Autumn Knight just drama therapied the shit out us. Her one-woman show, "M___ER," is less of a theatrical production and more a deliciously intimate investigation into two things that terrify people the very most: audience participation, and forgetting our mothers' birthdays. And perhaps beyond that, Knight's show (at least tonight) was an fearless incursion into what happens to a group of mostly white theater-goers when a powerful black woman breaks the fourth wall and inhibits the passive consuming of art.
Knight opens her show by wandering through through a pitch-black theater while making a series of common human sounds: breathing, crying, sniffing, bellowing, yelling in ecstasy, whispering. Knight's sound collaborator Rena Anakwe weaves the sounds through a pattern of soft clicks, raising and lowering the volume so that it feels as though Knight is moving through the crowds like a ghost, unidentifiable until the lights slowing raise to reveal her sitting on a weird wooden throne, moving around objects that were unidentifiable to me by sight or sound.
At the beginning I couldn't see shit, as I was seated at the back of one of six clumps of chairs thrown so weirdly together that people had to climb into some of them. Between the groups of spectators were piles of brown butcher paper up to five feet high and hanging from heavy rolls suspended from the ceiling. Backlit by soft pastel colored lights, the paper piles resembled rough mounds of toys and random stuff that might be laying around a house, heavily present but unidentifiable and unimportant. Knight spoke to the audience as if she were our collective mother, sometimes speaking to us a group and sometime individually, so easily making up names as she addressed her "children" that it felt as if she had studied our faces for longer than a few seconds. Some people responded to Knight's questions--"Why did you forget my birthday?" "What did it feel like when I died?" with no effort, some offered way more material than seemed necessary, and some didn't answer at all. In this role as mother, Knight dug into the audience's psyche with every question and as people's individual body language reflected their discomfort, Knight would address them: "Perk up!" "Perk down!" and look them square in the eye. I have a cold, and she turned to me directly to ask if I needed a tissue and told me that I looked cute even when I was sneezing. People looked at me when she said this. I was uncomfortable. I don't know why.
Knight's background in psychology and multi-disciplinary performance gives her the tools to take her highly gifted intuition and insight into humans to levels that might scare the shit out of some people. Continuing with the birthday theme of the rough storyline, Knight walked through the crowd of audience/children offering spoonfuls of dairy and nut free artisanal ice cream from clean, individual utensils. And some people refused, even looked repelled at the suggestion of being fed a bite of ice cream. Volumes could be written about the reasons for these refusals but the one visible emotion I could see was fear. What the shit? Knight's presence is gentle, feminine, nurturing, loving, and true, but that makes her art impossible to hide from (as do the bright lights shining down on the faces refuses spoonfuls of ice cream). We are used to watching art, loving or judging it from the dark anonymity of our theater seats and then going home. Knight does not let us do this--maybe because it was never really our right to view art this way in the first place.
"M___ER" closes after tomorrow's 5pm performance. That one might be vastly different than the one I saw tonight, but the gravity of Knight's message about art consumption and bodies and black bodies and the inescapable hold of motherhood over society will not change, nor will it ever not be relevant. Go see it. And eat the fucking ice cream.