Monstah Black on his latest project, HYPERBOLIC! – Creating space for light in the darkness

Monstah Black.<br />© Stan Pearson. (Click image for larger version)
Monstah Black.
© Stan Pearson. (Click image for larger version)

HYPERBOLIC! (The Last Spectacle) just premiered (8th July) at Dixon Place, and runs Fridays and Saturdays through to 23rd July 2016. Here’s the background to its creation…

New York City’s renowned artist incubator, Dixon Place, will be host to this month’s 25th anniversary HOT! Festival. As the centerpiece of the annual celebration of queer culture, Dixon Place has commissioned a new work by the performance artist Monstah Black. HYPERBOLIC! (The Last Spectacle), according to the blurb, is an upbeat, funny, and visually driven blend of original music, dance, theatre, and fashion – all in Black’s signature “cultural grab-bag” style.

The work is a bit of a departure from his last big project, Cotton. An experimental film premiered in 2014, it utilized footage of various site-specific works that Black created in locations from Virginia plantations to New York City. Images of high trees, hands in the earth, and cotton evoke the themes of race and history, which run alongside Black’s usual thread of gender identity to create a poignant meditation on what it currently means to be black in America.

HYPERBOLIC! was really the result of me creating The Cotton Project,” he recently told me over the phone. “Because The Cotton Project is so sociopolitically driven I felt like I needed some breathing space where I could create something that wasn’t super charged – something that’s just fun to watch rather than something that’s constantly making you think.”

HYPERBOLIC! publicity image with Benedict Nguyen, Monstah Black & Johnnie "Cruise" Mercer.© Peter Yesley. (Click image for larger version)
HYPERBOLIC! publicity image with Benedict Nguyen, Monstah Black & Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer.
© Peter Yesley. (Click image for larger version)

After being ensconced in such a heavy topic with The Cotton Project, Black desired a completely different direction for this new work. But it wasn’t an easy go. When he entered the studio at Dixon Place last summer, he was fixated on the idea of allowing himself to explore and do things he hadn’t before. It can be difficult for artists in residency, when tasked with creation, to allow themselves the space for noncreation; that is, a kind of creative block. The empty space where no action is being taken, though the wheels are certainly turning.

“We all go through that,” Black said. “We get into the studio and it’s like, nothing’s happening. I decided to let myself live in that place, and not judge it. Just kind of be there. I was in the studio alone from May until January really – trying to move from a different place than I normally move from.”

And once that new place was found, one of exploration deeper into glamour, humor, and the absurd – Black cites John Waters and his infamous muse, Divine, as some of his main influences on the work – things began to crop up organically. If a performer mentioned that they’d never done something before, Monstah took it into his process and turned it into something. The same went for his own challenges. If he’d never done something before, he immediately used it as a tool for creation.

What emerged from that process is HYPERBOLIC!, which dives into the genre- and gender-bending style that has come to be synonymous with Monstah Black. Originally conceived as a lighter take on hot-button issues like sexual identity, religion, and politics in the form of “the last party on Earth,” the process took a decidedly more sober turn after the June 12th mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Suddenly, the lightness with which he and his cast had embarked on this journey of creation had taken on an immense amount of weight.

“It kind of freaked me out,” Black admitted. “Because I had no intention of creating something that was going to be heavy. And the first week after the shooting, it was super, super heavy.”

HYPERBOLIC! publicity image with Johnnie "Cruise" Mercer, Benedict Nguyen, Joey Cuellar, Monstah Black, Shiloh Hodges & Alicia Dellimore.© Peter Yesley. (Click image for larger version)
HYPERBOLIC! publicity image with Johnnie “Cruise” Mercer, Benedict Nguyen, Joey Cuellar, Monstah Black, Shiloh Hodges & Alicia Dellimore.
© Peter Yesley. (Click image for larger version)

For a moment, Black was paralyzed by the events. He was in the midst of creating the end of the show, but felt what he was envisioning now bore too much weight for what he’d originally intended the work to be.

Instead of adopting the somber attitude radiating throughout the LGBTQ community and letting the work tip to the political side, Black used the new charge in the air to work even harder through the darkness to get back to a place where there is still light. “I feel like it’s created space for me to push futher into bringing humor into what we’re doing. I feel like that is the only way to coat what’s been created. It’s the humor and the glitter. The sparkle. The sequins. All of that is what’s going to help smooth it over and help make it less about people being killed.”

As fate would have it, this all ties in with Black’s intent for the piece, which is to encourage the idea of self acceptance and self love, which, as most people know, can be one of the most difficult things in life. So often, our choices are governed by the fear of what others will think of us, or the fear of not being accepted. “At the end of the day, none of that matters,” Black said, after reflecting on the various stages of his own identity and self-acceptance. “And I think [this is] what it’s about really: just live to the fullest and enjoy life as much as you can, because it’s all just so short.”

The journey of creating HYPERBOLIC! has been one of self-discovery for Monstah Black. He wanted to come out of the show with a better understanding of himself as an artist, and also of his process. “I learned a lot,” he said. “There’s an awareness I feel about where my strengths are, where my weaknesses are; what I like to do, and what I don’t like to do. It feels good to be in that place.”

Monstah Black.© Stan Pearson. (Click image for larger version)
Monstah Black.
© Stan Pearson. (Click image for larger version)

Throughout his career, he has been the driving creative force behind every aspect of his work. He is the choreographer, sound mixer, lyricist, scriptwriter, vocalist, and costume designer for much of his work. And all of that is in addition to being onstage with the rest of the cast. Monstah Black is, at the core of his being, a performance artist. Part of his journey through HYPERBOLIC! was the realization that he didn’t want to separate himself from the piece by staying out of its performance.

“That particular challenge, of stepping away from performance, I think is something that I’ll always struggle with. Because I’ve spent my entire life performing, and I don’t see myself stopping.”

HYPERBOLIC! (The Last Spectacle) just premiered (July 8th) at Dixon Place, and runs Fridays and Saturdays through July 23rd 2016.


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