Metamorphosis Theater: An Oral History Project on the Performance Work of Assotto Saint
Jaime Shearn Coan, English
Faculty Advisor: Kandice Chuh
NML Award: The Social Justice Award (May 2019)
Working with the design practice Partner & Partners, with the support of The Center for the Humanities, I am creating an oral history-focused website around the performance work of the late artist Assotto Saint, a black gay man born and raised in Haiti who died from AIDS-related complications in NYC in 1994. This website is connected to and also exceeds my dissertation in an effort to provide materials that can be utilized by artists, community historians, and cultural workers that retrospectively document his otherwise undocumented performances from the 1980s. I am conducting approximately fifteen interviews, editing them, collecting and posting audio and video archival materials, and labeling, editing, and organizing ephemera. Using software designed by Partner & Partners, I am annotating the interviews by summarizing sections, generating keywords, and linking them to various other resources and sites in order to make the site as interactive and interwoven with other related projects as possible. Saint was a major figure in 1880s and 1990s black gay cultural production, serving as an editor, playwright, poet, essayist, activist, playwright, and performance artist. While his published works remain, his performances have not. The interviews with his creative collaborators and friends serve to reactivate the performances, while also connecting them to the present. I also include interviews with younger queer artists who are engaging with Saint’s work or otherwise creating work that speaks to the intersection of HIV/AIDS, queerness, race, and gender. This project is an effort to amplify Saint’s legacy at a time in which, although there is renewed interest about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the cultural production of artists of color is often overlooked. Live performance is especially hard to enter into history. Saint’s work offers a valuable record of the experience of living within a time of crisis from the perspective of being a black gay immigrant in a conservative political environment. His outspoken anger and pride, his refusal to hide any aspect of himself, and his commitment to collective transformation serves as an inspiration for our times.