Performance

I Know The Rainbow’s Been Rough: Werqing Black Queer Childhood With NIC Kay’s “lil BLK”

NIC Kay in “lil BLK” (Photo by Nana Adusei-Poku)

“Once upon a time, there was a little Black girl…” announces LaWanda Page, spinning the tale of that little girl in the Brewster projects whose “modeling career took off” heard at the beginning of RuPaul’s iconic “Supermodel (You Better Work).” With those words–nostalgic to anyone who loves over-the-top queer dance music, Bronx-born performer NIC Kay crawled down the staircase banister into the Abrons Arts Center’s Underground Theater. Not only was this a stunning entrance into their solo performance lil BLK, part of this year’s American Realness, it was also a birth of sorts–an arrival into Black girlhood or more precisely, Black femme-hood.

Of course, after Page’s monologue, Ru shouts her iconic: “You better WORK.” In “The Labor of Werqing It: The Performance and Protest Strategies of Sir Lady Java,” published in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility, Treva Ellison introduces the power of “werq,” particularly for Black trans or gender non-conforming folks. They write, “Werq!’ asserts the sartorial, the expressive, the performed and the embodied over the biologic, the state record, the birth certificate, the checkbox; it affirms the potential and creativity in being surplus and the potential of reworking and repurposing the signs, symbols and accoutrements of Western modernity” (1).

Like Ellison’s understanding of werqing as a means to rework and repurpose, NIC, in lil BLK, utilized movement and performance to explore the growth and development of a Black queer gender-nonconforming person, embracing all its complexities and contradictions. lil BLK, at once, addressed, as NIC Kay recited, “a Black girl…a Black faerie…a Black femme…a Black spirit.” As Ellison continues, “To werq is to exercise power through the position of being rendered excessive to the project of the human and its dis/organizing social categories: race, gender, sexuality and class. Werqing it deforms, denatures and reforms the very categories in which werqers can find no stable home” (1).

Naturally, “werqing” is primarily thought of in relation to house and ballroom scenes. It’s no surprise, then, that lil BLK took house music and the movements of ballroom culture, including plenty of death drops, as one of its primary inspirations. With a combination of dance, spoken word, singing and lip-synching, NIC Kay’s performance was both nonlinear and narrative, taking viewers in and out of transcendent dream states only to rush back into real life. From their first appearance onstage to their last–coughing covered in a blanket, resembling a Nick Cave soundsuit, the performance seemed to loosely document a life.

In a blog entry “#lilBLK/Reflections on performing in/with pain” on their website, NIC Kay explains, “This is what lil BLK is: An attempt to tackle, work with and move beyond the autobiographical.” And it does, engaging with the experience of growing up Black, queer and gender non-conforming through, primarily, Black cultural objects, from a passage of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man to Patti LaBelle’s gut-wrenching and rousing rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.”

While lil BLK was poetic, fantastical and abstract, with minimalistic set design other than the simple props used during the performance, it was also fixed thoroughly in reality. For example, early in the performance, NIC took the audience to a family barbecue in Brooklyn where they entered a dance competition for bragging rights and $20. Swept up in their dance and the song, NIC emerged from their ecstatic state only to discover the silent stares of their family members (and a particularly judgmental scold from one of their Aunties). It was a vivid and recognizable childhood memory.

This engagement with Black queer childhood traversed the entire hour-long performance, introduced early by the voice of three year old Pe’Tehn Raighn-Kem, who recites, from memory the poem “Hey Black Child.” She says:

“Hey Black Child
Do you know who you are?
Who you really are
Do you know you can be?
What you want to be.”

Skipping back and forth to the recorded audio, NIC Kay mimicked some of the imagery in the poem, flexing their arms for strength and exuding a childlike sense of play. Wearing diaphanous white clothing, designed by Compton Quashie, including some necessary kneepads, they appeared ghostly and ethereal, reminiscent of Kathryn Bond Stockton’s description of the ghostliness of queer children (queerness, for Stockton, is not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also race and class). In The Queer Child, Stockton observes, “The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back. It is a ghostly, unreachable fantasy…” (5).

Like Stockton’s assertion, NIC Kay’s lil BLK looked back on queer childhood, in particular girlhood, through the eyes of an adult. As NIC explores in their blog, “I know pain is not unique to being Black, or little, or a girl. But there is something peculiar about the pain of a little Black girl.” In navigating these particularities in their performance, NIC Kay gave voice, presence and movement to this ghostly queer child.

Throughout the performance, Kay engaged with feeling alternately trapped in their body, as well as finding power within it. As Malik Gaines writes in Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible, “Difference, embodied and spectacular, is a poor condition out of which to construct subjecthood, but can be an effective position from which to perform” (1). For example, in one moment, the lights on the stage went out with only a singular golden light on NIC, who chanted, “My body, my body, my body.” Tortured in its repetition, the phrase became rhythmic, expressing a sense of confinement. Eventually, the chant changed to, “no body…no body…no body.”

Speaking to their use of the body in their blog, NIC Kay states, “My body was my cage. And that in this cage of a body the closest I could get to dealing and not suffocating was to move. The closest I could get to flying or swimming within the pain was to let it all out, to dance my own circular daily dance.” Although NIC clearly finds release in movement and dance, they didn’t hesitate to reveal the complexities of performing for the white gaze as a Black performer. After their chants of “my body,” Kay referenced white smiles, referring to the ways in which blackness is seen as always already theatrical and performing for whiteness. Using performance as a means of reclamation is not a simple tool for Black performers like NIC. However, as Malik Gaines notes, “A spectacle of difference, the insistent demand for blackness’ reenactment points to a powerful performativity, founded in negativity, but which, in performance, may be deployed resistantly” (2).

NIC, too, uses performance resistantly. In particular, the driving beat of house music, nightlife and its queer world-making possibilities became essential spaces of release and escape in lil BLK. With fans blowing and fog machines rolling, NIC Kay ripped around the stage to “Din Daa Daa,” the club classic by George Kranz (covered famously by Kevin Aviance). They chanted along to the song and ran around the entirety of the theater, while wielding a giant phallic light. Their movements were infectiously elated and transcendent–representing the singularly transportive experiences that can occur within darkened nightclubs.

However, these experiences are momentary, particularly for Black queer individuals. Eventually, the dancer is left, as NIC shows, looking for their phone in the blinding lights of last call. It’s this dual fantasy and hard crash back to reality that makes lil BLK so powerful, as well as realistic. Nearly every moment of ecstasy transforms into pain, anger, frustration and sadness. For instance, toward the end of the performance, NIC repeated, “I know the rainbow’s been rough/I know the rainbow’s been tough/Hey little Black girl/Hey little Black girl.” They began delivering these lines as empowering declarations, but inevitably, descended into gut-wrenching, tearful screaming, showing how, for Black queer gender non-conforming folks, joy and pain are ever-present and intertwined

In “The Labor of Werqing It,” Ellison, too, recognizes the transitory nature of werqing. They describe, “It reminds us that under racial capitalism, all Black life is trans, transient, transductive and transformative” (1). But with the rough and toughness of the rainbow, there is also a sense of utopian possibility–looking to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” as NIC Kay lip-synced. With this song and the performance as a whole, Kay seemed to be seeking and reaching a fantastical place of elsewhere–that “then and there” that José Esteban Muñoz talks about, even if it’s short-lived.

Ultimately though, lil BLK’s strength was the connections it made with the audience, particularly in representing NIC’s intersectional experience and connecting to those in the audience with similar frames of reference. As Ellison writes in “The Labor of Werqing It,” “Werqing it is a relational gesture of world-making at the spatial scale of both the body and the community that aligns sender and receiver in an momentary network of fleshly recognition. That is to say, werqing it and having that werq seen, felt, or heard is a power-generating praxis…” (1). In lil BLK, NIC Kay, as Ellison would say, werqed. And that werq was seen.

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