Music for the Tooth-Filing Ceremony (1993)

When I told people that I would be traveling in Bali, they replied "Oh, that sounds so exotic!" I would always look at them curiously and say, "Well, not for the people who live there." By the time I went to Indonesia, I already had a 20-year history with the culture - its music, its dance, its art. None of this quite prepared me for how "exotic" I felt in Indonesia, where as a white man, I was distinctly not part of the culture, despite my years of study. It reminded me most of my experiences as a queer man in America, where my race and gender were quickly trumped by my sexuality, and I was rendered "Other" no matter how much I might try to "go native."

Michael Gallagher as Jubelo leading the Initiate...

Music for the Tooth-Filing Ceremony was my attempt to unpack some of these things. It was my longest work (two hours), divided into three parts, inspired by Victor Turner's analysis of the structure of ritual into breach, crisis, and redress. In Part One, a dual narrative "status quo" is created by myself, alternating with an anthropological lecture by Margaret Mead (played by drag performer Gurlene Hussey, aka Doug Stapleton).  This (already strange) "status quo" is breached when drag star Joan Jett Blakk accuses me of objectifying her for my own purposes, and Margaret Mead's lecture dissolves into personal recollections of her unrequited love for her teacher Ruth Benedict. Part Two sends the work into a state of crisis. Culture is flipped when a Western bride and groom must delay their wedding ceremony until the sacred drag queens arrive to bless the event. Intermission then interrupts the piece. When the audience returns, there is only candlelight in the space, and I performed a "Gandrung," a sacred dance of healing, often performed by crossed-dress men. Then Sister Tuna Helper (another drag persona of Doug Stapleton) comes out and addresses the crowd on the sacredness of sex. Her talk turns into a wild "dance party," in which two drag performers come out and literally "re-dress" Tuna as the "Worshipful Master," who will officiate over a ritual of transition, in which I am initiated as a Master Homosexual. (The text of this scene is taken from the Masonic rites for the initiation of a Master Freemason.) At the end, I am left on stage naked, except for gold leaf and honey spread across my chest. In the final scene, I recite a "Litany of Saints," all the various people who had helped me to understand both who I was, and the meaning of love.

When I traveled in Bali, I was distressed by the fact that every performance was interrupted by people taking flash photos. I therefore inserted that into this piece, by having photographer Lisa Alvarez take flash photos throughout the piece. She was given carte blanche to walk into the middle of a scene to disrupt it with a photo. Audience members complained to me later about this, but it yielded the most vivid photographs I have of any performance.

In the first scene, I talked about my experiences studying Balinese dance, and how it involved a way of looking at and using the body that was completely different from anything I had experienced before.

Enter Margaret Mead (Gurlene Hussey), who has been brought back from the dead to deliver a lecture at what she seems to think is an anthropological convention. Her discussion is supposedly about the Balinese "life rituals" or mapandes, which mark the important turning points in life. She notes that the Balinese tooth-filing ceremony does not have an equivalent in Western culture: a ritual in which the child becomes an adult. Margaret's lecture is accompanied by slides, though these flow in their own order, and without a direct reference to what Margaret is talking about. Moreover, she very quickly veers from her official topic to tell stories about her friends in Bali in the 1930s. Only when she is interrupted by Jubelo (a kind of cross between stage manager and altar boy, played by Michael Gallagher) does she stop talking so other parts of the work can continue.

Sitting down for tea with famous drag performer Joan Jett Blakk. This begins as a cordial conversation about all the various activities Joan was currently involved with (she had run for President of the United States in 1992, and had recently moved to San Francisco where she had her own talk show). When Joan realized I am making notes, she flies into a rage, causing the "breach" referenced above.

JOAN:  Fine, fine, you can run, but you can't hide!  Everyone is culpable!  You're either part of the solution or part of the problem!

JUBELO: (under his breath) I'm not getting paid enough for this...

MARGARET: Oh, Ruth, Ruth!  Why didn't you end that hopeless, ridiculous marriage of yours, and run away with me to Pago Pago?!  It should have been you in my arms those long tropical nights in the South Pacific!  It should have been the two of us!  The science we could have done together!  We could have turned the whole academic world upside down! 

In her lecture, Margaret had scoffed at the Indonesian custom of having cross-dressed "priests" officiate at a wedding. Yet that suddenly becomes the reality. The wedding guests have been waiting for an hour, and the drag queens have yet to arrive.

The Bride (Barrie Cole) and the Groom (Keith DeWeese) are at a loss to explain the reason that the drag queens are not yet there. The Groom offers a metaphysical explanation, and the Bride wails, "Oh, if only we weren't orthodox, we wouldn't be having these problems!"

And just when it seems things are really going to hell ("We're running out of dialog here!" the Bride announces), Jubelo appears and announces that the Drag Queens have materialized, and are about to appear.

The drag queens do indeed arrive, including my own alter-ego of Natasha R, Joan Jett Blakk, and Roberta Pinns. The three of us then lip-synched an "aria" for the Bride (actually, Leonard Bernstein's setting of Anne Bradstreet's poem, "To My Dear and Loving Husband") as the Groom and wedding guests look on (Kate Thomas and Michael Thomas can be seen on the far left of this photo).

After intermission, I returned in full Balinese drag, performing in a style of Balinese dance associated with female performers. I called the work a gandrung, a kind of sung dance, used to create healing, but the text was my transliteration of a song by the Indonesian pop star Iwan Fals. The text spoke about "all those who have died," in my mind those dying in the AIDS crisis, which was in full, hideous bloom in 1993. The song included a long list of relationships: fathers, brothers, sisters, etc. to consider all the ties that had been severed by this illness.

Sister Tuna Helper then spoke to the audience about the falseness of the Cartesian divide:

SISTER TUNA HELPER: The fixation over the supremacy of the rational self as the true seat of our soul has left our body, poor dear, and all its sensations mute.  Our minds have enslaved our passions for so long that our spirit has forgotten how to speak. 

MTFC 40.jpg

The return of Joan and Roberta launches into a wild dance party (the music was a mash-up of Balinese Ketchak, Canadian pop singer Jane Siberry, and Cuban dance music). During this dance, Sister Tuna is gradually "re-dressed" as the Worshipful Master.

Jubelo leads me onstage blindfolded, and the Worshipful Master begins a series of questions to determine if I am worthy to receive the title of Master Homosexual. I am enjoined to relay a series of dreams, each with an elemental quality. At the end of each dream, I am told to remove an article of clothing.

The Chorus assists in reacting to each dream, and by the end of the sequence, as I recall a conversation with a dead friend, I gradually remove my shirt, leaving me naked except for gold leaf and honey spread across my chest.

MASTER:  Brother Abe, by the power invested in me, I pronounce you a Master Homosexual. You can pay your dues as you leave. Come, Jubelo!

 {MASTER starts to exit; JUBELO starts to follow, but hesitates at leaving JEFF]

 JEFF:  Hey, wait a minute.  You mean that's it?

 MASTER:  The ceremony is concluded.  Jubelo?

 JEFF:  Isn't something transformative supposed to happen to me?

 MASTER:  It has.  LIGHTS!

This photo, from 1992, is by Eduardo Aparicio.

This photo, from 1992, is by Eduardo Aparicio.

Left alone onstage with Jubelo, I begin to recite a Litany of Saints, attributing to many people the lessons I had learned from them. I would put on a handmade scapular with a depiction of each saint on it. By the end, I was covered with a large collar of these scapulars. I then read a passage from my journal, written the day one of my friends died of AIDS. Jubelo brought me a sarong and sash to wear (again, I was re-dressed in Balinese clothes), and after thanking the audience, I started to leave.

JUBELO:  Hey, you can't leave here like that!

{C} [JEFF smiles, and his body twists into the classical Balinese female dance position.  His right hand rises in the mudra that means "fear not."]

JEFF:  It'll be OK. [JEFF rises, and does drag snap.]

[Fast Blackout]

To read Achy Obejas's review of the performance for The Chicago Reader, click here.