Before Dana Michel’s first performance of Yellow Towel at the Contemporary Arts Center this week, a friend of mine emailed a group of women in a local natural hair group to say we should all see this production because it’s about “a poem about hair.” That didn’t exactly end up being true. After seeing Yellow Towel, I don’t think it’s so much “about” hair as it is about how society boxes us in and/or locks us out.
Michel seems to be using hair — specifically, black hair, and therefore, blackness itself — as a backdrop to talk about marginalization. “As a child, Dana Michel would drape a yellow towel on her head in an attempt to emulate the blonde girls at school,” the PR materials for Yellow Towel say. “As an adult, she now revisits the imaginary world of her alter-ego in a performative ritual free of cover-ups or censorship.” Her character is the physical embodiment of that statement. Her jerky movements give one the impression that she’s pretending to be someone with an addiction of some sort.
But what is she addicted to? The freedom of shirking expectations? The joy of being uninhibited? Is this a physical representation of our long-standing need for approval from those whose beauty standards we don’t meet? She mumbles phrases to herself, makes guttural noises, twitches seemingly uncontrollably, bends and contorts her body into odd angles. All of this done with an undercurrent of repetition that leans toward proselytization (“this is our house…”), performed in an all-white space reminiscent of a psych ward.
And just like that, Michel is the “crazy” homeless person you pass on your way to work or to drinks with friends. She’s the person whose physical or mental disability is on display for everyone to see. Do you admit to yourself that these people make you uncomfortable? Do they make you uncomfortable because they remind you of life’s fickle nature when it comes to circumstance? Or do your biases against them make coming into contact with them an unsettling experience? Some of us pretend these people aren’t actually there. By pretending (i.e., embodying this character with no regard for what’s “proper”), Michel is showing us how much we pretend in any number of ways.
With her movements and mumblings as a foundation, she strips down to a white tank top and yellow tights, and works hair props into the performance (an afro wig, a straightening comb, what appears to be a container of relaxer), using them to build up to the reveal of a piece of weave. She combs it and shakes it around while rocking to and fro to Marvin Winans’ “Jesus Saves” playing loudly in the background. This sequence seems to resonate most with the members of the audience who might have thought the whole performance was just about hair. Following this up with the return of the character from the beginning of the performance — she redresses herself in the black hoodie and jogging pants, and chunky-soled sneakers she started out in — gives it the feel of being on the fringe: as black women, our lived experiences with dominant culture often happen from that space. And our hair can be used against us, no matter what we choose to do with it.
Keep in mind, I could be wrong about all of what I just wrote. I purposely didn’t read or listen to any interviews with Michel before going to the performance. For me, part of the fun of contemporary art is figuring out what the artist is trying to tell me. Sometimes the artist isn’t exactly trying to tell you anything. Sometimes the way you experience/interact with the work is what the artist wants.
I acknowledge that contemporary art is hard for some people. (It’s hard for me, too. I woke up this morning still trying to figure out the symbolism of Yellow Towel‘s ending!) It’s much easier to pretend you know what you’re looking at when you’re standing in front of a piece of artwork that confuses you. A static piece of work can be forgotten as quickly as it’s observed; the same cannot be said of a live performance. A live piece requires your undivided attention. People who haven’t been introduced to this type of performance will definitely find Yellow Towel to be anything but “normal,” but I wouldn’t say that makes it less worthy of full contemplation.