Trajal Harrell, best known for his series “Twenty Looks or Paris Burning at the Judson Church” that combined postmodern dance, voguing and theatre, takes on Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on the Hot Tin Roof. At the very least since the film adaption by Richard Brooks, it is a text that has entered into the collective white fantasy about the geo-historical phenomenon of the Southern States, perhaps only comparable to Gone with the Wind. In this second part of his trilogy Porca Miseria, Trajal Harrell completely inverts the perspective on this material. The focus is no longer on the decadent end of a feudal era and its rich plantation owners, but on the black servants whose point of view Harrell assumes. This is the starting point of Maggie the Cat, which then moves on to leave its template as far behind as possible. The servants are marginal figures in the play. Instead, Williams focuses on the white owners of a cotton planation, and especially on the “cat” Maggie and her husband Brick. It is, perhaps, precisely because it is missing the crucial perspective of the African Americans, who are almost always present but barely spekt, that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play about the South. In contrast to the invariably white protagonists, the African-American characters are given little text and are used by Williams only for auxiliary tasks: they answer the phone, sing birthday songs from the scenery, and hand around items as needed. The very same group of people (themselves or their ancestors) who produced Southern prosperity through cotton is so marginalized that their absence becomes an extremely present void. Harrell makes this the focus of Maggie the Cat.
In Maggie the Cat’s narrative, the performers are servants that move in a space that is not theirs. Just like Williams’ play, Harrell’s evening is a chamber play in which the living space of the wealthy, with its trinkets, objects and fetishes, is no longer inhabited by the proprietors, but by those who usually only set it up, keeping it clean and tidy. They have no right of residence in it. In Maggie the Cat, they appropriate and play with the everyday objects they find – towels, aprons, pillows, sheets – and invent unexpected usages for them. They turn the living room into an interior of light-spirited self-empowerment and redefine its use for themselves. On the one hand, the servants mimic Maggie as an obviously affluent woman who herself had to learn her role. She has never lost the consciousness that even wealth is just a role, coincidental and replaceable by other roles. On the other hand, this cultural appropriation from below is not just a matter of class but also of race. Much more than social injustice or class, skin colour divides opinions and has become a minefield of aesthetics and discourse. Harrell takes the risk of applying his strategies of artistic appropriation and redefinition not only to class and gender but to race, which he considers as a further means of constructing identity – playfully and beyond the discursive trenches.
In the real world, any kinds of racism and discrimination require sharp opposition. But the fact that art allows for a space in which discriminating practices can be transformed into beauty creates the very space in which freedom and togetherness can be experienced. In Maggie the Cat, Harrell saturates this space with reality. Perhaps it is Harrell’s sense of humour that, again and again, transforms his aesthetic deconstructions into playful, undogmatic offers. He uses the stage and its potential for transformation in order to convert playful claims into political food for thought. But all the while, these suggestions remain casual, aesthetic, quiet. Until Maggie finally slips in. Into the little black dress of the affluent, white woman.