[Photos by Nicole Ayla Myles]
"Wheels On Fire": Opentoe Peep Show (November 3, 2013)
by Jennie Gruber
Heather Acs, the emcee of the Opentoe Peep Show, claims she doesn’t like to improvise, but I find this hard to believe. Her bone-dry humor ties together a variety show that is political, literary, hilarious, hip, and emotionally-charged. On Sunday evening, Acs wore a studded white leather shrug and a black corset. Photo-realistic unicorns reared on the knees of her leggings. (The fashion theme of the night, we were told, was “crystal leather dyke.”) At one point she tried to speak into a mic stand that has no microphone in it. If that’s not good improv, I don’t know what is.
By appearances, the audience at the November 3rd show was comprised of a good diversity in backgrounds and genders. Because Branded Saloon’s back room is so small, it didn’t take long for the space to feel like a party - the kind of party that made us proud to be queer artists and activists in New York City right at this moment in history.
The Opentoe Peep Show is a monthly interdisciplinary performance art salon curated and produced by the culture-makers of queer group Heels on Wheels. Its producers, Acs and Damien Lux, as well as the fabulous crew of femmes that comprise Heels on Wheels, referred to it in turn as “a community development space,” “healing rejuvenation,” and a destination for “fun, feelings, and ideas outside of the mainstream.”
As we found our spots to perch or squat, Ronika McClain began to sensually scrutinize her digital self onstage. A projection of the artist in bed showed her touching hand to face and shoulder blades, gazing into the camera as if at a lover; in the room with us, the corporeal artist moved similarly, as if the projection reminded her uncannily of something she liked but couldn’t quite place.
After a rousing introduction from Acs, we were treated to an excerpt from Lez Miz, a new play by Kestryl Cael Lowrey, in which Jean Valjean is re-imagined as a leather daddy cast out of her community for “a scene gone wrong.” Lez Miz is one of those projects that seems to have been conceived because its name is a really funny joke; judging by the preview, it promises to be cleverer than Dude Where’s My Car and twice as socially conscious as Snakes On a Plane. Featuring Lux, Mette Loulou von Kohl, Nikki Padula, Mizz June, Jessica Bathurst, Sabina Ibarrola (also a Heels crew member), and A.S. Caron’s Guide to Successful Living, the play will have its premier Thursday Nov 7th at Dixon Place.
As he removed his black boots, Richard Aviles explained that his three-movement dance piece “I Never Loved a Man” was intended as closure for a relationship that had recently ended. Such was his charm that before he even began to dance, every cynical New Yorker in the room was his slave. We forgot the person who jostled us in the subway or made our blood boil at work. We were healed of every broken heart. As his hands dove and fluttered to Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine,” every single soul in the room followed Aviles’ soul, backwards, and in high heels. His hands behaved the way he wished that life would, and because he acted it out for us, it became so. This is the way that art is magic. “The boy is goooone now,” he assured us over the thunderous applause, those same hands casually dismissing an unseen force from his chest.
Dynasty (W)rex then perched on a stool and read some very frank pieces about working in strip clubs, reminding us that “blackness is abject in the sex industry.” (W)rex’s unblinking prose reminded us about the work part of sex work: the systemic ableism, the reluctant concessions, the weary dissociation. She had the power to expose the other sex workers in the room: every time she unleashed a truly stinging observation, every whore couldn’t help but nod their heads with pursed lips. “Mmmm hmm.”
Jade Payne, who generally does sound tech for Opentoe, graced us with the kind of standup that happens when someone very funny is encouraged by her friends to do standup. She made us giggle with her love of crystals, passed around something sparkly called a “toe thong”, and delivered a scathing explanation of how hard it is to leave the Park Slope Food Co-op.
Zachary Wager Scholl’s piece perfectly complimented (W)rex’s. Scholl read about cruising daddies in the bathrooms of Grand Central Station, in a way that reminded us that sex work is happening right beside us and above us and beneath us every moment of the day. He spoke of his love of luxurious lunches from these spontaneous clients (“They say; ‘Get whatever you want,’ and then I do!”). The irony in that old adage about free lunches hung over the piece, never acknowledged but ever present. The price you pay for pasta dishes is being forced to grin and bear a man who is unaware of the conditions of war and capital that make it possible for him to pay someone like Scholl to pretend to enjoy his company.
At the end of the show, all the artists gathered onstage for Opentoe’s signature talkback. They passed the mic around, answering each other’s questions about transformative justice, and also some from the crowd.
"I think the fact that there’s not a rush for the door when it’s time for the Q&A is a sign that the people here actually care about art and community," Lux tells me afterwards (her crystal leather dyke/JVJ outfit, for those of you keeping score, consists of a bar vest over torn Harley shirt, and a dark sequined skirt).
"We’re not looking in at culture,” she adds. “We’re looking at each other.”