By Jake Austen
Last month I received an e-mail announcing Dick’s Last Stand, a performance by the artist Donelle Woolford that was touring the country as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Woolford (whom I had not heard of, but a cursory Internet search showed her to be a striking young black woman, based in New York, with an impressive CV of conceptual performance art pieces) would be re-creating an infamous 1977 performance by Richard Pryor, a subversive 40-minute stand up set he did for his NBC television show that was so filthy he knew it would be impossible to broadcast. That the Chicago performance was in my neighborhood at the Dorchester Projects (installation artist Theaster Gates’ art-as-social activism complex), and that no one we knew had heard anything about this show, made I seem so simultaneously accessible and mysterious that attendance felt mandatory. As I entered the performance space, seeing about a third of the fifty chairs filled, I hoped to be challenged, entertained, and provoked. I was not expecting to descend into a conceptual art wormhole, booby trapped with racial-taboo time bombs. But when dealing with Richard Pryor, combustibility is always a factor.
The show opened with Chester McSwain, a blues/jazz singer who gigs at the nearby Chant lounge, doing a single Bobby “Blue” Bland tune. After the song Woolford was introduced by a white fellow who seemed to be a part of the production (his whiteness coming in handy later when he played a disgruntled stagehand mumbling curses under his breath after Pryor demanded a stool). Then Woolford, as Pryor, walked through the audience, and took the spotlight, smoking a cigarette before being informed (by the 1977 TV studio producer, also played by the white guy) that there was a fine for smoking, which he/she did not take well.
Two things struck me immediately. The first was that Woolford did not look much like her publicity picture. Even taking the thick mustache and thespian transformation into account, the woman playing Pryor seemed to have a different build than the Woolford I’d seen online. The other thing that was apparent from the smoking exchange was that this interpretation of Pryor, though extremely faithful to the original text, seemed to bring subtext to the forefront, incorporating all the deep, dark information we now know about Pryor’s biography, relationships, and demons. In the original footage, Pryor’s response to the smoking ban highlights the sense of mischief and wicked joy that the comic brought to the stage; he doesn’t seem too irked, perhaps even tickled to get some laughs out of it. In Dick’s Last Stand he/she seems deeply hurt and angry at this indignity. Of course, the original performance was about Pryor raging against the television machine by ignoring the censors. That rage, however, was not expressed in his tone.
Not so in Woolford’s performance, which was an intense, powerful, spellbinding presentation of Pryor’s words spoken by a sullen, seething artist who has taken all the bullshit he/she is gonna take. Woolford told jokes, stories, and observations in a voice less musical and lively than Pryor’s, with eyes expressing more burden than Pryor ever let show. The vulnerability that Pryor consistently revealed (not to be confused with the nervous, jittery routine that he utilized in many of his lesser movies) was something the Dick’s Last Stand Pryor had no intention of exposing. On the Not-Ready-For-Primetime TV version of that performance (preserved on degraded, time code-tattooed video on the Richard Pryor Show DVD set) the antagonism between Pryor and the stagehands seems nonexistent, he’s just fucking with them and they don’t seem to care. In Dick’s Last Stand it’s a powder keg.
Woolford was, obviously, not as funny as Pryor. However, the heart of the performance saw her matching, and in some ways surpassing, one facet of Pryor’s brilliance. Because Woolford had created a darker, more intense tone than Pryor’s, her transformation into Mudbone, Pryor’s elderly raconteur character, was an impressive act of alchemy. Richard Pryor, through an intimate relationship with the audience, magnetism, and commitment to (and affection for) the character, cast a spell whenever he played Mudbone. But when Woolford became Mudbone she became Mudbone.
The wise, truth-telling black elder is a character many comics have employed, and Mudbone may be the most beloved (though Tyler Perry’s Madea is the most popular, and Bill Cosby’s Mudbone-esque Mudfoot may be the most mainstream, as he was a staple of Cosby’s Fat Albert cartoon). At the risk of heresy, I must say I never considered Mudbone Pryor’s best material. In a routine like “Black Ben” (where Pryor plays a host of diverse characters bringing to life the absurd, brilliant situation of a group of covert integrationist tricksters doing a subversive performance for Southern inmates under the guise of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin-esque plantation play) the comic utilizes so many tools it’s dizzying. His lengthy, post-freebase-accident monologues about his self-destructive behavior told painful truths in comic form in unprecedented ways. Pryor was an original, a modern comic, and one of the first successful African American comedians whose work is divorced from black minstrel and black vaudeville traditions. Mudbone is great, but to me it never felt up to Pryor’s talents
But what if Mudbone told his comic tales of white overseers, voodoo women, and survival with an intense undercurrent of anger and dissent? What if the performer was more actor than comic, profoundly immersing into the character? What if Mudbone wasn’t so much a crowd pleaser as a crowd challenger?
That is where Woolford took her performance, and though the room was mostly empty, with the laughter volume proportionally tuned down, when the show ended, Woolford’s masterful, fresh take on a beloved comic character left the audience satisfied, and a little exhausted.
After the set I went to the merchandise table to purchase a book that accompanied the show from the gentleman manning the table (who was also the emcee and supplemental actor.) When Woolford emerged from backstage she seemed anxious to leave, and when the merch man called her Jenn on her way out the door my conceptual art Spidey-sense was tingling. After making small talk (as small as deconstructing Richard Pryor’s comedic legacy can be), I asked merch-man (also known as Richard S. Scanlan), “Who exactly is the artist?”
“That’s a very good question” he replied, and over the course of the next two hours (briefly at the venue, and then leisurely over drinks at Chant, the tiki-esque bar where McSwain, – who joined us – performs) Scanlan explained the concept. Donnell Woolford does not exist, he offered, she is a concept brought to life by Scanlan, Jen Kidwell (who I’d just seen perform the jarring Pryor routine), and Abigail Ramsey, another African American actress. The conceptual art is not about fraud, because even though they don’t freely offer information, they always answer honestly and explain things when anyone asks. Although he initially said “we” and “us” a lot, as the night went on he began reverting to singular pronouns, claiming the project as his own. Had I paid more attention to her online bio, I would have seen that it opens with the cryptic “Donelle Woolford (b. 1977/1980/1954 in Detroit, U.S.A.)…lives and works in New York City, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Philadelphia, London, and Vienna,” and after a lengthy list of exhibitions, ends with the straightforward, “She is a fictional character written by Joe Scanlan and performed by various actors in the scenery of the art world.”
Before summarizing the time I spent breaking down the mechanics, ethics, and history of this project with the artist there are two things I must stress about my views on the merits of the Donelle Woolford conceptual art project. The first is that I certainly cannot judge the project as a whole having not experienced the rest of the work: Scanlan does paintings he presents as Woolford’s, which I have not seen, and there are other writings, visual works, performances, and installations that can only be appreciated/experienced in their intended environments. Most of our discourse involved my asking the countless questions his work begs and trying to understand the artist’s responses to, and expectations of, the inevitable criticism that a person of privilege must expect when taking on the persona of a character representing multiple-marginalized populaces.
That said, the second important point to make is that despite that weirdness, Kidwell’s performance was brilliant, powerful, and can stand alone as successful, mighty art. In fact, it was so powerful an example of acting and interpretation (regardless of how much direction she took from Scanlan) that it can stand alone as a separate, successful performance outside of the Woolford project. Of course, knowing about Scanlan’s concept brings other aspects of the work to light. Even without the racial role-playing calculations, the drag aspect becomes absurdly complicated by the double drag concept (male Scanlan pretending to be female Woolford [played by female Kidwell] pretending to be male Pryor). Also, is a young person pretending to be an old person a form of drag? And when the show ends with Pryor doing a “clean” version of his act for the television cameras, which he does in his square white guy voice, we enter a racial impersonation hall of mirrors.
I did experience one other Woolford project, “her” artist’s book, Dick Jokes, ostensibly another component of the Richard Pryor project. The spare, text only collection presents dirty jokes (mostly familiar chestnuts for anyone with half-a-dozen Redd Foxx LPs), all involving “Richard” (whom we’ll assume is Mr. Pryor). Obviously a collection of dick jokes, specifically jokes about a black man’s dick, as compiled and presented by a black woman has a completely different dynamic than a book-length rumination of African American phalluses by a white man. But even that obvious statement is complicated by the presentation of the jokes. Since Pryor rarely told straightforward jokes in the tradition of Henny Youngman or Foxx, the book doesn’t read like Pryor, instead invoking Borscht Belt traditions of humor, at times saluting the wordy, faux-intellectual skew Woody Allen used in his stand-up (one lengthy jokes concerns rabbinical rivalries). In one joke (a chestnut which Foxx ended with Lady Bird revealing her Jungle Fever-experiences to President Johnson) “Richard” is implicitly not a black man. Further distancing the content from the Peoria brothel-roots of its inspiration, there are many references to the fine art world, with Richard Prince, Andrea Fraser and Liam Gillick namedropped. But despite not being as obsessed with black manhood as I expected, considering that a dick joke book has inherent gender politics, the back cover photo of “Donelle” (a stock photo of a model that Scanlan found) still feels problematic.
But Scanlan seems hesitant to recognize such problems. In our discussion of his work he explained that the Woolford character is one that he has developed over time, creating an elaborate history, and constantly obsessing over what Woolford would do or think in a given situation. He wouldn’t cop to being a provocateur, trickster, or political correctness challenger, but rather equated his work to a screenwriter or author, disciplines where one is allowed to create a character with a different background than one’s own. The national tour I saw was the Biennial piece (there would not be a Woolford performance at the Whitney, though there is a New York show scheduled on April Fool’s Day). Considering the inevitability of criticism from black woman, non-black woman, non-female blacks, liberals, conservatives, and virtually any other sector of his potential audience I was surprised both by how sensitive he was to criticism (someone had compared his collaborators to slaves, which he found very hurtful) and how little of it he expected. He said he has not heard much from black women, and he felt his work ultimately increased black representation, telling me very few black artists made it into the Biennial this year, including Donelle amongst that small number.
Whether he was playing Devil’s Advocate with me, was profoundly naïve, or understands the racial sensitivities of critics in ways I can’t conceive, his lack of preparation for backlash seemed especially odd considering one of the most memorable moments of Pryor’s/Kidwell’s performance(s). After writing a routine for his TV show about “faggots,” Pryor recalls the TV execs vetting it for offensiveness: “Motherfuckers, they called up the faggot experts…the Gay Liberation…they called them up, ‘will this be offensive?’”
After it is determined that it will be offensive, and that he cannot do the routine, Pryor’s response is not an attack on sensitive gays, but a call for parity. “Who the nigger you call up? What’s the nigger’s name you call up when the shit is wrong?”
Scanlan must know that that man or woman you call up is out there, and it won’t be long before they determine if the shit is wrong.
While I probed for details and motivations McSwain, sharing cocktails with us, would occasionally interject things like, “Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke,” defending Scanlan from his theoretical critics. It’s not surprising that someone unversed in the absurdities of conceptual art did not fully understand what was being discussed: McSwain still thought the woman he opened for was Woolford, that Scanlan was Woolford’s manager, and that I was proposing that there would be a backlash against a black woman for having a white Svengali. McSwain is a gifted musician who is also a popular teacher at one of the best public high schools in Chicago. Thus this black man was not only older but also more talented and smarter than the two white guys at the table. Regardless of any defense Scanlan has of his work, this intensely uncomfortable situation of having to choose between explaining something to a wise elder like I was talking to a child or condescendingly ignoring him was an ugly, unintentional byproduct of the artist’s complicated racial shenanigans.
Then again, perhaps my discomfort wasn’t unintended. Because of Scanlan’s disclosure policy and Website disclaimer it’s unfair to label his work “fraud,” but is it a prank? Considering the quality of Kidwell’s performance, and the richness of the experience of being in the audience, I’m hesitant to consider Woolford’s work a prank on the viewer. Is it a joke played on a prejudiced or politically correct art world that might pay attention to black women’s voices only out of tokenism, novelty or political correctness? Or is someone else the prankster’s victim? When Scanlan said that only a handful of black artists made it into the Biennial, including Woolford, that statement verged on comedy. That was far from the most outrageous thing he said, but considering the off-the-record and alcohol-enhanced nature of our conversation it would seem like a violation to recount the rest here. Though never racist or hateful or mean, some statements the artist made were so ridiculously naïve and ill-advised that recalling them later I began to suspect that maybe I was the one being clowned. Considering the tangled web of conceptual art I found myself stuck in, it’s hard not to consider that the victim of the prank may be any writer, critic, or fan willing to engage Scanlan (if that is his name) in a conversation/deconstruction/analysis of his work. Maybe “Scanlan” isn’t the artist after all, maybe Donelle is real and the actor is the guy pretending to pretend to be a black woman, stringing along chump critics. If that’s the case the impish mischief inherent in Pryor’s work, but absent in the performance of Kidwell (if that is her name), is back in play.
Certainly this scenario is far-fetched, paranoid, and loony. But if true, this work of conceptual art is genuinely brilliant. “And,” to quote Mr. Pryor, “it’s deep, too!”
(c) 2014, Jake Austen
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Harper’s,Playboy, Spin, Ugly Things, Vice, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Reader. His books include Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop (W.W. Norton, 2012), Flying Saucers Rock N Roll: Conversations with Unjustly Obscure Rock ‘n’ Soul Eccentrics (Duke University Press, 2011), and TV-A-Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol (Chicago Review Press, 2005). Playground (Spring, 2014) his collaboration with Paul Zone, is a coffee table book of photographs and stories from New York’s early 70s pre-punk scene. Since 1996 Austen and his wife, film scholar Jacqueline Stewart, have produced over 1,000 episodes of Chic-A-Go-Go, their cable access all-ages dance show, which now has a podcast spinoff.