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Tight Right White

Moishe  Pipik! The derogatory, joking nonsense name that translates literally to Moses Bellybutton and that probably connoted something slightly different to every Jewish family on our block-the little guy who wants to be a big shot, the kid who pisses in his pants, the someone who is a bit ridiculous, a bit funny, a bit childish, the comical shadow alongside whom we had all grown up, that little folkloric fall guy whose surname designated the thing that for most children was neither here nor there, neither a part nor an orifice, somehow a concavity and a convexity both, something neither upper nor lower, neither lewd nor entirely respectable either, a short enough distance from the genitals to make it suspiciously intriguing and yet, despite this teasing proximity, this conspicuously puzzling centrality, as meaningless as it was without function-the sole archeological evidence of the fairy tale of one’s origins, the lasting imprint of the fetus who was somehow oneself without actually being anyone at all, just about the silliest, blankest, stupidest watermark that could have been devised for a species with a brain like ours. It might as well have been the omphalos at Delphi given the enigma the Pipik presented. Exactly what was your pipik trying to tell you? Nobody could ever really figure it out. You were left with only the word, the delightful playword itself, the sonic prankishness of the two syllabic pips and the closing click encasing those peepingly meekish, unobtrusively shlemielish twin vowels. And all the more rapturously ridiculous for being yoked to Moishe, to Moses, which signaled, even to small and ignorant boys overshadowed by their big wage-earning, wisecracking elders, that in the folk language of our immigrant grandparents and their inconceivable forebears there was a strong predisposition to think of even the supermen of our tribe as all kind of imminently pathetic. The goyim had Paul Bunyan and we had Moishe Pipik.

            -Philip Roth, Operation Shylock (1993), p. 115-117.

 

Tight Right White is a model instance of culture feeding upon itself. Abdoh mentioned as “inspirational” to Tight Right White a book by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, called White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. That book was in turn a byproduct of a European museum exhibition, sarcastically called the “Negrophilia” collection, which aimed to document Western representations of Africa and blacks from the eighteenth century to the present. That exhibit was in turn begun by an African-American theater director, Rufus Collins, who, while working in Europe, was shocked to come across images of blacks that, he believed, would have been condemned in American popular culture. Collins began to collect images and icons, ranging from the Golliwogs in England to the Netherlands’s Black Peter. The collection was adopted and enlarged by a Dutch-Antillean film and theater collective. And of course all of these were made possible by the ongoing inscription of political, social, and economic events upon group identities, a process in which cultural creation is both a means and an end.

The two narratives that run through Tight Right White are Abdoh’s adaptation and staging of the novel and blaxploitation movie, Mandingo, and the interactions, organized at times like a talk show, night club act, or interview, between Blaster, a teenage black junkie and drug dealer, and Moishe Pipik, an MC dressed and made-up as an anti-Semitic stereotype. Abdoh has called it “a cross between a Minstrel Show and a Borscht Belt night club act.” If only it were so simple, it would be much easier to criticize. But the show succeeds because the layers of cultural text are dizzyingly deep.

Consider Kenneth Lynn’s definition of the Minstrel show as “a white imitation of a black imitation of a contented slave.” As part of the blaxploitation genre, Mandingo twists this process around minimally, using a narrative of slavery to confirm the stereotypes that were a requisite part of that victimization. Mandingo does not use whites in blackface to portray an image of the blacks; that practice left a cultural signature that is now too evidently forged. Instead, Mandingo uses black and white actors to tell, from a white and bigoted perspective, a narrative that pretends, in the most transparent and superficial way, to be a sympathetic rendition of African-American enslavement. In adapting Mandingo to the stage, Abdoh revives and co-opts the Minstrel show practice of blackface-but expanded, so that it is not only a practice of whites wearing black makeup, but blacks wearing white makeup. On top of that, many of the parts are crosscast in terms of gender. Abdoh locates the twist made by blaxploitation films on the Minstrel show, and uses estrangement techniques to lash out at both genres simultaneously.

Mandingo is also an ideal choice for this project because of the way it mixes racial stereotypes with sexual ones, feeding on audience fascination with miscegenation. Sander Gilman has observed that the “white man’s burden” becomes

sexuality and its control, and it is this which is transferred into the need to control the sexuality of the Other, the Other as sexualized female. The colonial mentality which sees ‘natives’ as needing control is easily transferred to ‘woman’-but woman as exemplified by the caste of the prostitute.

In Mandingo the concern for sexuality and control functions on levels of both race and gender, as women of each race vie for attention, manipulating men of each race for their own, ultimately thwarted, ends. The two central women of the film, black slave and white wife, are essentially reduced to prostitutes by the degree to which each of them fulfill sexual roles defined by economic concerns-the black woman is owned by the white and can give birth to something that has property value, while the white woman was only married for the sole purpose of producing an heir to a slave plantation.

Mandingo, the movie, tells the story of black slaves and whites on the Maxwell plantation. Hammond Maxwell, son of Warren, is a relatively compassionate slave owner, shunning the brutal rape technique of his Cousin Charles and instead being as civil as one can be to women who have no choice but to sleep with him. He falls for a slave named Ellen, whom he buys to be his “wench” at about the same time he, in order to please his father’s concerns for continuing the Maxwell line, marries his (cousin) Blanche. Hammond is disturbed to find that Blanche is not a virgin, and he’s even more disappointed when he finds out Blanche’s first bed mate was her brother, the evil Cousin Charles. Repulsed by Blanche’s incest, Hammond stops sleeping with his wife. Blanche, ever jealous of her competitor, at one point beats a pregnant Ellen until she miscarries.

Another slave recently purchased by Hammond is named Mead. Mead is a “Mandingo,” a type of black known for proficiency in fighting. Mid-way through the movie, Mead takes part in the human equivalent of a cockfight, and develops a loyalty to his owner when Hammond shows a willingness to stop the fight out of concern, however belated and limited, for Mead’s welfare. Mead refuses to stop fighting, and goes on to win a large sum of money for his master. Mead and Hammond’s relationship is destroyed, though, when Blanche forces Mead to have sex with her. She gives birth to a black baby, whom the doctor kills. As retribution, Hammond kills Mead by wounding him first with a gun and then boiling him alive in a giant cauldron. As Mead screams in agony, another slave shoots and kills Hammond’s father.

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Tight Right White. Photo: Paula Court.

Spliced into vignettes, all of the above plot points and more are integrated into Tight Right White. Interrupting the continuity of the scenes are not only the exchanges between Moishe Pipik and Blaster, but numerous dance sequences that range from hip-hop to Austrian waltz; a bald white man in long black robes who sings a love song sung by prisoners in Auschwitz; a large black man in a blonde wig and school girl’s dress who, hilariously, lip-syncs “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music; and a couple of appearances by a band of dancing KKK members-one of whom, in the show’s opening dance sequence, by way of unbuttoning her white robe to force Blaster to perform cunnilingus on her, reveals that she is actually black.

In addition to the aforementioned playing on gender and race, the Mandingo scenes are acted presentationally, in a way that vents the anger Abdoh may have felt when reading the book or seeing the movie. The Mandingo scenes in Tight Right White are bitter parodies of a repugnant film. But as Abdoh has said, none of his work is “a museum piece… It’s about now, it’s about contemporary culture.” Or, as Blaster says in a repeated exchange where Moishe Pipik asks “What’s your secret?”: “Nothing has changed.”

An interesting demonstration of constancy in cultural stereotyping comes through in the presentation of the hip-hop dance sequences. One of the concerns of feminist criticism has been with how women should create an idea of womanhood that is neither based on notions created by men, nor only justified by operating in reaction to the already existing models-“the creation of a female subject position and the deconstruction of the inherited subject position that is marked with masculinist functions and history.” Tight Right White‘s dance sequences highlight a similar dilemma for the African-American community. Hip-hop culture’s autonomy is, after all, highly questionable: African-American music and cultural critics have questioned the ethnic authenticity of rap music, whose market is actually dominated by white consumers. In Tight Right White, the images of hip-hop culture are similar to the construct of sexualized, musical Negroes that has been manufactured over the past centuries by white culture. Before one such hip-hop interlude, Moishe Pipik and Blaster have the following exchange:

moishe pipik: [Touching Blaster’s crotch] I’m told you’re a dangerous man Blaster. I like that. It excites me. Stand up. Don’t worry, we’re off the air. Are you sure you’re not just a little black?

blaster: I’m a black man, and I don’t know how to sing and I don’t know how to dance and I don’t know how to preach to no congregation. I’m too small to be a football player and I’m too ugly to be elected mayor. When I watch TV and I see all them people living in them fine homes they live in and all them nice cars they drive, and I get all full of ambition. Now you tell me, what am I supposed to do with all this ambition I got?

moishe pipik: Shove it up my hungry Jew hole.

blaster: But… But… But…

moishe pipik: Shove it up there, nigger boy.

[Blaster shoves his dick up Moishe Pipik’s ass.]

moishe pipik: [Screams] OY!

agamemnon/cicero/hammond maxwell: For Blood, For Soil, For Honor. [repeated four times.] For Faith, For Race. [repeated four times.]

What immediately follows is a song by a rap group called Wrex N’ Effex, extremely popular at the time on both the rap and pop charts, called “Rumpshaker.” The song’s refrain, heard in the show, runs “All I want to do is zoom-a-zoom-zoom-zoom in a boom-boom,” and the song is accompanied by choreography reminiscent of a central image from Wrex N’ Effex’s video for the song-a thin but incredibly curvaceous woman of color in a bikini, showing off rapid, powerful, and rhythmic pelvic thrusts.

The song and dance is jarringly interrupted by the fifth Mandingo section, where a number of major events from the movie are set aside one another in a light-speed performance: Ellen tells Hammond she’s pregnant and beseeches him to let their child go free; Cicero, a slave about to get hanged for stealing a gun and trying to escape, delivers his last words-“After you hang me, kiss my ass”; Blanche beats Ellen to the point of miscarriage; and Mead nearly dies in a barbaric fight performed for the pleasure of gambling whites. Abdoh stages the latter scene to Verdi.

It would be thoughtless to mistake what might be regarded as the obscenity or tastelessness of the two sequences-Blaster and Pipik’s anal intercourse and the Wrex N’ Effex dance-as mere indulgence of a young audience’s appetite for the prurient and rude-though it’s not unlikely that some audience members were sated only in those terms. It’s exciting to watch, but it’s disturbing. There’s a constant oscillation between the stereotypes imposed on minority cultures and the stereotypes that minority cultures impose on themselves-and there’s not a whole lot of variation.

In his review for the Village Voice, Michael Feingold responded as a white critic rather than as a human critic when he characterized Tight Right White as a “psychological enema, shoved up the id of liberal theatergoers to expel the unhealthy imprints a racist society has deposited there.” Abdoh is not staging a guilt trip for liberal theatergoers. It’s a critique of stereotypes that infiltrate every level of culture, from that which is meant to oppress to that which is meant to “empower.” In Tight Right White, the latter is shown to have inherited far too much from the former.

 

Tight Right White. L. to R.: James Williams, Royston Scott, Randi Pannell. Photo: Paula Court

Tight Right White. L. to R.: James Williams, Royston Scott, Randi Pannell. Photo: Paula Court

Feingold wrote of the “faintly menacing hip-hop jamborees,” and to a certain extent, that’s not an unfair description. From Mandingo‘s white-created Cicero telling whites to kiss his ass, to the tight-knit and strong-gestured ensemble dances done to the music of (arguably) gangsta rap groups such as EPMD and Redman, the image of menacing African-Americans has not changed very much. It’s even debatable as to whether authorship has changed significantly from the blaxploitation genre, given the market-controls that dominate creativity in the music industry and the widely published statistic that the average consumer of rap music is a white male fifteen year-old. Nor has the image of the black woman evolved from one that is sexually uninhibited and firmly entrenched in the position of a sexual object meeting the criteria of a male subject.

 

The critique of black popular culture is strengthened by the presence of Blaster, a black youth surrounded by images created by whites and propagated by blacks, unable to take part in even the shallow myths those images claim to offer. What is he supposed to do with all the ambition he has? If anyone were to articulate an answer, it would be lost in the cultural noise of Tight Right White, noise from today echoing noise from the recent past echoing noise from history. “Nothing has changed.”

In spite of the central position occupied by African-American issues and Mandingo, the sense of stasis carries over to other groups as well. The most obvious fellow character in the struggle is Moishe Pipik. The image of an overweight Jew with a huge nose, greedy, exploiting the pain of others for his own gain, is too disturbing to be dismissed as a relic of past racism. The viciousness of Pipik, of other characters’ treatment of Pipik, and of jokes made about Jews and the Holocaust cut sharply and should jolt the complacent belief of many secluded people, including Jews, who believe that anti-Semitism is no longer a problem. The image of the Jew exploiting the black undercuts itself as another brick in a wall of illusory images that traps all of Tight Right White‘s players.

Phillippa Wehle wrote of Pipik that “we sense that he too longs to ‘come to grips with something,’ as Abdoh says, he too longs to find himself.” In part, this is so, though his performance does not come through as such a struggle until the end, when Pipik, exhausted, takes off his fat suit, removes his fake nose, and, suitcase in hand, prepares to strike out on his own. What is more potent is the stream of KKK and Nazi presences in Tight Right White: the KKK dances at the beginning and the end, and the Nazi chants such as the “For Blood, For Soil, For Honor” cited above. These cement the typing of Pipik and Blaster together-the Jewish-Negro decadence condemned by the Third Reich. “Sell us your death,” Pipik says to Blaster, and simultaneously Pipik, in his manufactured, caricatured, and commoditized role as exploiter, can be interpreted as trapped in his own stereotype-selling his own death. Pipik draws attention to stereotype as commodity: he embodies it as an end, and tries to be a means to it.

His relationship to Blaster oscillates. Sometimes it aspires to exploitation, but it also acknowledges the common sense of Diaspora. Pipik and Blaster, throughout, have repeated variants of the exchange:

 

moishe pipik: Enough already. Blaster, pack your bags-you’re leaving.

blaster: Where am I going?

moishe pipik: Home.

blaster: This is home.

 

And in the final segment, Moishe Pipik actually argues back and forth with the entire cast, repeating the exchange “This is home / This isn’t home” nine times. Pipik, finally, packs his bag, sheds his skin, and exits. Blaster is left on a chair, pedaling fast as if on a bike but going nowhere, hyperventilating into a tank coming from an oxygen tube.

            “Wake up dead man.” The phrase is repeated throughout Tight Right White, in English and in German-which implies the statement as being directed to both Blaster, whose stereotype is identified with English-speaking culture, and Pipik, whose stereotype is identified, here at least, with its German-speaking sources. The source of the phrase did not suggest the dual application:

 

Captain, will you just spare me,

One more day,

‘Cause my row is so heavy,

I can hardly go…

 

Wake up, oh dead man,

Help me carry my row.

Well the rider keep on whoopin’ and hollerin’,

Partner, I got to go.

 

 Abdoh took the phrase from “Go Down, Old Hannah,” an Afro-American prison song anthologized in a collection of songs sung by black inmates in the Texas Department of Corrections. But who are the dead in Tight Right White, and do any of them wake up? Do they wake up to help others “carry my row?” It’s left deliberately unclear. As always, there is a hint at broader redemption, as in the finale, when the company brings loads of suitcases onto the stage, opens them, and throws their contents into the audience. But cultural baggage is not so easily emptied or gotten rid of.

Feingold wrote of Tight Right White‘s “desire to arouse an almost continual flow of outrage,” of the way it “assaults audiences,” of his suspicion that many “African, Asian, Jewish, and gay Americans would fail to see anything in his work but a hideous outpouring of filth.” Perhaps, although producer Diane White has insisted that African-Americans who attended the performance seemed to have been unanimous in their support for the show. The show is disturbing not as an outpouring of filth; after a while, one could shut down one’s vulnerability to that. The source of discomfort in Tight Right White comes from the already cited Bataille quote, where the French sociologist connected obscenity to losing one’s sense of self-possession. Like Peer Gynt pondering his own identity, Tight Right White peels the layers of the onion, but only hints at the emptiness at the core; what is more strongly implied is that the layers are so infinite that individuals can never arrive at the inchoate emptiness¾the pure self¾that antedated the societal imposition of stereotypes.

Partly because of highlighting the artificiality of identity, the nostalgic images of folk culture ring hollowest in Tight Right White. The trajectory of the evening seems otherwise and overwhelmingly aimed at dispelling (constructed) identities. In this context, the Jewish wedding dance and the Austrian waltz seem not quaint, but suspect. They are codes that simply have not been held up to as rigorous a critique as those of African-Americans. The folk dances also complicate Blaster’s assertion that nothing has changed. Some things, clearly, have; there’s an archaic air about these interludes. They summon a time when society openly idealized the homogeneous-an odd thing to invoke in a multicultural era. On the one hand, many ethnicities and races are represented in the performances of the dances, which suggests the openness of these cultures to other people; on the other hand, the perpetuation of these remnants of folk culture would seem to be predicated on homogeneous groups that refuse to assimilate into the dominant-now mixed-society.

“I’m certainly not a journalist. I’m certainly not after presenting any clear cut answers,” Abdoh has said, “I pose a lot of questions.” The shows display a “longing for some kind of response,” without the response itself-peeling the onion. Even the “answer,” that there is nothing at center, is inaccessible. How things are to change, if they are to change; where home is; how we are able to take off the makeup and go home: these are some of Tight Right White‘s questions, asked at the volume of a shout. The volume, the shrill tone, lends the questions an aura associated with didacticism; preaching, however, would make one feel guilty, reformed, or informed, while Abdoh’s questions create a sense of being trapped. Again, there is a notion of carrying the ruined city under our skin-this phrase that can evoke disease, but also the society, history, politics, economics, culture. It’s an idea of something that envelops to the point of intrusion, so that what surrounds is actually what is within-the essence of obscenity.

 

 


  Wehle, 1994, p. 60.

 

 

 

 

 

  Pieterse, p. 15.

  Wehle, 1994, p. 57.

  Cited in Pieterse, p. 132.

  Cited in Pieterse, p. 172.

  Case, p. 282.

  Wehle, 1994, p. 59.

  Jackson, p. 116.

  Interview with the author.

  Wehle, 1994, p. 61.

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