For a moment, put yourself back into the lecture Professor Biggs gave and the exercise she guided the class through. We observed our breathing, then we observed our classmates and their motion. She then asked us to perform our own analysis of their motion. Following all of this, she informed us that we had just practiced performance studies. This simple exercise introduced us to the basic practices that scholars in this field use to conduct their studies. The aim of this post is to utilize this framework to consider the work of performance artist Mildred Gerestant. This analysis will provide the foundation for a consideration of questions posed by E. Patrick Johnson about Black Performance Studies and how the field may move forward, as well as what significance Gerestant and their working has on Black Performance Studies and Africana Studies.
Who is Mildred Gerestant? Gerestant provides the following self-description in Blending the female and male through MilDred, a short film by Kristy MacDonald: “My name is Mildred, and my name is Dred. And we are a multi-spirited, Haitian-American, gender-illusioning, black, shaved, different, god/dess, anti-oppression, open, non-traditional, self-expressed, blessed, gender bending, drag kinging, fluid, ancestor supported, and after all that, non-labeling WoMan.” In so many ways, Gerestant’s ways of being and of performing described are especially non-normative. This makes their work all the more intriguing to witness and study. In a series of clips in the documentary film Venus Boyz, one of Gerestant’s early drag king performances is featured. In this performance, drag king Dred takes the stage in a very 90s-esque tracksuit accentuated by amber shades, and a tightly groomed beard. Lip Syncing to Secret Weapon’s Must Be The Music, Dred vivaciously embodies the tenants of black masculine performativity. Dred commands the audience to see and to lust for the being on stage. As the performance continues, Dred strips off the tracksuit into a more revealing silky pajama top and a black velvet skirt. Here is where Gerestant begins to most artfully blur the lines between male and female, not necessarily separating the two nor performing one or the other. This is one of the most striking aspects of Gerestant’s performance; this moment in which the male and the female appear simultaneously in one character. Next, Dred sheds the silky top seductively, now exposing a red bikini top and a belly ring. The play on gender in this particular performance is still present, as Dred reaches into the bikini bottom beneath the skirt and pulls out an apple—which had been simulating a bulge—and playfully, perhaps even seductively, takes a bite out of it before replacing it and taking a bow.
This performance began with what might have been identified as a man—a testament to the veracity of Gerestant’s performance—and transitioned into someone who forces the audience to question what the stereotypes of gender are, as well as how they function. For some this may illicit a discomfort or uncertainty around being unable to determine Dred’s gender. This discomfort is the site at which Gerestant’s performance has significant potential to influence the audience that witnesses it to expand their perceptions of what gender can be, particularly when that gender is racialized.
Gerestant, Africana & Black Performance Studies
Describing the foundations and intent of the work they do, in Blending, Gerestant says “In my performances I use theater, dance, cultural history, and humor. I play with gender roles and social/racial stereotypes to hopefully inspire my audience to think about the complexities of race, gender, and identity. This gender bending path has given me the courage to express myself freely in whatever way I feel I need to do. Hopefully, I inspire others to do the same, respect one another’s lives, and be open to the beauty in our differences. It is natural to be different.” This centralizing statement of Gerestant’s mission, intention, and hope for their work establishes their deserved presence in the canon of Black Performance Studies, and concordantly within Africana Studies. E. Patrick Johnson writes that, in order for Black Performance Studies to continue being generative, it must “continue to ask, rather than attempt to answer, the question “what is this “black” in black performance studies?” The questions Gerestant’s performance asks audiences—questions about the complexities of race, of gender, of identity—fit within this theoretical scheme. As long as we continue to think about and study these complexities, the infinite potential of Black Performance, in particular, can continue to be a source of liberating practices and, as Johnson states, “a politics of social change and transformation that moves us forward in the liberation of black peoples”. If, instead, we sought to definitively answer and rigidly define what the “black” is, would we not be attempting to prescribe certain restrictions on what the performance could be? And if we were to do so, would the implication not be that blackness itself must still be defined in certain distinct ways, and thus be perpetually exclusive of those marginalized identities that will ultimately end up existing outside of those definitions? If scholars in either field were to go about studying in this way, the scope of their work would be limited. So many instances of people doing meaningful work in performance would be overlooked, delegitimized, and rendered illegible. This explains why the imperative to continually question is so necessary and central to both fields of study.