transforms into a sex club at night, eye contact in the street is forbidden or misinterpreted as aggression and only regulated sexual practises like strip tease, intensely controlled by the state, can be allowed. Kathy Acker’s orgasmic climax between Janey and Johnny is translated decades later into groans down a microphone where the partners cannot touch, only vocalise their sexual desire in a kind of mocking horror. We realise that “to be sexual in Minsk does not mean to be sexual.” You can look- if you dare- but you can’t touch or have. Subjugation means perversion; the tube network becomes sexualised and Minsk itself, not sexy enough for European leaders to take an interest in Belarus’ plight in a speech written by Natalia Kaliada, becomes a “black hole.” It’s not sexual body fluids, an obsession of Kathy Acker's, that preoccupies the people of Minsk, it’s the mutilated arms and legs from explosions and attacks on the state that is fixated upon, and  mopped up by the city’s prostitutes. Janey may be a split identity in New York ’79 even without apparent suppression, but director Vladimir Shcherban here gives us a Minsk that is split itself and split most horribly through its own enforced censoring from the state which eventually and inevitably leads to self censoring. 
However, just as New York ’79’s last line ends under the sun, so does Minsk 2011 when all the actors describe why they love Minsk and still want to live there. But just as Kathy Acker never wanted easy conclusions by posing sometimes unanswerable questions, we get the same feeling of ambiguity here too: Minsk’s sex life and sexual freedoms and ability to love is regulated by a dictatorship which means its underbelly is imbued with a sense of illusionary patriotic nostalgia, sexual perversions (sadomasochism) and hope for a better future.

The post show discussion, where speakers included Sam Roddick and Jide Macaulay, reflected on some of the themes prevalent in both shows- that the last taboo around sex is about not being profitable and where spaces for sexual expression, even here in liberty London, are being closed down ( although the venue we are in, the Vauxhall Tavern, one of London’s best known gay venues, has just been saved from redevelopment). Are we in danger of becoming robots, the great fear expressed in New York ’79? It was noted that in Uganda and Kenya, a law has recently been passed to prohibit women from wearing short skirts and Nigeria arrested 84 men in the last four weeks for being gay. The penalty is extended prison sentences, or under Sharia law, death.  The impression is that, increasingly and all over the world, people are afraid of be free. 

New York '79 and Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker are part of Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution, a two week festival of performances and discussion platforms from Belarus Free Theatre to mark their 10th anniversary in 2015 (2-14 November).

Performances and discussions will be live-streamed here:

New York ’79 by Kathy Acker
cast includes: Pavel Haradnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Yuliya Shauchuk, Svetlana Sugako, Dzianis Tarasenka, Maryna Yurevich
directed by: Vladimir Shcherban

Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker
devised by: Belarus Free Theatre
“Belarus is not sexy” written by Natalia Kaliada in collaboration with Nicolai Khalezin
cast includes: Pavel Haradnitski, Yana Rusakevich, Yuliya Shauchuk, Dzianis Tarasenka, Maryna Yurevich, Victoria Biran, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Siarhei Kvachonak, Aleh Sidorchyk


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