Various performers this season have brought us thought-provoking takes on black masculinity. Both Nora Chipaumire’s powerful paean for her father, presented in December at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, and Shaneeka Harrell’s look at Cassius Clay, shown at the Miami Light Box during O, Miami, examined how the image of black men is perceived and distorted in contemporary society. This Friday at the Gleason Room Backstage at The Fillmore, FUNDarte’s Out in the Tropics festival continues the discussion with M Lamar’s Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche.
The surveillance and apprehension of innocent black men is an urgent and disquieting topic. FUNDarte director Ever Chávez is excited to be presenting an artist whose work deals with this timely and tragic subject that feels as if it could have been ripped straight from the nightly news: “It’s representative of what is happening now in the country,” he says. “The work that M Lamar is bringing really touches something that we all should know about.”
A New York-based singer and performance artist with a goth aesthetic, Lamar has for a decade created intensely personal work that delves into America’s paradoxical attitudes towards the black male body: fear and loathing on the one hand, perverse fascination on the other. With original songs composed by the classically trained, punk and metal influenced Lamar and projections and live video by art director Sabin Calvert, Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche digs deep. “It’s ritualistic,” says Lamar in a telephone interview. “It’s an intense journey to a meditative, emotional place.”
The work is explicit, highly evocative, transgressive stuff. In one segment, Lamar imagines an 1847 Southern plantation, where a white overseer has a sadomasochistic, homoerotic relationship with a male field slave. Lamar’s vocals: “He would beat me / He would whoop me / I freely give you what you take from all the other slave boys.” Lamar asks us to ask ourselves a difficult question: “If we are all still on the plantation, where are we all positioned?”
Accompanying himself on piano, Lamar has a unique and haunting voice that is heard throughout the hour-long multi-media piece. As a young boy in Alabama, he would listen over and over to recordings of opera stars Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman, imitating their style, obsessed with what he calls the “histrionic quality” of the soprano repertory. When his voice changed in adolescence, he began to sing in the high countertenor that he still uses today.
His compositions sound as if they could be African American spirituals, delivered in a rich tremulo, with the polished, operatic sound of the divas he admired as a child. “Black people have historically dealt with intense levels of pain,” he says. “I’m interested in exploring what has allowed black people to survive.” The traditional connection to music, he says, is a lifeline.
Lamar’s twin sister is Laverne Cox, who, through activism and her role on the series “Orange Is the New Black” has quickly become the public face of the transgender rights movement. “We’re both very political in very different ways,” says Lamar, adding, “I’m more on the side of revolution.” For audiences tempted to see him because they admire his sister, he suggests to “check out my Website first. We’re very different artists.”
The role of the artist as provocateur is a time-honored tradition, but performers like M. Lamar find novel ways to get under our skin. “The best art,” he says, “gets you to reflect on yourself — the ways you are implicated or the ways you empathize.”
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Out in the Tropic’s Chávez concurs, and hopes that a diverse audience will come to experience Lamar’s work. “It’s a performance where you really sit down, you get into that world and you enjoy it, but you also reflect and think…It’s about developing an audience that really thinks,” he says.
-Helena Alonso Paisley, artburstmiami.com
“Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche” by M. Lamar, Friday, 8:30 p.m., part of Out in the Tropics; Gleason Room Backstage at The Fillmore, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; $25 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000; www.fundarte.us.