Unfortunately, that attention to detail seems lacking when it comes to other parts of his characters’ lives. Cassara was inspired by the subjects of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. But his knowledge of the ballroom scene begins and ends there; although he tried to contact some vogue insiders via email, he was ultimately unable to speak with anyone in the scene. And because he was writing the book while in graduate school at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he says he was unable to attend any ballroom functions.Read More
Thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, there’s no question that drag is having a mainstream moment. Their recent VH1 finale had nearly a million viewers, making it their most watched episode ever. From your local library’s reading hour to DragCon to YouTube, there has been a subsequent boom in all-ages spaces where drag is welcome. But as the art form moves out of bars and into living rooms, what does that mean for kids playing dress-up? Or for parents of children entering into what is, at heart, a bar scene built around adult gay men and trans women? And finally, what does it mean for drag itself — which at its best is often subversive, raunchy, and cutting — to suddenly have to cater to families?Read More
At the age of 31, Shane walked away from performing and virtually disappeared; for years, internet forums dedicated to the roots of rock ’n’ roll have trafficked regularly in rumors of her death. Yet now, she’s prepping for the release of Any Other Way, a double album of her material from the 1960s: 12 studio tracks and 13 live ones. From the repressed longing of the title track to the rebellious energy on her version of “Shotgun,” Shane’s voice captures the soul of an entire decade. The record blends or anticipates a half-dozen musical traditions, including Motown, soul, rock, R&B, and funk. It even includes a Shaned-up cover of the folk standard “You Are My Sunshine.”Read More
Consisting of 200 gallons of urine in a modernist glass cube – every drop that Cassils has passed since the day in February when the Trump administration announced the rollback—"#PISSED" is a powerful visualization of the literal burden that this move inflicted (and continues to inflict) on vulnerable trans children. As in much of Cassils work, the accompanying soundscape is particularly moving: a mega cut of the various transphobic arguments used against Gavin Grimm, the Virginia high school student who sued his school to be able to use the appropriate bathroom. The two-hour long audio track follows Grimm’s quest from his local PTA all the way up to the ACLU’s lawsuit on his behalf.Read More
Marsha P. Johnson fought, and perhaps even died, for gay liberation. Although we still witness and experience violence and discrimination today, we live in an America that is vastly safer for gays and lesbians because of the life she lived. Yet the very movement that idolizes her does too little for black transgender women like her.Read More
In the case of AIDS, direct action and medical advancement, are inextricably linked, and the history presented here is fascinating and complex. “I was at all the ACT UP meetings as a reporter, so I was theoretically standing back and trying to get the bigger picture,” France recalls. “But it wasn’t until I spent years going back over the documents that I saw that it was directly impacting the way science was being conducted.”Read More
Before starting a conversation with musician and multimedia artist M. Lamar there are a few things you should read up on: doom metal, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frantz Fanon, Plato, Leontyne Price, bell hooks’ concept of white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, James Brown, James Baldwin, counter tenors, Cecil Taylor, the early films of Todd Haynes, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker…
This list could go on forever—as could any conversation with Lamar. Thankfully, to enjoy his performances and their freaky bricolage of opera and heavy metal, raw emotion and formal training, flesh and spirit, there’s no reading required. You simply have to be willing to go there. “There,” in this case, being the deep recesses of Lamar’s psyche, where an entire universe of “negro gothic sensibility” is waiting for an audience willing to take the plunge.
"It’s always been a total vision that I have,” Lamar says of his work. He’s an auteur of an artist, determined to write, direct, and star in all of his own endeavors. Perhaps that’s one reason why Hilton Als labeled him a “diva” in the pages of the New Yorker (where he also wrote that Lamar is an “up-and-coming” luminary of NYC’s downtown performance scene).
This totality of vision is what drove Lamar from Alabama (where he was born and raised), to the San Francisco Art Institute(where he studied painting), to Yale’s prestigious studio art MFA program (where he switched over to sculpture), back to San Francisco (this time fronting a series of metal bands), and eventually to the galleries and cabarets of New York City, where his vision is finally blossoming into a series of performances. And a feature-length film. And a gallery show. And a haunting music video wherein naked white boys in a stockade read Hegel while Lamar croons “fuck you” to them in his evocative soprano.
And that’s not to mention the role he’s probably most well known for: Playing the pre-transition scenes of Sophia in the first season of Orange Is the New Black (a part for which he was particularly well suited, given that Laverne Cox—the actress who plays Sophia on OINTB—is Lamar’s twin sister).
For the last two years, Lamar’s been working on a show called Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, which he performed at NYC’s La Mama gallery in January. It explores the story of Willie Francis, a 16-year-old black boy who was executed in Louisiana in 1947. Twice.
How is that possible? “I always say in America we can find a way to kill a black man twice,” Lamar laughs, but he’s only half joking. A drunken prison guard, he explains, installed the electric chair improperly the first time. Francis had been found guilty of killing a white pharmacist named Andrew Thomas, who was either his employer, his lover, or his abuser, depending on how you assemble the facts and rumors swirling around this nearly century-old crime.
The question of interracial consent and desire in a racist world is at the heart of Surveillance, which shuttles back and forth in time between the true story of Willie Francis, a hypothetical consensual slave/overseer relationship on a plantation in 1847, and the modern day. The film’s visuals are as visceral as Lamar’s vocals. When talking about his art, Lamar is an intellectual powerhouse, but his work is informed by that thinking—not constrained by it. It is as emotional as it is thoughtful.
Much of his work focuses on black male sexuality, and white America’s pathological fascination with it. “I’m very interested in white men and their preoccupation with certain kinds of stereotypes about black men and black men’s genitalia,” Lamar tells me. This interest isn’t limited to gay men, Lamar points out—just look at all the white guys directing “big black dick” straight porn. In his music, Lamar turns the lens around, and looks at white people looking at black people. In so doing, he makes obvious the distance between the real lives of black men and the narrow ways in which they are portrayed in the mainstream (white) imagination.
Lamar is currently working on turning Surveillance into a feature-length film, which he hopes to complete later this year. Early stills and props from Surveillance (including a “penis guillotine” and a “Mapplethorpe whip”), as well as items from some of Lamar’s older pieces, will form the basis of NEGROGOTHIC a Manifesto: The Aesthetic of M Lamar, a visual art show that will run from Sept. 7 through Oct. 12 at New York City’s Participant Inc. Gallery. “It’s going to be like a retrospective,” Lamar says, “but not—because I’m too young.”