Gutta Beautiful Cast
The Gutta is Beautiful: Aesthetics, Politics, the Pocket and the Pole
An Interview with Nina Angela Mercer
I think “Gutta Beautiful”, the title itself, and the entire play dismantle some of the dangerous binaries that exist in our minds and our lives. We look at so much through a very Western binary lens, philosophically speaking; it informs how we walk in the world. So there’s the good and the bad, and if there’s some bad in the good, it can’t possibly be good anymore. Those binaries confuse us. Ultimately, one cannot embrace wholeness without accepting, recognizing, and celebrating that which is imperfect and how we often fall short of our most idealized (and often sanctioned)ways of being. I am hoping to explore and cause a rupture inside this intimate and communal dysfunction.
-Nina Angela Mercer
IPH: Our readers may be more familiar with the ghetto or the hood. The gutta, as you explore it, seems to locate a more specific space. Potentially, the ghetto is the liminal space, or threshold, that introduces the audience to the gutta as a space or consciousness. Can you talk more the space of the gutta?
NAM: It’s interesting that you mention that because I have been having that conversation with so many people. Sometimes when elders say the name of the play, they say Ghetto Beautiful instead of "Gutta Beautiful." I am always quick to correct this error, because there is a difference between the “gutta” and the “ghetto”. The history of the term "ghetto" has really been thrown to the wayside in our community. We use "ghetto" to represent a type of behavior or circumstance that is often overtly stereotypical. In actuality, a ghetto is a community of people . Sometimes, residents of the "ghetto" have been forcibly placed in psychological and physical locations of bondage created by external factors, but this is not always true. Quite simply, a "ghetto" is a place where people live.
When I reference the "gutta," I don’t want it to become wholly negative, but a space where we are our most imperfect selves, a space we can inhabit when we are dealing with aspects of life which are not necessarily considered acceptable or healthy. Having witnessed and lived poverty, substance abuse, domestic abuse, I’ve also come to understand that we exist in those spaces feeling like we are less than beautiful, like there’s no way anything positive can come out of this existence because it is so gutta; it is that which we want to hide. I feel that it is important for our communities to recognize that these realities that may be considered “gutta” should not be hushed or hidden under the rug. We must face those intimate and communal traumas in order to heal. And healing our traumas is always beautiful. It is sublime.
IPH: Can you talk more about the space and consciousness is articulated or practiced in the gutta? What would you say comprises a “gutta” aesthetic?
NAM: I started writing the piece when I was in graduate school in the English Department at the University of Maryland. It began as a one woman performance piece, a manifesta of sorts. It evolved into the interactive, multi media stage play with a full ensemble cast, a DJ, a drummer over time.
During the seminal moments of the play's birth, I was living through my own gutta beautiful walk. I felt like being in graduate school during that very difficult time of my life and dealing with the culture of violence and substance abuse in the community on a intimate level created an internal resistance movement. As an emerging scholar, I was investigating literature of the Diaspora. I was trying to speak for and in defense of my people in some activist way through theoretical discourse. But the language used in that discourse often blocked out most of the people I thought I was speaking to and for. I reached a place of frustration. I felt like I was being torn apart, and it was all about the politics of language and the economy of professionalism.
I started the live performance piece with the sole intent of creating an aesthetic that could speak to masses of people by pulling on popular culture and the ordinary ways that we relate. The Gutta Aesthetic is the stoop, the porch, the barber shop, the kitchen and all of the complexities therein. Riffing and "the pocket" are part of the Aesthetic, which is why the scenes have the rhythmic flow that they do; the scenes have a boom bap to them, a certain scat over a consistent bass line. That’s our conversation as a people. When we are standing on the corner talking about one thing; we are eally talking about twelve different things at once. The same thing happens in the beauty salon and barber shop, and in the kitchen, where we conjure nourishment while telling stories and cracking jokes. These are sacred forums in our community, and I want to make the theater into that same sacred forum whenever "Gutta Beautiful" is performed. That is why the core plot line of the play happens in the kitchen and on the corner. The Gutta Aesthetic also privileges "the dozens." Everybody is up for critique. We get to play the dozens with anybody in that space. But we cannot have a conversation in the gutta without there being percussion first, which is why we start the piece with the drum.
IPH: The audience hears Go-Go before the show begins, and it serves almost as an underlying character throughout the work. Can you talk about your experience growing up listening to Go-Go? What role, if any, did Go- Go play in the creation of “Gutta Beautiful?”
NAM: I love Gogo music and culture. It is deep in my veins. I grew up on the music as do most young people in DC. I had the beautiful opportunity of being intimately connected to the music. My father was a manager for one of the go-go bands. So, I spent a lot of time in the studio with the bands growing up. I also danced on stage at concerts.
Percussion, the centrifugal force in the music, is very African. It’s got to be one of the most African music forms on this side of the Atlantic. Though it has been exposed to technology and hip-hop, there is something about GoGo that can not be absorbed into any other kind of music form, which is one of the reasons why I feel it has not experienced a high level of commercial viability. It is dependent on live performance, and that’s another reason why it works for me. The music emphasizes call and response. If you listen to recorded GoGo, it is a totally different experience from GoGo performed live because of the influence of the audience. At the GoGo, the "talker" in the band (the front man or woman) always calls out, "Where y’all from?" And the audience will say, "North East!" or "Petworth," or whatever neighborhood they claim. There’s always that give and take. The GoGo cannot exist without the audience. They are privileged as an integral part of the music and the show. In "Gutta Beautiful" that call and response is created through audience participation. The GoGo
As a cultural movement, Go-Go has been oppressed. Gentrification has shifted the cultural landscape of the city and the music has been targeted as something the “powers that be” would like to silence. Some GoGo bands have lost their venues. Clubs have had to sign documents saying that they won’t play the music because there is a perceived link between GoGo and violence. Any time we have Black culture at its most raw and funky form, anytime people are getting together in solidarity around a music form that is authentic and unapologetically forceful, it is going to be targeted by those who wish to water it down. So I am committed to keeping GoGo in my work as much as possible. When you come to see “Gutta Beautiful,” no matter what the City Council says in DC, no matter what radio conglomerates say, you are coming to the GoGo; we are going to take you there. We are going to continue the movement of the music.
IPH: The title of the work illuminates and explodes the false binaries about certain facets of Black life. You pull the layers off these binaries by employing irony, satire, and humor. Also you “stage” the stage by giving each of the characters a turn to “work the pole”. Even Michael “works the pole”. What is the physical and meta-physical significance of the “pole”? In doing so, you take a recognizable element of drama, the monologue, and make it multi-dimensional performance practice that reveals the private thoughts affecting each of the characters. Talk about your choice of using the strip club and the solo pole performance as a primary cite of revelation for these characters.
Beyond that, what is that woman’s story beyond the work that she does? Let’s take the judgment off of her and make her every woman as opposed to some mutant woman who none of us want to be. Let us look at the space of being a women with sex, who is sexualized and walking through the world, and look behind that. That’s where the monologues come from in "Gutta Beautiful's" "Public Pussy Project," the local strip club in the neighborhood of the play.
This woman told me once that every woman is basically a prostitute. According to her, there is no difference between the woman on the corner marketing her "wares" and the woman in the sanctioned work place or a woman in her kitchen at home, except if a man marries her, and then she is a sanctioned whore. Now clearly this is a heterosexist belief. It is steeped in normalized craziness and passed down as folk wisdom. But it's worth exploring, too. If that is a popular assumption (and many interactions between and among the genders affirm that erroneous belief), and if that is how power functions and how sex becomes a mode of power exchange, if that’s the reality of it, and we are all "ho’s," then let’s look at that and explore it, because then we are all on the pole in varying circumstances. The pole can be the pimp, that which turns you out; it represents the tricks we play in society to get by. When Michael works the pole, he thinks he is in control of that space because he only introduces the women who will perform, soliciting cash for their dances, and encouraging the audience to enjoy the show, but he is being acted on, too. He is taking on a role that has been constructed. Even on the street corner, we must ask - is Michael a hustler, or is he being hustled? Ultimately, the audience must ask, “What is hustling us and why do is it that way?”
Let’s look at the pole as a phallic symbol and how it allows for a critique of patriarchy. We slide down that slippery slope of patriarchy and still exist as women and men capable of love, often courageously transcending that very Western way of being. How do we slip and slide and maneuver through patriarchy? How do we claim that space and turn it over and inside out and make it less viscous?
IPH: Lola seems to function as the central figure in the piece. However, audience members may be equally moved and impacted by Michael’s story. It seems Lola and Michael serve as foils of each other as they encompass all of the wholeness and brokenness of the “gutta”. Talk about how you are treating the economics and politics of Black creative and sexual energy. How does the white woman’s role symbolize or introduce certain pathologies that impede or stifle Black creative and sexual energy?
NAM: Michael is a dear character to me. I just love him. As a Black woman writing in the tradition of my foremothers, the creation of a Black male character in such a difficult circumstance was a really a labor of love. I definitely had to meditate on the process. I did not want to create a villain out of Michael. I really wanted to show his humanity beyond the dysfunction that has been thrown on Black manhood in this country. It took time because I had to work through my own issues to get there. Mike's existence as an MC is important to the piece because a lot of what Gutta Beautiful is about is voice. He is dedicated to cultivating a greater voice as a MC, and this translates as his journey to find agency in this world. Because he is a MC, he must fight against the traps laid by capitalism in one of its most intoxicating spheres; the entertainment industry has historically co-opted Blackness, leaving artists and community left with less than fully empowered stories sold globally. This is Michael's challenge.
IPH: How is the audience implicated in this shared space and experience of the gutta?
“Gutta Beautiful” is not fully entrenched in the Theater of the Oppressed techniques. I have modified them for the specific purposes of the play. As a playwright, I hope that the actors will engage the audience as often as they can. They should speak to the audience and move through the house. Those actors must be prepared for the audience members to respond in various, often unexpected ways.
We bring the audience into the “Public Pussy Project”. They actually become involved in those scenes so that they understand that you are not simply watching and being entertained. This is your world; now what are you going to do?
So, the audience is definitely implicated. I am not comfortable with the audience walking away saying the character Auntie Sam did this to Michael and Lola and did this to me. No we allowed this to happen. What did you choose to do when you got on stage? What was you answer to School Teacher’s question? Did you get the lap dance? Did you enjoy it?
All of that is important to me because the primary goal of the piece is to have a conversation with masses of people so they must be implicated and have some level of subjectivity and agency in the piece. It is important that the audience lives this world with the characters. When the audience is removed from the chaos or the farce or the spectacle that has happened then the art loses some of its power.
IPH : It seems as if the characters are articulating a critique of contemporary Black arts-intelligentsia. Is the Black arts-intelligentsia apart of or a part from the “gutta”?
NAM: I can talk about this from a space of love. I am not one for labels. I am careful about aligning myself with any particular group. I think that philosophical space needs to be troubled a bit. What are we doing when we elevate ourselves and a community at the expense of another? I love the art that came out of the Black Arts Movement. It has influenced my life as a Black woman and artist. That gives me even more reason to critique. I have lived the reality of trying to come to terms with my blackness. I have considered the enslavement of my ancestors, and I have tried to recover the traditions through my dress, in my spiritual practice, and in my diet. In embracing all of that, I felt as if I had to reject anything that did not resonate as Afrikan. Anything other than this newly realized, authentic Blackness was evidence of one's oppression by "the man", a certain blindness, ignorance and disempowerment. Eventually, however, I realized that is the creation of a cultural hierarchy, and it doesn’t really do much service to anyone,if all of my talk can not embrace and speak to masses of people. I can’t start adhering to this cultural hierachy at the expense of maintaining a connection to my community and all of its variations.
I am a woman who practices traditions born through the Trans Atlantic slave trade with roots in Africa. I celebrate that aspect of myself all the time. My ancestors are crucial to my way of being. My ancestors inform the work of “Gutta Beautiful." I can’t separate myself from any community that has been born through the diaspora, but I know we have to critique ourselves.
I have a critique of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Nationalist Movement in the play as both relate to the experiences of Black women. I feel like some of those stories have been silenced. There are some stories that we have not shared across generations, especially among women, as it all pertains to the Black Arts Movement and the Black Nationalist Movement. I have talked to women who were active during both movements; I've found that the movements were so much about the uplift of Black people that the uplift of Black women, and the stories about how gendered violence was enacted upon the bodies of Black women, how their labor was often under-valued, have become silenced and relegated to the unknown We’re not supposed to talk about that and how patriarchy played a role in Black Nationalism and what that meant for Black women.
We are not supposed to talk about that because in our most coveted memories of that time period, we recovered Black beauty from the ugliness of racism, segregation, and the haunting force of slavery. But I reject that stance. If we can’t fully explore those movements and put them under the microscope for critical dialogue, we can’t grow.
IPH: What does that mean as an activist artist?
NAM: I took a class called Women’s Protest Literature. The professor, Susan Leonardi, encouraged me to write a performance piece after I expressed interest in working outside of the usual discourse of the academy. I grew up performing with DC Parks and Recreations and the Show Mobile Program. I knew that if I really wanted to talk to my folk, I would have to talk to them through live performance. That was the only way to engage them on a level that was democratic, because the discourse of academia was too specialized to reach my community effectively. Being an activist artist is about sustaining critical dialogue and transformation. So, exploring the difficulties of our communities cultural and political movements, bringing that conversation to the community, that's all activism. As an artist, I am encouraging the audience to become intellectually active in our contemporary lives and in our understanding of history.
IPH: This issue of In the People’s Hands looks at the huge issue of Africana women and the legacy of violence. How does “Gutta Beautiful” engage the topic? How are the characters in the piece working through this legacy?
We often understand who we are through a violent lens, because it was an act of