February 15, 2011

Dog Act and the power of naming

I recently had the chance to see Flux Theatre's production of Dog Act. Long story short, you should go see it while it's still playing (until Sunday, I believe).

There are plenty of people giving great reviews for Dog Act. I don't believe I can add much that hasn't already been said, so I encourage you to read those for a good idea of what works in the play and why.

Instead, I'd like to connect Dog Act to my ongoing project: a queer Black womanist liberation poiesis.

I think it took actually seeing theatre to solidify some of the more nebulous ideas that have been floating around in my head for a while. It's already been established why it's necessary to have a queer Black womanist liberation poiesis (yes, even for straightwhitedudes). What has been fuzzy thus far is what such a poiesis would look like.

The comments in this thread touch what I think is something that will (hopefully) become a major breakthrough somewhere down the line. Ursula K. Le Guin hints at possibilities in her essay, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be. From an aesthetic point of view, I can see the poiesis I'm trying to create veering towards yin.

[...] we must return, go round, go inward, go yinward. What would a yin utopia be? It would be dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold.
--Ursula K. Le Guin, A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be

Speaking of circular, back to Dog Act.

In Dog Act, the voices at the end of the world sound like the voices at the beginning (at least, the beginning according to how Americans reckon it, during that once upon a time in the Old West when there was a guy named Shakespeare and everybody talked funny).

As such, the dominant aesthetic element of a queer Black womanist liberation theatre is neither plot nor character, but voice. Of course, voice is not merely what is said out loud (or rendered into words via ink or pixels). It's the unique expressions of those experiences, memories, dreams, fears, and hopes that root individuals to the source(s) of themselves. Plot, character, theme, spectacle - all these are but aspects of the voice.

Even as all the characters in Dog Act share a similar situation on both a local and global scale, they each have very different voices, from the fuck-laden quasi-Shakespearean tongue of the scavengers, Zetta's straight-outta-movies Old West talk, the ambiguous veracity of Vera Similitude, Dog's plain English plus canine, to Jo-Jo's twitchy and manic storytelling style that's part doberman and part spark plug.

The most potent use of voice is the power of naming. Through naming, we not only identify but manifest what is possible. Naming, of course, is not a moral process. Its power can be used for good and/or ill, to oppress and/or to liberate. An oppressive use of naming acts as power over - especially as manifest as power over others. A liberating use of naming is more like power of - especially as manifest as power of oneself. In Dog Act, for instance, there is power over dogs but power of story. It's a subtle but crucial distinction. Both in the play and in life, power over brings ignorance, enslavement, and suffering, whereas power of leads to the potential for wisdom, freedom, and happiness.

Yet there is more to voice than naming. Or is there? Let's try this exercise. Take the word "spoon." Now imagine it from the point of view from each of the following:

  • Someone who collects rare antique spoons
  • Someone who was regularly spanked with a spoon as a child
  • Someone who has no spoons
  • Someone who makes spoons
  • Someone who eats with their hands

Another exercise. This time let's use the word "dog" and examine it from the perspectives of:

  • Someone attacked by a police dog during a civil rights demonstration
  • Someone who had many beloved canine pets
  • Someone raised by wolves
  • Someone allergic to dogs
  • Someone who eats dogs

Now what do you get?

So we come to another aspect of voice, something I'll call resonance. Resonance is linked to the associations people make to their named experiences. For example, a person who has nothing but contempt for canines would not say "dog" the same way as one who truly believes them to be man's best friend. And they certainly would mean something different when they called a person a dog. Say, "Men are dogs!" vs. "You're my dog, man!"

What makes voice really interesting, though, is when one act of naming creates two or more areas of resonance. People who've been attacked by dogs have also had them as beloved pets. People allergic to dogs may also admire them. Consider how often the love-hate relationship (romantic or otherwise) features in contemporary media.

But there's more to voice than either naming or resonance. It's something more internal, which I am too tired to name properly at the moment, but has something to do with the nature and temperament of the individual who shares similar frames of resonance. An impulsive, aggressive person who's been bitten by a dog would react differently to a strange dog wandering the street than one who is patient to the point of passivity.

Both resonance and this other thing I'm talking about are not limited to characters. It includes every person involved in the process of creating the performance - actors, directors, writers, designers, and even the audience.

So this is where it gets really tricky: How do we unify all these elements into a single voice? Is that even desirable?


  1. Really interesting ideas about naming, and I think deeply connected to Dog's arc. Thanks, Shawn!

  2. You're very welcome, Gus. Looking forward to your response to Tulpa when it comes up.