Recently at Slate, it flashed on writer Meghan O’Rourke what “dark literary doppelganger” Sarah Palin–“with her bright
smile, her folksy-corporate style, and her Silly Puttied authenticity, which
mirrors back at the viewer whatever talking point she’s just absorbed”–reminded
a character in a George
Saunders story… trapped in the American DreamTM. [Saunders’]
workers at theme parks or Hooters-style restaurants, mummified in
corporate-sponsored “flair,” speak in her same style of substanceless
perk–the language of cute-can-do-ism that’s exploited by companies to lull
workers into taking pleasure in how much of their time is given over to the
business of being an employee.
Palin speak, like the
settings it’s lifted from, is pure loop-the-loop insularity, without origin or
aim. Which means, paradoxically, that it’s always throwing us into a state of
déjà vu, not quite bringing to mind where we’ve seen this proud hoosier
knownothingness before, or the backbiting bitchery (was it only “Melrose Place”?),
or the singsong cadences (“Romper Room”?). When commentators get bent out of
shape over the governor’s unreliable syntax, I think they’re also picking up on the general
drift of her–that she’s a senseless homogenization of a motley of attitudes that put a
premium on authenticity while being entirely manufactured (and for precise political purposes).
Palin’s aura of ersatz is part
of her sexiness–and if you don’t believe she’s got allure, you should have
seen the men’s dials at CNN during the V.P. debate every time the camera zoomed in on her. Her words are to her mind like big breasts are to a small body: they don’t seem to entirely belong to it.
That’s also the voodoo magic that Ann Liv Young channels in “The Bagwell in Me,” in which the love triangle usually associated with Thomas Jefferson is now superglued to our
first president, George Washington.
At The Kitchen last week, Young played George as well as his wife, Martha; Isabel
Lewis, in brownface, did honors as Oney, their slave; and Michael Guerrero, real-life fiancé
to Young, served as all-purpose handyman (shades of “The Blue Angel”).
The corporate spirit of
Palin’s winkiness doesn’t preside over “Bagwell”: the props and costumes are plasticky in a lumpen, not an institutional, way, and the patchwork of borrowings is aboveboard. The script, read
from papers sticky with fluids regularly spilled over the stage, is resolutely
amateurish, slip-slopping from one style to another. The set is grotty. Most
of the tunes to which Young and Lewis bump and grind are borrowed from top-ten radio (when there
was top-ten radio). The sex scenes involve common porno stunts.
Where Young’s Teflon
slipperiness arises from is the story itself, which is also where the surprise
is: you realize you know this story–even in the ridiculous form she’s given it.
You can’t say how you know it, and she never tells you, probably because she doesn’t know, either. It’s just in the air, like the flu.
But then, improbably, she drives this heavy cloud of racist-sexist fantasies to an absurd and logical end. She leaves nothing to the
imagination. She obliterates the imagination–and sanctimony with it.
For example, the way Martha punishes
Oney for having an affair–and baby–with George is to suck her twat while Oney, in skimpy thong, stands and delivers a rap tune. Martha sings the chorus
In case we were wondering if Young really is working down
there, Guerrero trains a minuscule camera between Lewis’s legs, so the scene is
presented front as well as back and underneath–in the flesh as well as on live video. No more wondering.
Young never steps out of her
dumb, beautiful, bossy, and utterly unself-conscious stage persona, and I
think that’s part of why she infuriates as many people as she excites. People want
a sign that she knows how annoyingly amateurish she is, how much her tap
dancing sucks, how her singing is only accidentally good and if she didn’t look so innocently
pretty–which is an accident, too–none of this would work. Most of all, they
want to be reassured that she’s not stumbling through a minefield of history
without at least recognizing that it’s a minefield. She offers no such
She does the show as if a skinflint impresario had recruited her that afternoon and said, “Okay, babe, this is what you got to do: Go
out there and sing along to the song. Swing your tits around, and do the splits,
and wiggle your ass in a few middle-aged men’s faces. Then read this script.
When it says, MARTHA, put on the Marge Simpson wig. When you get to GEORGE, switch
to the Bozo the Clown wig.”
Her big, luscious, slovenly body sighs as she switches
from wig to wig, or changes costume, or tromps up the aisle to sink sweatily toward some mortified man’s lap.
The empty authority of her
her from an earlier generation of performance artists–specifically, Karen
Finley, whom critics have invoked to argue that Young is nothing new. (If you
want a comparison, I think the gross-out visual artist Paul McCarthy is more
apt. He also trains his eye on Americans’ peculiarly erotic response to the
ersatz and banal: how we make things fake and boring so we can feel safe getting
off on them.) As I understand it, and I haven’t seen a whole lot of her (no pun intended), Finley’s
claim to transgressive fame was for going where no one dared go before. (First woman
to stick a yam up her ass!) Young is transgressive for being relentlessly
And that’s where the
pathos creeps in. My metabolism slowed–my heart sunk–about 40 minutes into what
amounted to a nearly two hour show when Young put a sheet over Lewis’s head and
noosed it tight with a rope. I thought, Oh, god, are we really going to wade
through the whole preprogrammed charade of horrors?
Yes, we are. The
dark slave choked, the dark slave getting her revenge, the cunt-sucking,
the fucking via dildo–with breaks for slave and mistress to belt out karaoke
tunes (while tap-dancing and wielding rusty saws).
“The Bagwell in Me” says,
“You know the drill”–then takes us through it, bit by bloody bit. At first, the show’s audacity makes it hard not to laugh. But after a while, the uncanny accuracy of its seemingly slipshod aim–its hallucinogenic reproduction of every shade of bumbling bigotry–begins to hurt.
“It made me really sad,”
my friend Clare said afterward, staring over my head at the wall.
Yeah, that the record has
been broken this long and we’re still playing it. We’d like to turn it off, but
we can’t remember how to get off the couch.