If I, Brontez PurnellFebruary 3, 2015
“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.
I almost began this column about Brontez Purnell with a poem. It went something like this:
Brontez Purnell is a black choreographer. Brontez Purnell is a punk rocker. Brontez Purnell is a faggot. Brontez Purnell is an author. Brontez Purnell is an addict. Brontez Purnell is a club dancer. Brontez Purnell is gay-mous. Brontez Purnell is a poet. Brontez Purnell is broken. Brontez Purnell is a lover. Brontez Purnell is a mystic. Brontez Purnell is still here, bitches.
It obviously needs some work, but you get the idea. I’m eager to gush about Purnell in verse precisely because it’s so hard to pin him down or pen him in. With several movie roles, a book, a handful of zines, at least three bands, and multiple dance projects under his belt, Purnell is in many ways the Twenty-First-Century Black Renaissance Fag. And, central to every Renaissance personality, Purnell always lets the project define his practice—which is also to say that he never lets the project define him. Regardless of the medium he’s working in, Purnell is never anything other than himself.
Purnell’s output simultaneously exhibits a restlessness with current modes of cultural production. For example, at San Francisco’s 2013 FRESH Festival, Purnell and collaborator Sophia Wang presented a series of quotidian forms of movement with varying technical skill and virtuosity. Presented as dance-theater at a regional dance festival, the piece refused any gendered or racialized reading of it as some kind of courtship narrative. Instead, it offered a more horizontal and unexpected intimacy than “romance,” as the dancers shared space and then immediately repelled each other through their choreography. The simple production (no lights, no props, no music, street clothes for costumes) and identifiably colloquial choreography resulted in a piece that challenged its audience to think past heteronormative tropes in dance and the relationship narratives that almost obligatorily accompany duets. Wang and Purnell danced around and past one another, pushing the limits of the duet as a multi-performer relationship. “Contemporary dance [is] a limited language,” said Purnell during a conversation just before the 2014 FRESH Festival at Joe Goode Annex.1 “I get exhausted.” So he finds ways to reinvent.
Purnell moved to Oakland twelve years ago from Tennessee (by way of Huntsville, Alabama) and soon after joined the queer electroclash group Gravy Train!!!! as a dancer. At the same time, he was dancing with Collette Eloi’s contemporary Haitian dance ensemble, El Wah Movement, and self-publishing his zine Fag School, all while working his way through Laney College. Though the band has dispersed and Fag School is on hiatus, Purnell has a new band (The Younger Lovers), recently released The Cruising Diaries with Janelle Hessig (what the Comics Journal called “the funniest and filthiest book of the year”), and is choreographing a new piece, If I, John Henry, for the Black Choreographers Festival in February.2
If I, John Henry is a retelling of the John Henry narrative for 2015. In Purnell’s version, John Henry is Ogun, the Orisha of war and metal work in Yoruba mythology. But Purnell is also John Henry—a black man who shares a home state with the mythic figure and whose father is a railroad worker. Purnell explains his “perfectly pagan piece” as an attempt to “take what we know and put it to new places.”3 Seeking a non-Christian parable that could speak to his own experience, Purnell kept wondering what “Ogun in 2015 America would look like. His iron tool would not be a machete—it would be a fucking gun.”
It’s about manhood in general—but black manhood in particular, as a series of endless tasks.
Purnell continues: “This is also about me being in a body-based practice in a world where it would be easier if I just worked at a computer. It’s all about enduring this life path. It’s about manhood in general—but black manhood in particular, as a series of endless tasks.” In this way, If I, John Henry works similarly to the original American folktale, thought to have been developed in song by black convicts as they labored on the railroad. The work song, which evolved into a more upbeat ballad and eventually an epic poem, follows a narrative with two possible implications. One is that John Henry was an inhumanly strong black man who took a challenge to carve through a mountain faster than a steam drill and, guided by a divine power, beat the steam drill and died a hero. Another version of the story situates the narrator in relationship to Henry as co-captive in a convict work group, laboring until death. In the lyrics of one iteration of this version, the singer demands the listener take his own hammer and carry it to the prison captain in order to “tell him I’m gone.” In this telling, “this old hammer killed John Henry, but it can’t kill me.”4 This version of the John Henry story offers a tragic warning of black masculinity’s impossible struggle against capitalism and industry. John Henry beats the engine, but he still dies a prisoner.
These complex variations of the Henry story have overlaps with Purnell’s own narrative as a queer black artist working (i.e., performing) in a variety of social spaces. From black-on-black homophobic hate crimes in Uptown Oakland to fag-on-fag public shaming in the workplace, Purnell has dealt with more than his share of trials (critic Kenyon Farrow, who is also a close friend of Purnell’s, has noted Purnell’s ability to endure).5 But, as Purnell puts it, “[staying] at jobs six months longer than I should, for example…. These are times when a sense of endurance has failed me.”
At the same time, Purnell is also aware that his drive to over-perform can be another form of perfectionism: “I always feel like I have these moments of: ‘Oh, shit, people are watching me—I better hurry up and give it to them.’” The intensity of “giv[ing] it to them” is made all the more so because Purnell frequently performs naked or semi-nude in spaces that are predominantly white, whether in terms of audience demographics or at a less outwardly visible institutional level. When considering the pressure to “give it to them,” Purnell says this can manifest as “me look[ing] like I’m always working in an improv structure even when I’m not…. Like I’m a stuck engine who ends up pausing more than I would like.” Understandably, then, for Purnell “the theme [of John Henry] is rich.”
Personally, I worry about the ease with which Purnell might be consumed by white audiences: How will his determination to give it his all no matter who he is giving it to be transformed by a dynamic of performing and looking that can’t not be racialized? Will his art be taken on its own terms or viewed as a solution by program organizers and curators to the problem of how to present black creatives without investing in black life? At the same time, Purnell’s refusal to stop, his compulsion to keep making, to make spaces always work for him, to always keep it 100 percent Brontez for every performance, acknowledges those concerns while refusing to be straightjacketed by them. Against Purnell’s drive, his choice of John Henry as an avatar gives pause: John Henry is a parable of a black man whose refusal to stop is heroic and inspiring but also leads to his demise. I do not think that Purnell’s compulsion to “give it to them” will lead to such a morbid end; to the contrary, it helps his work stay strong. But if it is not the death ending that draws Purnell to John Henry, how might he understand the parable’s purpose and his relationship to the story?
There is another set of versions of the John Henry ballad. These “rebel” versions focus less on the battle between Henry and the steam drill and devote more attention to Henry’s resistance to his brutal captain.6 In various recordings of this adaptation, Henry threatens the captain in his home, promises to fight the captain to his death, and even shoots the captain.7 It is this telling of the John Henry story, in which the hero is defiant as well as tireless, that seems to most accurately capture Purnell’s spirit. He is a hero for both his work ethic and his refusal to “let anyone beat [him] down.”8 This third Henry iteration further complicates our collective memory of Henry, who, through all the retellings of the tale, has come to represent many things to many people. In this way, Henry’s memory refuses regulation. It is this Henry—the steadfast hero, the indeterminable rebel—that Purnell—the writer, the choreographer, the dancer, the punk, the queer, the black kid from the country—embodies in If I, John Henry.
Brontez Purnell will be performing If I, John Henry at the Black Choreographers Festival on February 21, 2015, at Dance Mission Theater, in San Francisco.