Thank You For Coming: Talking with transdisciplinary performance artist NIC Kay about balance, Blackness, and hope
NIC Kay and I met just after I moved to Chicago from Los Angeles in the fall of 2014. I was coming from the world of sunshine and contemporary dance, and was thirsty for brick buildings and East Coast aesthetics. NIC was a Chi-by-way-of-the-Bronx theater kid, deep in their vogue femme practice: soft and cunt. (NIC uses they/them pronouns.) We were both Black, conscious, weird, and queer, and became friends fairly easily. Since that initial meeting, our respective work has grown more experimental and far-reaching in terms of influences, while at the same time more focused on who it is we make work for and why. We are both explicit in our desire to use performance as a way of connecting with and lifting up Black folks, and especially Black queer femmes and women (trans and non-trans).
I’ve been working with artists in Chicago, New York, and New Orleans on several projects that orbit around what I deem “Black time,” a sense of the temporal that loops, rewinds, doubles up, and goes deep. NIC, who now splits their time between Chicago, Rotterdam, and New York, just completed the Chicago iteration of their touring show, lil BLK, and they are now embarking on a new project and fundraiser, GET WELL SOON! They’ve recently released a Web series about lil BLK called “Bronx Cunt Tour” for the queer people of color platform Open TV. We had a conversation just as NIC was wrapping up lil BLK at the Hamlin Park Theater, two weeks after I closed my show, S P R E A D, at Links Hall.
Anna Martine Whitehead—A friend of mine saw S P R E A D, which opens with a twenty-five-minute meal while my body lies prone upstage. She mentioned that a former professor of hers—also a person of color—once told her that he was so overseeing women of color make performances where they “pretend to be dead.”
NIC Kay—And I’m overseeing shows with people standing erect. I’m over ballet. I am making work for Black people, things we can connect to. I work really hard to make sure Black people can show up to performances, by inviting friends and family via text, email, calls, and the Internet. There should always be at least one other Black person in the audience. Those are the conversations I’m trying to have, based on the content of the work. I’m trying to switch off my need for validation from traditional structures and ask myself who, ultimately, am I making the work for? Why must the show really go on? That’s hard to answer if you’re not being real with yourself. But I have community. I don’t need to be on stage, with people clapping for me, to feel good about my work, about my Blackness, queerness—my otherness.
We’ve both been busy producing shows in Chicago, which is a kind of second homecoming for you.
Being back in Chicago is beautiful and extremely gruesome. I was in Switzerland when it was announced that 45 would be our president. A sense of dread began to build inside of me when I thought about all the white people I occupy space with. A fatigue hit right away. I’m tired; my friends are tired; we’ve been arrested how many times? I collapsed within myself. So I began reading Frederick Douglass and Mariame Kaba’s goodnight posts on Twitter to help regain strength.
I began to understand that this election was just the beginning of a series of elections. The same way Brexit has been the beginning of a series of turns toward fascist, xenophobic ideology. There are many more such elections and bad decisions to come. And we need to take this seriously: we need to hold news outlets and pundits accountable for the way they did not take his campaign seriously. It’s like everyone went to the circus, thinking it was going to be some cute clowns, and then they realized the door’s locked and they’re not going home—no one’s going to go home. And they all should’ve done their research.
In terms of white empathy, knowing [Black people] through our virtuosity does not seem to help. If we could get free by singing and dancing, we would’ve been free a thousand times over. We’ve been ruling the artform since before we got to this continent. And the display of Black pain does not seem to help. Millennials are no less racist than previous generations. So, knowing a few Asians, or being married to a Black person, or listening to world music, or watching a killer-cop video on YouTube, obviously is not helping.
It feels especially hurtful to hear the white liberals, who often are our producers and presenters still saying in regard to the election, “What happened?”
As our foremothers, forefathers, and trancestors said, these people don’t care about us. I’ve decided it’s my business to not worry about it (chase after white people). Many of them are intent on killing themselves and taking us all out with them. At the end of the day, we Black people just need to talk with each other, listen to each other, fight, and grow. It’s what I’m doing. It scares me, but it’s way more rewarding than what I feel in all-white spaces, where I find myself asked and centered to plead for my very humanity. My people may be trying me with their inability to get pronouns right, but I believe we can at least meet on some human level and grow together.
The neutrality that white liberalism supports is essentially erasure. They waiting around to see if the threats are real or what… Martin Luther King, Jr. told us: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” But that’s what’s happening. The reality of the situation is bad, and I’m struggling with a sense of pessimism that I now wear as a blanket.
Having worked closely this past year with an all-white majority-straight theater company, I too have been struggling with nihilism. Sometimes I feel as though I’m just perfecting the art of shutting down internally as a means of building my resume. I can get very depressed sometimes thinking about how easy it is for me to have a great time working in a one-hundred-percent-white-space because my ability to dissociate is so on point.
I meditate on hope as a discipline. I need hope to be able to do the work—the “wake work,” as Christina Sharpe says.
I listen to John Lewis interviews. It helps me synthesize my sci-fi Black feminist perspective with a more historical, faith-based practice. Lewis talks about preparing ourselves for the futures we already know exist. Instead of understanding the struggle as a fight, Lewis comes from this Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)-type practice of maintaining faith that you are already in the kingdom and all you need to do is prepare yourself to make a home there. For me, that is a very quantum sort of ideology. It is about recognizing the radical black hole of liberation that already exists all around us.
Okwui [Okpokwasili] and I talk about the space between the human and the interstellar. Reading Octavia [Butler]’s work has helped, too. For a very long time, I felt that Afrofuturism was beyond my understanding of what a future could be, considering all the weight of being Black and femme and masculine and queer and all of that good stuff. I always felt like sci-fi was white people’s genre, so that they could find other worlds to go and fuck up. Octavia said, ‘Actually, this is what happens when you fuck up this world, and here’s how we go and make other worlds.’ Her futurism was embedded in a proto-Black pessimism. She said, ‘Let’s continue to state that we’ve gone through extreme amounts of pain and violence that can never be apologized or pathologized or written away.’ We can try and thrive within this situation, or we can barely survive. And knowing about ourselves as best we can is a choice that we can make to bring us closer to thriving. Some would say it’s a privilege to thrive. But acknowledging ourselves is a right that we all have.
This conversation is making me think about how useful group therapy would be for artists. I’ve often thought this should be a line item in any presenting institution’s budget.
Yes! Can you imagine a therapist on staff at an artist residency? We could call it “Artists Anonymous” or “Untitled or Unknown Conceptual Feelings Gathering.” Because sometimes the girls be out here eating paint. Someone would be like, “I haven’t shown my work to anyone in ten years… I’ve just been collecting stuffed animals, and now my house is full of stuffed animals.” And we could all say, “Hey, girl. Thank you for coming.”
NIC Kay was a 2017 Movement Research Artist-in-Residence Van Lier Fellow in New York City.