“The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.”
—Fred Moten, In the Break
They called me Faggot like it was my name. It was a cold night in February and my ex-boyfriend, a friend, and I were on our way to go dancing at the venue House of Yes when two men dressed in black got out of a black Lincoln Town Car, shined a bright light in our eyes, slammed us against a wall, and starting searching us against our will. They claimed to be cops, but refused to show us any proof of identity; when I begged to see a badge, one of the officers checked my skinny body against the brick building, unclipped his gun from the holster, and said, “This is my badge, Faggot.” We thought we were being robbed or kidnapped so we fought for our lives to escape. With what I now know was irony, we screamed desperately at passing cars and closed apartment windows for them to call 911, to call the police. At this point in the story, I always think about the scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre when the girl finally escapes her torment and finds a police officer, only to discover that he’s part of the family who has been torturing her; I think about the emptiness and loss in her eyes when he drags her back to the nightmare she’d given all of herself to escape. The next time I was able to look up I was lying face down on the cold sidewalk, my hands cuffed behind my back, my body sore and bruised from the officers’ abuse, my face tender from being dragged across the ice and pavement. The two men who originally attacked us were gone. In their place stood a pair of officers in uniform who continued precisely where their undercover collaborators had left off. Their parts had been recast, but they were reading from the same script. They already knew my name. Not just the two who decided to attack us in the first place, not just the next two who came afterward to take us to jail for “resisting arrest” (we weren’t under arrest, hadn’t committed any crime), but the vast majority of the officers at the 90th precinct where we were taken. They all continued with the refrain, taunting us (“you excited about jail Faggot?”), waking us up suddenly with the slur anytime we would drift off to sleep during the night (“WAKE UP FAGGOT!”), using the cold shock of the word to get us to look up for photographs they would take of us crying and enraged (“Hey Faggot!” flash, flash), while they laughed and texted the images to their friends. The entire ordeal lasted between twenty and thirty hours, but the trauma is like a spirit they let into my body, a ghost cop who lives in me and tries to remake me the way the state wants me to be: more afraid, more alone, less rebellious, less expressive, sicker.
This essay began as an attempt to revisit THEM—the notorious and iconic work about the AIDS pandemic by choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer Dennis Cooper, and composer Chris Cochrane—to grapple with how its meaning has shifted from the premier in 1985 to its current iteration last month at Performance Space New York (formerly PS122). Whenever a work of social commentary is revived, it’s imperative to consider how it will be seen differently in this moment, within this culture, reframed by our politics. This iteration of the piece is part of a series that considers the place of performance in the face of “a national political climate that feeds off social inequity more than ever.” THEM 2018 arrives the summer after neo-nazis murdered a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia, a killing that was all but endorsed by the president. It comes two summers after the executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of the police—only months after these officers were absolved of all responsibility for their crimes. It comes at the moment that babies are being ripped out of the hands of their mothers by ICE officers for the misdemeanor of crossing an invisible line. How can this piece that is so emblematic of the AIDS crisis also speak to the particular suffering of oppressed and marginalized people right now?
THEM will remain powerful and relevant until the day when there is no more violence against black bodies, brown bodies, and queer bodies. Longer than that. Its brilliance is in its capacity to express grief, horror, and anger at injustice so specifically, so vividly, while allowing the figure, the root cause of that abuse, to remain general—undefined and ubiquitous—like the violence of the state and its echoes in the way we hurt, reject, and domineer one another. This is a personal story of how horrific art can heal trauma and comfort the traumatized; at the same time, it’s a look at how THEM reveals our own complicity in carrying forward the inertia of systemic violence every time we turn away from unbearable suffering. It’s impossible for me to write about this piece with distance or see it as a time capsule from a scarier gay past. It’s more harrowing than that. More urgent.
Back in the summer of 2010, about six months after I was attacked, I was invited to perform in the first revival of THEM in decades. I was in deep denial about the trauma I’d suffered and the effect it would have on my life at that time. I was so nauseated by the thought of entering a courtroom ever again that I hadn’t sued the NYPD for what happened to me, I was in a profound depression (the first of many), and I had a newfound fear of public appearances that had gotten bad enough to cancel readings I was scheduled to give because of an irrational refusal to be looked at by an audience (I felt ashamed but I didn’t know why, wouldn’t find out for another seven years or so that these are common reactions to severe trauma). Still, somehow despite my anxiety, despite the fact that I had never danced in my life, I convinced myself to audition for THEM. While doing my only solo for the audition (my first solo ever), I remember contorting my body into uncomfortable angles, aping the physical distortions from possession films that I love; these shapes still come up sometimes during the course of flashback episodes that wrack my body, forcing me into ugly imitations of the holds the police put me in that night, their bodies invisible in the reenactment, me, a puppet, doing their work for them.
THEM was the trauma therapy I didn’t know I needed at a time when I couldn’t acknowledge what had happened to me. It took years after the initial assault before I was diagnosed with PTSD. Trauma leaves its imprint on the body, not just the mind, a fact that is elaborated in books like The Body Keeps the Score (2013), and is increasingly taken into account in trauma therapies like somatic experiencing, EMDR, and others. The more I read about the somatic aspects of trauma, the more I realized how the rehearsals and performances of THEM had helped me cope and begin to heal. Ask any dancer if dance helps heal trauma and they’ll likely answer in the affirmative. But it’s not only doing movement, any movement, that matters; I was moved to write about my experience of healing through THEM partly because Ishmael’s particular approach to choreography was uniquely empowering for me as queer kid confronting the leviathan of systemic violence.
When I think back on the exercises Ishmael introduced us to, I recognize a profound synchronicity: each small score that made up the piece seems almost tailored-made to allow me to re-experience the trauma in my body and begin to digest it in a supportive environment. It was as though Ishmael owned a copy of the invisible script the police had been following that night. In rehearsals in the basement of the New Museum, we would enact instructions from Ishmael, each of which seemed simple, but would amount to the larger, poignant composition.
We wrestled with each other. Men held me down and I grappled with them for control. Cold spot lights created an alley where men ran at each other, and away from each other, or from something sinister, or something attractive, or towards it. One man pushes another down onto a mattress—maybe lovingly, maybe threateningly; he gets up and he’s pushed down again, and he stands up and is pushed down again, and again, and again. We had intense conversations about loss, death, and injustice. There’s a scene from THEM in which one character menaces the others with a two-by-four. Before he can bash them, I run out, grab the board and throw myself down onto a stained mattress. My instruction was to beat the mattress with the board as hard as I could; it became my favorite part of the performance, channeling all my rage into pummeling the thing and feeling the emotion slip between aggression and cathartic pleasure, and eventually into exhaustion.
THEM’s healing power lies in the fact that it is a trauma dance and a mourning dance; like a rain dance or a tarantella, it’s a dance that does something. When I was writing this essay, I got the chance to ask Ishmael whether this kind of healing work was part of his intention in making the piece and he echoed my own experience of facing things that are unspeakable through movement:
Early on I was seeing a therapist and I was having a hard time talking. I was referred to a movement therapist as well, and it did influence the work. I don’t think my work is therapy for me, but there’s a catharsis to it. The goat scene [in THEM] was really wrestling with my own fear of death. That, and actually carrying my mother [during Relatives (1986)]. Well, and doing contact improv with a cinderblock. It’s definitely a motivator for me—using creativity to heal myself. Where the hell do you think Beethoven’s 9th came from?
In THEM, the villain is mostly absent, a lingering, festering darkness that moves from person to person. Only occasionally does it take form as physical violence, and when it does, the score allows much of that violence to be accidental, spontaneous, and beyond one’s individual control, capturing both the experience of victimization and the complicity of the silent spectator. I often think that Ishmael’s choreography strikes such a chord because of how suited scores (or instruction-based artworks) are for expressing the indirect, bureaucratic violence that is characteristic of contemporary society. As David Graeber explains in his essay “Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life”:
The police spend very little of their time dealing with violent criminals—indeed, police sociologists report that only about 10% of the average police officer's time is devoted to criminal matters of any kind. Most of the remaining 90% is spent dealing with infractions of various administrative codes and regulations: all those rules about how and where one can eat, drink, smoke, sell, sit, walk, and drive.
The specter of violence is always in the background even in the most mundane situations. Those who are privileged to avoid arbitrary harassment by the police often don’t even know that they are complicit in the perpetuation of violence on their neighbors, violence justified in the name of (white) safety. There’s a duet in which another dancer and I are given a small circle of space to dance in and our only instruction is to get into each other’s negative space. Attempts to accomplish this simple task slip seamlessly between intimacy and assault—an embrace becomes an elbow to the back of the head, an attempt to lean into the other results in the cold smack of the floor when there is no one there to hold you. The invisible structure—the score, the policies of authoritarian policing—limits individual agency and determines the parameters of behavior, validating and absorbing responsibility for any violence the actors carry out. I was just doing my job.
When Ishmael discusses scores he uses language that acknowledges this dynamic of authority; he describes the scores in THEM as “controlled improvisations,” that he uses to “manipulate the emotionality of a situation.” But the difference between an improvised score and set choreography is that the dancers still have pronounced agency within those parameters. The form of the score allows the specific life experiences of the performers to become content in the piece, even though the work is a revival. For example, Ishmael described a transition moment in the 2018 version in which Johnnie Cruise Mercer enters and begins to watch the dancers on stage before a solo:
The two couples are doing their duet and he would come up close and look at them before his ‘masturbation solo.’ There’s an interesting racial read because he’s African American and the other guys are doing this almost club dancing and he would go right up to them and stare. He got really, really close to the audience and then he would retreat. And when the music changed he got the eroticism of the moment perfectly. That was him not me. He started doing it.
I remember at a Q&A in Berlin Ishmael, Dennis, and Chris discussed the attitude in ’84 that the work they were doing was too “negative,” that this punk scrawl filled with dread and real violence and real bodies (dead and dying) was at odds with the nonthreatening image that some in their community thought was necessary for their liberation (or more accurately their assimilation). I thank the fucking stars for their negativity: I needed to rage, to struggle, to pummel, and shake, and mourn. We needed the real dead body too. The goat scene grew out of a nightmare one of Ishmael’s friends told him about in the early ’80s amidst the panic of the AIDS crisis. At night he would wake up in bed lying next to his own corpse. He would push it away from him and, with effort, off the edge of the bed. But when he looked over to see if it was gone, it would be there again, and he would have to start all over, pushing his corpse away again, and again, and again throughout the night. The plague that was killing all of Ishmael and Dennis and Chris’s friends left real dead bodies; a metaphorical corpse would do nothing to represent that horror. The first time we rehearsed with the goat, I watched as it was carried into the theater at PS122 and a flood of grief overwhelmed me. I ran to some back room in the theater where I wept and wept and wondered to myself if I could bare to be on stage with this real dead thing, the smell of death and its body right there with me, to face it all.
When I reflect on the goat now, I see not only the millions of bodies left by the AIDS pandemic, but the bodies left lifeless by the NYPD and other police departments all across America. I see Eric Garner’s body, strangled to death for selling a loose cigarette. I remember the smell of the goat decomposing and think of Michael Brown’s body, left out on the street for four hours, four hours, in the hot sun. Like an example. Like a public execution. The reality is that so many of the early AIDS fatalities were really crimes of indirect manslaughter, deaths that were allowed to happen because the disease was “killing all the right people” (as a popular right wing bumper sticker at the time read): black people, brown people, gay people, poor people. Anti-black violence—and anti-queer violence—leaves real bodies in its wake every single day. That was as true in 1985 as it is today.
Ishmael told us the story that inspired the scene with the 2×4, a real incident when someone chased him and John Walker, a member of the original cast, through the East Village with a baseball bat. This is one of the rare moments when the specter of violence that haunts THEM takes solid form. Here we see that the characters are not only possessed by the literal malicious virus, hidden in the DNA, working to undo them; they are also puppetted by self-loathing, possessed by the public narrative of their evilness, their sin. The possession metaphors that riddle THEM and other works of queer horror illustrate how dominant narratives and beliefs can come to dominate and feed on a person, and how these cycles of abuse and trauma reproduce themselves voraciously in echoes of homophobia and hatred, internalized and projected onto one another. In the police car, as the uniformed officers drove my boyfriend and me away, continuing to mock us and call us faggots, I tried to get in their heads, lecturing them about how study after study has shown that the vast majority of homophobes are in fact closeted homosexuals, cannibalizing their community because of their own self-hatred. I could tell the idea bothered one of the men. When we were taken out of the back seat he pushed me up against the patrol car and pressed his body against mine—like he was my boyfriend at a concert—before reaching around to grope my crotch, darkly confirming my accusation.
Johanna Hedva, the author of Sick Woman Theory, reminds us in their essay “Letter to a Young Doctor,” that we tend to think of healing as a return to wholeness, though this may actually be at odds with the reality of trauma, “The profession of a healer is not a practice that facilitates attaining or obtaining wholeness forever, but a practice of bearing witness to all the parts—the parts that have been apart, are apart, and will remain apart—being here.” THEM does precisely this. The myth that healing should be some soft, harmonious process, can in fact be suffocatingly unhelpful. This limiting belief can extend into the larger conversation on the therapeutic value of art, inoculating its potency and power. Turning away from difficult works in favor of feel-good, harmonious, and polite engagements with trauma and otherness betrays underlying moralistic, missionary beliefs about what vulnerable and traumatized communities need in order to heal themselves.
THEM 2018, like THEM 1985, is unflinching in the face of suffering and trauma, while its basis in scored movement composition illuminates both the horror and the intentionality of structural violence. In Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules he tells us that “Jim Cooper, a former LAPD officer turned sociologist, has observed that the overwhelming majority of those who end up getting beaten or otherwise brutalized by police turn out to be innocent of any crime . . . The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is a challenge to their right to, as he puts it, ‘define the situation.’” In other words: the thing police are most afraid of is someone pointing out the invisible script itself. THEM shows us that rules produce and confine the world around us. At the same time, the work reveals that rules are just words held up by a fragile armature of violence. Considering that a common effect of trauma is aversion to public performance, we can’t deny the profound, intergenerational echo effect state violence has had on communities of color and queer communities, yet another absent generation of revolutionary artists missing from the dance community, excerpted from public life.
But perhaps that gives them too much credit. Only so many of us can be silenced. They know that our skeptical words and our noncompliant bodies actually have the power to redefine the very basis of reality, destabilizing the flimsy foundation that grounds their authority. We have words that are miraculous and flexible, and an inexhaustible flood of bodies that will stand and fall, and stand again, unbroken.