This brief essay is excerpted from my State of the Profession plenary presentation, delivered at the American Society for Theatre Research conference on October 28, 2021. Patrick Anderson and I reference this presentation in our essay, "Is This Ballroom a Bathhouse? The Promise and Peril of Coming Together," which also appears in this issue of the journal. I offer it here to expand upon our discussion on how Abdoh's politics and aesthetics are relevant to our current set of cultural crises. In the full version, I combined my analysis of Reza Abdoh with consideration of how decolonial theory by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson might offer transformative possibilities for university culture; these possibilities are touched upon at the end of this excerpt.
As someone who teaches Latin American political theatre, I will admit that what we experienced under the Trump regime was sometimes shocking to me, but not necessarily surprising. Latin American cultural production and its scholars (Candice Amich, Macarena Gómez-Barris, Jean Graham-Jones, Claudia Nascimento, Marcos Steuernagel, Diana Taylor, and many others) reveal to us that neoliberalism and heteromasculinist authoritarianism are not incompatible.1 In fact, they have been joined for much of the history of neoliberalism in the Americas. This is all to say that the idea that Trump's ascendancy was somehow the "end of neoliberalism" seems like overstating the case. Cornel West's critique of the lie of progressivism under Obama (and by extension, other democratic presidents before him) in his much-read editorial "Goodbye American Neoliberalism. A New Era Is Here" is spot on, but his comment that neoliberalism went out with a "neo-fascist bang" is not entirely true.2 I could reference the recent history of Chile or Brazil or Mexico to make my point, but that would risk framing this phenomenon to a Latin American elsewhere. Mauricio Lazzarato has recently and provocatively suggested that "Capital Hates Everyone," implicitly making the point that fascism is the other side of neoliberalism.3 I tend to agree with him.
Today, instead, I want to move back in time to the eve of the exact moment in US neoliberalism that is often thought of as a more gentle, warm, and fuzzy technocractic US neoliberalism—the summer of 1990. More specifically, I will discuss how US-based queer Iranian theatre artist Reza Abdoh's Father Was a Peculiar Man helps us see that today's realities are continuities of neoliberal violence rather than ruptures from a neoliberal past.
Father Was a Peculiar Man, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's late nineteenth-century novel The Brothers Karamazov, was performed in June 1990 in the Meatpacking District of lower Manhattan. This production, or at least the script, seemingly largely authored by Mira-Lani Oglseby, mentions our former leader by name with the following damning statement: "Every Guy is like Donald Trump for at least a part of his life. With some it lasts longer than others."4 My impetus for beginning the project was reading this line at the PS1 exhibit a few years ago.5 At first, I was just struck that the former president was in this piece at all.
As I sat with it longer, I came to appreciate not only that Oglseby and Abdoh had the former president's number back then, albeit with a different set of violences related to capitalist real-estate expansion and an affair with Marla Maples that brought out his now well-known misogynist, attention-grabbing behavior, most famously in the New York Post. (See, for example, the February 16, 1990 headline, "Best Sex I ever Had.")6 I came to appreciate that the play's critique of our former president was embedded in a performance that brought together a scathing critique of patriarchy, the homophobic genocide of queer people though medical negligence, shifts in the media industry toward attention-seeking stories (tabloid clickbait), and the privatization of healthcare. An excerpt of the first monologue will help to place this critique in context:
My name is Ilusha and I will die in this story. It'll be sad when I do because I am a good boy and I love my family. Poverty is what kills me. I have tuberculosis. Also I get hit hard on my chest with a rock. My parents don't have medical insurance but the doctor came once anyway. He said there was nothing he could do. That I was a goner. My mom has Alzheimer's and my one sister has Multiple Sclerosis and my other sister is smart and my dad loves us more than his own integrity. Sometimes that bugs me, but I understand. We're a pretty sick family I guess, but we love each other.7
For those of you who know Dostoyevsky's novel, you might chuckle at this rather irreverent retelling of Ilusha's fate. But I find Abdoh's disidentification—in Muñoz's sense—with Dostoyevsky to be deadly serious.8 By putting too many things together at once—a dramaturgical feature he and his collaborators were often criticized for—he actually gets it right. Abdoh and company realize that violent narcissistic patriarchal leadership is not at all incompatible with, but in fact deeply linked to, large-scale structural neoliberalism in the form of the diminishment of investigative journalism through corporate takeover of many forms of media, the privatization of healthcare and concomitant profit motivation for medical innovation, and the melancholy affects of neoliberal capitalism that have become diffused as atomized depressive symptoms (thank you, Lauren Berlant, we miss you).9 What Father teaches us is that our former president is Fyodor Karamazov reborn as a national father rather than a domestic one. It is sad to admit that the former's attempted manipulation of an audience through grievance and violence worked better in the twenty-first-century United States than it did for Dostoyevsky's character in the late nineteenth-century Russian imaginary. If you know the novel, you know that it does not end well for Fyodor, who is killed by the son he made abject and would not acknowledge; you may not remember that Fyodor ridiculed Smerdykov by using female pronouns to refer to a character that identified as male. This is not insignificant. Abdoh knows this too because he cast a queer woman in this role to make a point that the hatred of femininity/queerness is at the core of Fyodor's destruction.
Father reveals to today's audiences that the thrall to an almost cartoonish male virility (or lack thereof) is exactly what undergirds our contemporary political climate. It is absurd and laughable but not very funny. What is perhaps most interesting in retrospect is Abdoh's solution. He not only ritually kills patriarchy through the murder of Fyodor, but replaces it with an undoing of gender entirely as a form of eschatology. (Abdoh joins Dostoyevsky in his fascination with end times.)10 In Abdoh's version, Fyodor does not stay dead; he rises like a dystopian Lazarus for another section of the play where he briefly tortures his own son while complaining about his mistreatment. Abdoh does not end the play with this violent resurgence of patriarchy—he allows Fyodor to transform.11 Toward the end of the play, Tom Fitzpatrick, the actor who plays Fyodor, undresses, changes into a dress, applies lipstick, and performs a feminine nonbinary gender. In the play's final moments, he holds hands with his sons in a march through the cobblestone streets of the Meatpacking District that served as a stage with other genderqueer actors in what passes for a happy ending.12
I will end by suggesting that to my mind, we are coming to the same conclusion some thirty years later that Abdoh and his collaborators did in 1990. Writing recently, Paul B. Preciado and Sayak Valencia echo Abdoh when they argue that the complete transformation of masculinity is the key to the transformation of necropolitical capitalism; Abdoh's theatrical meditation on these issues in the 1990s was prescient.13 The revolt against binary gender we are seeing today is an important political movement that goes beyond rights-based recognition of individual gender identities in an (il)liberal sense, even though we of course need to respect those rights fully and enthusiastically. This transformation is crucial to our well-being. To claim that Abdoh pointed this out in the 1990s is not to underscore (again) the genius of a renegade male artist, but to suggest that what we are seeing now was always there—and it was not hard for an HIV+ immigrant and his collaborators to see that. Abdoh and his collaborators make it clear that authoritarianism and neoliberalism have never been incompatible. Understanding the deep connections between these two generations of queer activism is not a solo act on my part; it is here that I want to gesture to my students, and particularly to Max Johngren, my research assistant, who recently graduated and who inspires me with their forms of queer world-making.
It is also here that we should remember the final scene of Father Was a Peculiar Man. After the incredibly violent conflagration scene in a meat locker that exhibited the worst of heteromasculinist behavior, Abdoh and his collaborators staged a resurrection and a march through the streets suffused with joy and possibility. I am hopeful that some of us can go on a march like this together to reimagine new ways to be in the world, inside and outside of our universities.
1. See, for example, Candice Amich, Precarious Forms: Performing Utopia in the Neoliberal Americas (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020); Macarena Gómez-Barris, Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018); Jean Graham-Jones, Exorcising History (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000); Claudia Tatigne Nascimento, After the Long Silence: The Theatre of Brazil's Post Dictatorship Generation (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019); Marcos Steuernagel, "Who Wants Money? Radical Performance and Experimental Urbanism in the Heart of São Paulo," Journal of the Global South 38, no. 1 (2021): 194–219; and Diana Taylor, Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nation in Argentina's Dirty War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).
2. Cornel West, "Goodbye, American Neoliberalism. A New Era Is Here," Guardian, November 17, 2016, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/17/american-neoliberalism-cornelwest-2016-election.
3. Mauricio Lazzarato, Capital Hates Everyone: Fascism or Revolution (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2019).
4. Mira-Lani Oglesby and Reza Abdoh, unpublished script of Father Was a Peculiar Man, 1990. Script in the possession of the author. The script for the show, which was radically altered by Abdoh during the production process, lists Oglesby only as an author. It is impossible to trace each of the author's contributions, especially as the two artists had disputes during the process of production.
5. Reza Abdoh, MOMA PS1 Exhibit, Brooklyn, NY, June 3–September 3, 2018. Attended July 18, 2018.
6. Front cover of New York Post, February 16, 1990.
7. Oglesby and Abdoh, Father Was a Peculiar Man.
8. José Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
9. Lauren Berlant, "Chapter Thirty-One: Feel Tank," Counterpoints 367 (2012): 340–43.
10. For a longer analysis of eschatology in Father Was a Peculiar Man, see Patricia Ybarra, "From Queer Necropolitics to Queer Eschatology," Pamietnik Teatraly 70, no. 4 (2021): 141–59.
11. Abdoh, Father Was a Peculiar Man, 1990 production video in the possession of the author.
13. See Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, trans. John Pluecker (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2019); and Paul Preciado, An Apartment on Uranus: Chronicles of the Crossing, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2019).