Thursday, September 2, 2010

Performing Identity to the Beat of "My Big Phat Greek Rap"

"White girl, I mean Greek girl, got flavor: Angela Kariotis"

(This article originally appeared at, www.brooklynrail.org/2005/06/theater/in-dialogue-angela-kariotis)

FronteraFest is the largest fringe festival in the southwest and, I betcha, the most populist. It is an unjuried, first-come-first-served, four-week grassroots bacchanalia of performance in Austin, Texas, including a short fringe for pieces under 25 minutes, a long fringe for pieces up to 90 minutes, a Bring Your Own Venue component, and Mi Casa Es Su Teatro, a day-long event in 12 homes all over town. The work is almost entirely new and almost all locally-made: someone’s slides of their summer vacation, nude Butoh, and a musical about tupperware. As with all fringe festivals, the range of quality is wide.

It was against this chaotic fray that I first experienced the stunning performance work of Angela Kariotis.

Standing stark still in a sharp, focused pool of light, she began her one-woman piece, Reminiscence of the Ghetto & Other Things That Raized Me,a work of drama, biography and poetry—one of those cross-genre pieces that sometimes carries the label “hip hop theater.” Or, to sample her own language, it’s about:

ghetto lingo | the philosophy of the kool | perspective | imagination | hip-hop | dandelions | perseverance through creativity | broken English | Felix |
getting each other’s back | White girl, I mean Greek girl, got flavor?

Reminiscence, a story of growing up in a Jersey ghetto, is about Kariotis’s brother Felix and their mother, who immigrated from Greece and wound up raising her kids alone. When I saw Kariotis perform the piece in 2001, she was a graduate student at the University of Texas, working toward her MA in Performance Studies. Since then, the piece has expanded from 25-mintues to a full-length. On her website (www.angelakariotis.com), Kariotis says that the play “is about creating identity through place. Each segment explores a point of view from urban vernacular and false assumptions, economic status and self-worth.”

“In no way did I set out to write a hip hop theater piece,” she told me recently, but “I participate in the hip hop culture, I would say, where I grew up, I participate in that. So the first major work I created, it’s going to be an extension of myself.”

One segment is about redefining the term “ghetto”—from a pejorative to a prouder sort of adjective. “I heard so much in Texas, ‘That’s so ghetto,’” she continues. “I was like, What is that? What do you mean? I’ve never heard that before. I don’t like the way that sounds, because I don’t think the person saying that is coming from a place of knowing. It’s a negative intention.” Kariotis is big on intentions.

Rather, she says, “ghetto” means: “You made it into something. You use what you had in order to make it something. You are resourceful.”

FronteraFest was Kariotis’s first “stage” performance. Prior to that, she did poetry readings, and slam events. “I was used to a stationary space with limited movement,” she explains. So for her Short Fringe piece, she stayed still. “I figured that way, I couldn’t go wrong or fall off the edge.”

And it worked. She performed new segments of Reminiscence in 2002 and 2003. It won stuff—starting with Best of the Week & Best of the Fest honors. The full work was supported by the National Performance Network and premiered by Rude Mechanicals and Women & Their Work in Austin. She has performed at UCLA-Live (featuring DJ O) and on Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO. Most recently, she’s been commissioned by People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, Pennsylvania as part of their One Night Stand solo series, to write a new play called Say Logos / Say Word (or My Big Phat Greek Rap).

Words are, for Kariotis, extremely important. Vocabulary is extremely important. She is acutely aware of what language she speaks and what her audience hears.

So, here is how her story goes, most in her own words, interspersed with samples from her new text:

“The commission was, ‘We want you to write a play about home and family.’ But then I was in to this whole Greek thing for a minute, this whole roots thing, you know, what is my responsibility now based on who and what came before me? Is being a poet, a philosopher in my blood? Where do I stand in line?”

So what did she do? She went to church.

“I was in church, I was praying. When the shit happens, I got to pray. I don’t know what else to do. Please help me write this play, Oh God. So I’m in church and I’m like, Oh, Anything, Give me something.”

The first thing out of the priest’s mouth was, “What does it mean to be Greek?”

Kariotis was like, “Man, the turnaround time on that is quick.”

So, she tells me, “he says this thing, he gives wonderful oration, ‘To be Greek is not to be inherited, it is earned.’ And I asked him for a copy of the sermon as a tool, as a reference guide. And he’s like, no. And I’m like, wha’?”

The priest told her that all the information from his sermon was available to her—through research. “So you know what this means, I had to read all these playwrights, I had to read all these philosophers. Okay, Socrates. Okay, Aeschylus. Okay, I’m a playwright. I’m an actor. I’m a philosopher, you have to be a philosopher to be a writer.”

Greeks don’t go to Astoria anymore, Mama warns. The Oracle sees, they’ve moved to the suburbs. No, not now, not when I finally learned to use the Subway! Ela mesa, ela pisu, come back, and stay! Astoria is a myth. It was like Canal Street. 125th Street. The center of a circle, the zip code on a letter to Mytilini, Agaptimou Hrisa, sou efhoume na ise kala. Pira mulivi ki harti na sou grapsou gyi na micro nisaki.

from Say Logos/Say Word

Kariotis has a very specific goal—to bridge the gap between ancient Greece and modern Greece. “The ancient playwrights, these words, they’re taken away from our culture,”she explains, tracing how these artists have been appropriated from Greece by mainstream history. “So Aristophanes, Aeschylus, they’re ‘the ancients.’ Maybe if they were Greek playwrights, it would help me own it, it would help me relate to that lineage. But because of this ancient business, they are taken away from me. They’re not mine. What artists do is, they’re inspired by their predecessors. If my predecessors are taken away, what vein do I live in?”

The revolutionaries and warriors of Greece from Odysseus to Bumbolina to Gregoris Afxention believed Freedom is not something you are born with, you must fight for it. Zito Eladda! My ratza is something I claim, like I own it. I am other, because I am Greek. Not white. White are the colonizers. Greeks are the colonized. “What does it mean to be Greek?”

from Say Logos/Say Word

Kariotis uses her work to invite you over. You’re camped out in her living room, but you’re remembering, as she says, “your own circumstance.” She’s very clear. She’s certain. She wants her own rememberings, her home, to help spark you to work through your own. “I just don’t want you to hang out with me—yeah, for a little bit—but I want it to remind you of things.”

What kind of things? Home. Love. Food. Family. The basics. Where we are from.

“If Aeschylus was known for his phraseology and his poetics in his time, how can I do the same thing in my own time, with these characters?”

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