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ROY COHN / JACK SMITH / RON VAWTER

This work is a reimagining of Ron Vawter’s 1992 performance Roy Cohn / Jack Smith. In his one-man show, Vawter presents sharply edged portraits of two gay Americans who achieved a certain notoriety before each died of AIDS in the 1980s. While attorney and right-wing activist Roy Cohn and avant-garde film and theater artist Jack Smith had little in common, Vawter postulates that both their lives were shaped–one might say warped–by the small-minded, homophobic society they lived in. The piece is an indirect indictment of that society and a look at two bizarrely fascinating gay individuals.

As an extension of my CALLING ALL DIVAS manifesto (which focuses on actual and imagined queer ancestries, inheritances, transference and fandom), I will reenact aspects of Ron Vawter’s performance for theatrical presentation with the addition of interruptions of Vawter’s voice and image sourced from archival recordings and films. Act 1 depicts a fictional Cohn speech given at the Protection of the Family Caucus, written by Gary Indiana. Act 2 follows with excerpts from Smith’s What’s Underground About Marshmallows (1981) featuring exotic costuming and sets, slide show projections, Hollywood music soundtrack, and idiosyncratic monologues damning the art world, landlordism, and capitalism at large. The performance begins with a short explanation of the work, its intentions, and my relationship to the materials.

This work is chosen for its political exigencies. The ghosts of Roy Cohn and Jack Smith are floating through the social consciousness - Cohn as the attorney and mentor who taught Donald Trump to never back down, never apologize, and always to hit back harder while demonizing your enemy and Smith as the epitome of the anticapitalist artist, uncommercial, unstable, searingly critical of landlordism and institutions of legitimization. In a Brechtian/Marxian dialectic, this work offers historical specificity, social critique, and a radical essence to take beyond the theatre and into the everyday landscape as we experience the anxieties caused by severe threats to democracy and the allied logics of oppression under late capitalism. In this time of harsh divisions this work lays bare, with humor and pointed critique, the effects of demonization on LGBTQ identities and the lingering, mutating ideologies of oppression, violence, and greed.

For my adaptation, I have added archival materials featuring Ron Vawter as a way of folding his presence into this portrait of two radically different queer men. This is now a portrait of three men who died within the first few years of my life; questioning the effects of their legacies on the Millennial generation. This is the first re-staging of the work since Vawter's death in 1994.


Credits:

Roy Cohn/Jack Smith/Ron Vawter conceived, directed, and performed by Tyler Matthew Oyer (2019).
Developed in part in residence at Tanzhaus Zürich.

Roy Cohn speech written by Gary Indiana.
Jack Smith speech based on What’s Underground About Marshmallows? by Jack Smith (1981)