Black Hoodie. Back Turned. Hands reaching in pockets.
That’s all Dana Michel did at the beginning of her performance piece.
She didn’t sashay out, say a word, or turn around. Yet this simple combination seemed to symbolize more than just a casual introduction.
It reminded me of the “Ferguson” painting by Titus Kaphur that graced the cover of TIME last year, it reminded me of Trayvon Martin, and it reminded me of the voices I heard screaming in the streets of OTR last year that said “Hands up, Don’t Shot” after one of our local officers shot and killed another Cincinnatian in broad daylight less than 15 years after our own race riots.
As Michel moved from her tortured stance and onto the floor, sinking into a white rubber pit topped with a pool toy, she dipped her fingers into paint and spread a think, white layer over her lips and chin and mouth and nose. She covered her face and started to choke down a bottle of creamy white milk.
The milk and the paint seemed to stifle her voice, to feed her body but not her soul. She shivered and shook as she fought to have the diary agree with her. In my mind’s eye I started to see the milk as White Culture (aka Pop Culture). It is hard to deny this reality when UCLA is still reporting that almost 100% of Film Studio Heads are both White and Male. To have grown up as a black female in an era where media consumption is part of everyday live, this lack of racial diversity from top to bottom must have left it hard to ‘swallow’ the narrative of popular media.
Moving out of her sweats, Michel then slithered and crawled to the center of the floor. She had pulled out a bright yellow trumpet from her pants and began to blow flatulent noises. It was only after she pulled out a banana and began to sing in a clear, high voice did the absurdity really set in.
She took turns “phalisizing” the banana and tooting the horn. Creating a DADA sort of atmosphere filled with strange sexuality, racial stereotypes, and an audience whose heads were all titled so far to the right and their eyebrows so arched they had to be sore the next day.
The true climax of Michel’s performance seemed to come when you least expected it. The performance had been silent except for noises Michel made up to the point she started playing music on her laptop. This started as a pleasant atmosphere but quickly reached a fever pitch as gospel music blared over the speakers and Michel played with the silky, white blonde hair she so coveted as a little girl (the title “Yellow Towel” come from her childhood playacting as if she were blonde by wearing a yellow towel around her head)
Michel clipped the hair in and then began to rapidly shake a light yellow pom pom in time to the gospel track, and it was everything I could do not to get out of my seat and start throwing my hands up with her. This sort of cathartic moment lasted only a moment before the grabbed the hair clip out of her braids, and shook it out till all that was left was a strong, confident, female artist in all her glory.
Dana Michel proved that she could navigate the landmines of absurdity and austerity to create a performance piece with meaningful symbolism. Her exploration of identity, dominant culture, and movement were inspiring if not a bit challenging to the average Midwestern audience. This was a performance I will not soon forget, and hopefully these types of cultural showcases will continue to spark understanding and dialogue in a city that desperately needs it.