Undressing the Other, Addressing One Another

February 28, 2007

Undressing the Other

I’ve heard it said on a few occasions that revolutionary/political organizing isn’t supposed to be a “group therapy session.” That sentiment couldn’t be more wrong-headed (or meat-headed: the times I’ve heard it said, it’s always by a male who thinks he’s being militant by saying it). This society is so fucked up, it could seriously use some healing, and that’s what therapy is for. The only defensible reason for the statement (beyond intellectual posturing), as far as I can see, is that therapy can be too private, too individual, whereas politics is first and foremost a social experience.

This opens the question of what revolutionary/political therapy looks like. James Baldwin suggested an answer when he wrote “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” Art, Baldwin saw it, was a war with society, “a lover’s war… to reveal the beloved to himself, and with that revelation, make freedom real.” If art is both a social struggle and a personal confession, it just might be therapeutic.

Last night, I witnessed art worthy of Baldwin’s definition – and therapy of a revolutionary variety. Called “Undressing the Other: the Naked Truth About Stereotypes,” it’s a “truly anti-racist-sexist-classist-elitist-ethnocentric-homophobic- xenophobic transnational feminist/womanist production” now in its third year at Western Washington University. For the second year in a row, it’s also being held in the larger Bellingham community.

The event emerged out of a “Women of Color Week” held at Western several years ago. It’s similar to monologue productions like Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” but with several important twists. Rather than read other women’s’ pre-written stories, “Undressing the Other” focuses on young women developing their own narratives (and not all necessarily women – this year a young trans man also performed). This takes place over the course of several months, with participants working together around a curriculum based on writings by the likes of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and – of course – James Baldwin.

Staged like a fashion show, the program itself is broken into two parts. In the first, women one-by-one strut the stage in the guise of the most disgusting stereotypes: the parade of ugliness puts in bold relief how society sees women through distorted lenses of race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality. There’s the wetback, the white trash lady, the jockette. In the second part of the show, the women return as their true selves, telling their own stories, their true strengths and weaknesses on full display: righteous, doubtful, survivors, intelligent, ignorant, powerful, petty. In short, human beings.

It’s in the second part that the power of confession, in Baldwin’s sense, takes over. This isn’t Catholic confession, communication through a grate, privacy between pastor and parishioner. They “vomit the anguish up” in their words, in their performance, as art. This is social – and thus, highly radical – therapy, working through issues of identity in order to grow. By sharing their true selves against the brutal social constructs of the first half of the show, what are personal truths also become social truths.

In this way, “Undressing the Other” is all about addressing one another. Though it’s a performance with an audience, its hardly a spectacle to be simply enjoyed at leisure. By pushing the stereotypes to their ugliest limit, the monologues coax confessions of sorts from the audience. As part of the audience we don’t know to respond. Do we laugh? These stereotypes are absurd, after all. Do we cry? These are horrors in front us. Do we applaud? This is a performance, isn’t it? We realize how we see these elements of ugliness everyday, but never in such a concentrated form. Our mix of emotions is our own confession, as we must admit that in everyday life, some of us have the privilege of ignoring these images; in “Undressing the Other,” they are there, plain to see, and you can’t take your eyes away.

Which brings us back again to James Baldwin, and his definition of confession. “The effort it seems to me,” he explained to Studs Terkel, “is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. ” And what are these terms?

Becky Renfrow, an organizer whose energy and commitment is beyond comparison, presented a possible answer in her honest monologue on white people’s experience with racism, “White Trash.” Too often white people see racism abstractly, as statistics, rather than feel it in their heart, in their gut. This is especially true on a college campus. As my friend Jeremy writes, “it’s amazing how many people there are who get paid, who get degrees, who build status and careers all trying to explain this mess, to package it as THE way, trying to argue how it’s good for us, that this is the best of all possible worlds.”

I myself have a college degree to my name that says I can think this stuff. Its most important that I feel it too, because that’s where the struggle is: the constant self-reminder of others pain and suffering, joy and growth that are so easy to intellectualize out of life. Academic study is such a individualized task, whereas our emotions are inherently social. This barrier between thinking and feeling was broken through by Undressing the Other. I felt it – and its worth risking the generalization to say everyone felt it.

Props to all those who made it happen this year: Stephany Hazelrigg, Afrose Ahmed, Elizabeth Johnstone, Antasia Parker, Becky Renfrow, Olide Valenzuela, Sandra Villarreal, Erica Merker, Rachae Thomas, Luisa Nayeli Mercado, Maribel Galvan, Yumi Ishibashi, Devin Majkut, Abiola Akanni, Anneka Ramirez, Whitney Knox, and everybody else not mentioned in the production program.

One Response to “Undressing the Other, Addressing One Another”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    This is very interesting to me, because just five minutes ago I got home from a youth poetry slam, in which I was thinking so many of these same things (though without the Baldwin quotes, the ability to pull together references like that is a skill that I don’t have…).

    I was thinking about how, for me, poetry feels so much like a revolutionary spirituality (not the ONLY one, but one among many), in which so much raw shit gets to come out and is shared through a language that is much more visceral, more bodily connected than traditional language. We carry poison within us, each in our different ways, different combinations like mixed drinks, and that shit needs to get out, right?

    I was, for a long time, one of those militant dudes who thought that revolution isn’t a therapy session. I also said, and I quote, “revolution isn’t about making friends with each other.” Hmmm…maybe that’s why those were the years when I lost so many.

    Thanks for writing this, Andrew. Haven’t even seen the piece at Western, but you’re speaking my mind…and frankly that’s rare for another white guy to do.

    Also, if we’re looking for forms of revolutionary therapy, there’s much to find in the work around somatic (body, mind, spirit) therapy being done by people like Staci Haines…some links:


    Also, I’m gonna link to this entry from my blog. Hope that’s cool.

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