Hilton Als: Lives of the Performers

Friday, Nov. 16 & Saturday, Nov. 17, 8 p.m., $37

Current ArtSpace + Studio, Chapel Hill

The first half of Lives of the Performers, the debut play by Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als, focuses on June and Jennifer Gibbons, the daughters of a West Indian family who immigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. During and after a disastrous upbringing in which the children were perpetually bullied—as the only black kids in the small, racist coastal town of Haverfordwest, in southern Wales—they became known as “The Silent Twins” for their adamant refusal to speak to anyone but each other.

The second act of the play, which Carolina Performing Arts is presenting as an in-progress staged reading at Current this weekend, focuses on Sheryl Sutton, an actor who rose to the forefront of the black avant-garde in 1970s-and-‘80s New York City. Sutton found fame as the “Byrdwoman,” a recurring figure in Robert Wilson’s first decade of experimental stagings. Wearing a dark, severe, high-necked Victorian dress, Sutton silently poured two children glasses of milk before calmly murdering them with a kitchen knife in Wilson’s uncanny 1973 classic, Deafman Glance. Her movements and gestures were meticulously essentialized and stripped of artifice. With an absolutely magnetic stage presence, Sutton made Wilson’s events unfold with a sense of inexorable ritual. Wilson researcher Laurence Shyer called her the director’s “quintessential performer.”

What do two subjects that seem so discrete have in common? Start with silence.

Wilson gave Sutton’s mute characters a strange agency in Deafman Glance and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, where she remained motionless on the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage for an hour before creating a coup de theatre merely by rising, walking forward, and gazing out, for the first time, upon the audience. Sutton’s extended silences gave her performances a profound sense of reserve—a bottomless well of interiority in which her characters lived rich, contemplative lives that were at once fully disclosed and fully hidden.

“Sutton said one of the reasons she so enjoyed working with Bob was that he gave her so much time to think. She was using all of that time,” Als says. Shyer noted that Sutton’s silence gave her the enigmatic ability “to be strongly present and absent at the same time.”

Similarly, the vow of silence that June and Jennifer Gibbons made as children and perpetuated for almost two decades was an act of disengagement and resistance, a barricade against both their harassment and the parents who weren’t able to protect them from it.

But in their sanctuary of silence, a rich, creative interior life flourished among the twins. In the upstairs bedroom that was their fortress of solitude, they formed a society of two, speaking to each other in an all but impenetrable common tongue. Then they began using dolls to script and craft a community to replace the one in which they were not welcome—and “a family to replace the one they had excommunicated,” as Als wrote in a 2000 story in The New Yorker. In that safe, private place, a flood of poetry, novels, and diary-based memoirs followed. But as puberty hit, their separate space and common cause began to crumble.

Sutton and the Gibbons twins have something else in common: They are “blissfully unaware,” Als says, of “performing blackness.”

“One of the things that undoes me as a viewer, when I watch human beings being human beings, is when their story, which includes blackness and femaleness, is used as an ideological tool and not a narrative tool,” says Als, who will receive the Langston Hughes Medal the day before arriving in Chapel Hill. Anytime he felt his script slip into an easy explanation of who his subjects were because of their race and gender, he cut the passage.

“It feels creepy when people are italicizing part of their humanness in order to sell themselves,” he says. “I didn’t want these women to be sold. I wanted them to be listened to.” For him, the work is about what he calls twinning. “It’s a way of wanting to feel that someone has the same feelings or understands you completely and without qualification,” he says.

Als has written small works for the stage before, and in 2016, the Whitney Museum invited him to direct a revival of free-jazz composer Cecil Taylor’s operatic version of Adrienne Kennedy’s A Rat’s Mass. Still, Lives of the Performers is his first full-length play.

“I’ve felt really vindicated,” Als says. “Working as a critic at The New Yorker has been a wonderful kind of graduate school to work in theater.”

The work began as an adaptation of Als’s New Yorker article about the Gibbons twins for a 2017 benefit by performance artists Okwui Okpokwasili and Helga Davis.

“My sister had recently died,” Als says, “and what they and director Peter Russo came up with was so emotionally true, I wanted to continue, so I could deeply and emotionally talk about me and my sister as well.”

Carolina Performing Arts announced last month that Okpokwasili and Davis had been chosen to receive two of the first four fellowships in the new Creative Futures initiative, and both will act in this week’s staged reading at Current. At the same venue on Saturday at 4:00 p.m., Als will hold a free public conversation about how criticism and creative writing build communities of readers, spectators, and artists.

As our conversation winds down, Als reflects on his subjects and the courage they have given him.

“These people have endured great hardships, but the richness of the imagination has the enormous ability to lift you out of the limitations of the world,” he says. “They were free to dream without restriction, because they insisted on that.”

Follow Byron Woods on Twitter @byronwoods. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.