Performing another performer’s solo performance, you ask? Is that even possible? Advisable? Workable?
Yes! And for one simple reason. It provides a way to access the solo performances you may never get to see. To demonstrate this, I would like to reflect upon what students have done with the excerpt from Rhodessa Jones’ Big-Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women over the years. I have never had the opportunity to see Rhodessa Jones perform live, though I have seen a very brief clip of her performance and I have seen a solo show that she directed (Will Power’s excellent The Gathering in 2001). But, because of the written excerpt of the text and because students have picked it to perform again and again, I have a very good sense of just how remarkable a piece it is. It is a popular selection, especially among female students, and a wide variety of women, looking very different from Rhodessa Jones and very different from each other, have given it a try. Though the piece comes out of Jones’ experience, it also speaks to each and every one of the student performers who have recreated her piece.
Perhaps it’s the voices within it that inspire students to want to try to bring them to life. The piece begins in the voice of a young girl singing an innocent jump-roping song and then proceeds through the voices of that same female as she is abused and incarcerated. The piece also includes other female voices, including the voice of the aerobics instructor who tries to empower the incarcerated women while they are behind bars. So, in addition to performing words that give voice to innocence and anguish, there is also the opportunity to give voice to comedy (that aerobics instructor has nothing but attitude and lip for the guard asking, for example, whether the guard thinks she is trying to break INTO jail). In addition, the piece invites lots of action whether it’s the action of jump-roping or the action of exercising or, towards the end of the piece, the action of dancing. So, for those students who are nervous about having to talk while standing or sitting still, this is the piece for them.
I remember the performance of Jones’ piece by one young woman, in particular, however. She was extremely, almost morbidly, shy in front of audiences. And, yet, what spoke most to her was the final portion of the piece in which the performer engages the audience in a ritual meant to drown sorrow as taught to her by her mother. In rehearsals, that student wanted to pretend to engage the audience from the very back of the stage. Little by little, however, I encouraged her to go out into the space of the audience carrying a small bowl of water and to actually sprinkle water on them as she recited the words of the ritual. The student performer had very practical reasons for being convinced to come out into the audience despite her extreme shyness. It had everything to do with the fact that it took up more time and the final performance had a time requirement. But regardless of the motivation, the actual performance of the ritual knocked the socks off of the student audience who only knew the performer as someone who was very shy. In addition, I could tell by the enormous smile on the student performer’s face that she was not only feeling relief that she was done, but that she was also feeling confident and powerful as a performer. That power and confidence came from Rhodessa Jones’ words and from enacting the ritual with the audience. That student was not Rhodessa Jones, but she (and all of us in the classroom watching her) did get a glimpse of the power of her solo performance, Big-Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women. So, yes, I do think that not only is it possible, but it is also worthwhile to perform another performer’s solo performance, even if autobiographical.