Kristina Marie Darling Theater of the Mind: On Recent Performance Texts by Khadijah Queen & Meredith Stricker

IN THE UNAVOWLABLE COMMUNITY, MAURICE BLANCHOT considers the impossibility of fully apprehending another consciousness. If the other could be known, he argues, they would not be other. We are confronted with that which resists one’s powers of understanding, a strangeness that becomes the source of great and terrible wonder. Yet this line of thinking could also be extended to the various parts of the self, none of which can ever be fully or satisfyingly excavated. What’s more, these darkened rooms of the mind are furnished with artifacts that the other has left behind: a forgotten trinket, an old book, a bit of music.

Two recent performance texts fully and convincingly acknowledge the many ways that the other is contained within the self. Khadijah Queen’s Non-Sequitur and Meredith Stricker’s Alphabet Theater skillfully dramatize this ongoing dialogue between the various parts of consciousness, giving voice to the alterity that is contained within each one of us. Though vastly different in form and approach, Stricker and Queen share an investment in revealing consciousness itself as performative, as one assumes (and at the same time questions) the roles of the various archetypes, their voices, their personae, and their possibilities. We are presented with a consciousness that is divided, not always against itself, but in dialogue with its seemingly infinite and luminous facets. As each work progresses, we are made to see how conscious experience unfolds through this questioning, this conversation and exchange.

Though these performance texts might be read as purely interior dramas, we are shown that the world is contained within each of us. Indeed, Queen and Stricker envision the mind as comprised almost entirely of found material, ranging from Hart Crane’s The Bridge to “the voice of Malcolm X.” Through their skillful curation of language, Queen and Stricker reveal the mind as a social construct, thought as appropriation, and every idea as an act of theft.

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Queen’s provocative Non-Sequitur takes place everywhere and nowhere. We are offered a cast consisting of archetypes, what Queen describes as a “large group of abstract/conceptual characters and objects,” none of which give rise to a conventional narrative. Instead, Queen delivers “a shifting landscape” and “evolving interiors,” each conversation taking the form of an excavation of culture and the psyche. Every act, and every scene, contained within Non-Sequitur confronts a source tension that heretofore has remained buried, an unacknowledged violence that we soon find “engulfed in a spotlight.”

Many of the vignettes presented within Non-Sequitur consider the ways race and gender are performative, how these concepts of identity exist in dialogue and in friction with one another. Indeed, Queen calls our attention to the myriad ways that the “invisible institution” with its constant demands, “the white appropriation,” the looming “online payments” and the systems of valuation that they represent, are inevitably internalized. What Queen offers us is an externalization of the conceptual frameworks we have taken in; it is this visible and visceral rendering that allows us to see their reach more clearly, to understand that we are not only subjected to injustice, but it is an “aftermath” we carry inside of us.

Queen writes, for example, midway through the collection,

THE INVISIBLE INSTITUTION

Playing with children, playing with adults—same thing.

THE BROWN VAGINA (points to a door)

Someone left the door open–

THE ONLINE PAYMENTS

Reminder: Please send payment by the due date.

Here Queen portrays the competing systems of valuation that one must constantly reconcile in the mind: the economies of labor, texts, and goods that circulate round us, as well as their relationship to the physical body, particularly the ways difference is written onto the body. By giving voice to each iniquity, and each projection, Queen reveals the impossibility of a harmonious and unified psyche. She suggests, skillfully and powerfully, that we have not only divided communities against themselves, but we have divided our own hearts and minds. As Queen accounts for each fissure, each cleave mark, she reminds us that even “intelligence is a kind of violence.”

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Stricker’s Alphabet Theater, much like Queen’s work, considers the way that conscious experience is an essentially social endeavor. She shows us that “even in dead winter” the “immense bee hum” of a larger cultural imagination is audible. Culling language from a variety of lexicons, which include Senator Danforth’s speeches, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stricker constructs a theory of mind in which we are constantly reconciling the texts, images, and symbols that circulate around us. For Stricker, it is in the space between these received texts, in these luminous apertures, that the individual begins to exist. As Stricker herself reminds us, “The more a thing is torn, the more places it can connect.”

As the book unfolds, she reminds us thought is not as simple as “roses calling roses to mind.” Indeed, she catalogues the seemingly infinite forms an inner life can take, allowing the various modes of knowledge and perception—which range from lists, to dialogues, staging directions, performance scripts, micronarratives, imaginary etymologies, and photographs—to illuminate one another. As the reader traipses through this “still place,” filled with the luminous artifacts of an inner life, we find ourselves implicated in the process of forging connections, narratives, continuities. By involving the reader in such a way, Stricker shows us that to exist in culture is to enter a room filled with someone else’s belongings; we are always strangers in our own psyches. each projection, Queen reveals the impossibility of a harmonious and unified psyche. She suggests, skillfully and powerfully, that we have not only divided communities against themselves, but we have divided our own hearts and minds. As Queen accounts for each fissure, each cleave mark, she reminds us that even “intelligence is a kind of violence.”

❧ ❧ ❧

Stricker’s Alphabet Theater, much like Queen’s work, considers the way that conscious experience is an essentially social endeavor. She shows us that “even in dead winter” the “immense bee hum” of a larger cultural imagination is audible. Culling language from a variety of lexicons, which include Senator Danforth’s speeches, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stricker constructs a theory of mind in which we are constantly reconciling the texts, images, and symbols that circulate around us. For Stricker, it is in the space between these received texts, in these luminous apertures, that the individual begins to exist. As Stricker herself reminds us, “The more a thing is torn, the more places it can connect.”

As the book unfolds, she reminds us thought is not as simple as “roses calling roses to mind.” Indeed, she catalogues the seemingly infinite forms an inner life can take, allowing the various modes of knowledge and perception—which range from lists, to dialogues, staging directions, performance scripts, micronarratives, imaginary etymologies, and photographs—to illuminate one another. As the reader traipses through this “still place,” filled with the luminous artifacts of an inner life, we find ourselves implicated in the process of forging connections, narratives, continuities. By involving the reader in such a way, Stricker shows us that to exist in culture is to enter a room filled with someone else’s belongings; we are always strangers in our own psyches.

Stricker writes, for instance,

the veins radiant in Thoreau’s leaf

or life—gladly, willingly—

desire of the world for form, arc to arc—bright white

we suffer from this bridge of lightening to loss

Stricker, like Queen, skillfully externalizes the conceptual frameworks—particularly the structures of meaning making, and the finite conventions of narrative—that we have taken in. By creating this distance, Stricker is able to discern more clearly implicit assumptions contained in the “forms” we search for. She calls our attention to the ways culture has taught us to impose structure, to create the loveliest “arc” we can from the materials we are given. It is this distance, the space between Stricker and her subject, that allows her to reveal our predilection for meaning in all of its beautiful artifice.

Queen and Stricker, while differing slightly in form and approach, both render the inner life suddenly, startlingly tangible, dramatizing the movement of conscious experience. In doing so, they allow us to perceive the mind, its “shining” fissures and its “islands” in sharper relief. Even more importantly, these innovative poets make solitude beautiful and strange again.



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