Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Speaking of Deborah Richards... 

Connections between fashion and the social are less than adequately explored. What links are highlighted are almost always done so in the negative- a condemnation of fashion elites vs. the MTV generation(s). Either “they” are pushing young girls off the cliff of eating disorders or sexualizing pre-pubescent girls. Both of these things are true, of course. But there is a wider view of fashion- not as an elitist leisure industry, but a statement that sometimes signifies, or at least identifies with action.

Fashion comes to the fore in Deborah Richards’ Last One Out. In the preface to the title piece, Richards writes, “This “dramatic poem” uses two of the Tarzan films as a base for the rituals of race and sexuality in the claustrophobic space of the theater set.” The setup brings to mind the Amiri Baraka poem- Jungle Jim Flunks His Screen Test, but they’re linked in theme only. To clarify an earlier statement regarding the Richards piece, it is written for a theater stage- designed as to appear as a movie set.

LAST ONE OUT is a character lineup.

Saidi: Black woman. Dressed neither to impress nor to seduce.

Riano: Black man. Dressed how a black man can. You decide.

Jane: White woman in a white hip slip.

Mr. Parker: Jane’s father, brown enough to be black, in khaki (with-a-long-a).

Harry: Mr. Parker’s business partner, white and safari-clad.

Martin: White man, Harry’s old school pal likes the gals.
Dressed smart in safari shorts and jacket.

The whites’ costumes are described in more particular detail than the black characters’ outfits are. The white men don safari gear, and Jane wears a slip named in style and color. Meanwhile, Saidi & Riano’s attire are left up to our preconceptions and/or imaginations. Both descriptions are wide-open to interpretation. Implicitly, we play a part in dressing these characters, & exercising a degree of control over them. What does it mean to dress to impress? To seduce? How can a black man dress? Just as it’s written- “You decide.” Mr. Parker’s character embodies the problematic contradictions of racial definition. He’s “brown enough to be black”, but still “white” enough to be described in khaki. He is passable enough to be in a position of power, and he dresses the part.

H Stands for Hat is an explanation of the hats of the jungle- which ones the characters wear are defined by both gender and race. The hats symbolize status within the order of characters. “He” is used in bold- highlighting male dominance, while “she” is not. The explanations are given from the left margin in, while there is a second narrow column coming down the right side of the page. These are filmmaking directions- pausing, playing in slow motion, rewinding & repeating “as required”, reinforcing the order in the theater audience as well as the players.

In H Stands for Home, Jane gives a monologue about feeling at home, but not quite as much as she might like. The stage direction enforces fashion’s role for women, which is one of display. She is directed to “undress”, “discard”, “lean”, “show”, “dress”, “undress”, “discard”, “lean”, “show”, “//:” Jane says:

I am so complete
Completely white and brave
And so and so and so
I feel so

Later Saidi speaks for Jane “woman to woman”. The explanation is a reiteration of the pattern of dress, disrobe, be dangled by a rope & wait to be rescued by the hero. Saidi gives two different scenarios where “she” is saved by the dashing protagonist. Once the scene is over, the pattern repeats with the actors unable to come out of their roles.

At Their Backs the Dark Continent is the most entangled and maybe the most interesting scene. The character Slick returns to his native New York. He enters the stage making “the sign of the goat”, and “mirrors the garb/ that grabs but he rapped up/ positive soul in a bow”. Slick is still black, but doesn’t feel like an outsider outside the jungle. In New York City, he sees the African immigrants as aliens- and himself a (kind of) native. But his struggle is in many ways the same, hinting at a colonial bondage not unlike the jungle order imposed by the European “explorers”:

just watch your back walk the shadows
that’s where we at
just cruisin’ déjà vu
dress how we’re told
eat what we’re sold
we are they we are them
we are outside the boundaries

In NYC, Slick & the Africans are still dressing how they’re told. He gives immigrants a word of advice- to “undo the cover version/ expose degradation beneath”. There is something ugly beneath the surface in the New World, hidden just like things are hidden in “turbans” and “long veils” back home.

Jane tries to see “him” as a human being in Savaged Desires Killing Time. Mr. Parker will have none of it- since he claims to esteem the hat as a mark of civilization. Meanwhile, a checklist of African movie deaths are marked off in the right columns. When Jane’s father denies “him” humanity because he doesn’t wear a hat, she offers hers. It won’t change his mind, because it never was about the hat. He replies, “You can’t. He’s a savage.”

It’s Slick’s return in the epilogue that takes the piece in a radical direction. Slick’s name is William Smith. There is a new hero in this film played by- yes, Will Smith, modern-day action hero. He has a suggestion:

let’s trump the king play the white man
out of this picture and make it real
to reel black suit with a zoot
cut up keep the raybans cos they
paying the deal what an inventory
whatever you want just take it
there’s power in what you can take

Richards lists the Men in Black soundtrack as a source, cluing us in to her idea of how Slick might turn out. The new hero doesn’t wear safari gear or a loin cloth, but a black suit & shades. The new protagonist refashions our ideas about how he dresses as well as what he looks like. Slick’s departure from the Will Smith character is an important one. He is not just wearing a black suit, but one with “a zoot cut up”. Agent K is a heroic character, but he is a government agent, after all. Slick adds a twist- he dons a suit cut from the cloth of African American & Latino identity circa WWII, as the “Tarzan era” began to wane. In minority neighborhoods, the zoot-suit was worn like a uniform. It “was a refusal: a subcultural gesture that refused to coincide with the manners of subservience.”* Slick takes what he wants & makes it his own look, encouraging others to do the same. His final lines are “you don’t need to/please me”.

Last One Out is as concerned with wardrobe as it is with plot. Possibly, the wardrobe is the plot. Characters are (sometimes literally) dressed & undressed. Sometimes it’s us who dress them. Ideas of identity are undressed & changed. Fashion appears as oppressor, and reappears as liberator. Stage directions suggest that we “Don’t try this at home.” Deborah Richards is suggesting that we do.

*Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and StyleWarfare”
History Workshop Journal, 18, Autumn 1984, p.78

Frank Sherlock

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