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Performance Art : Emperor of Anger : Hittite Empire’s Keith Antar Mason wonders if his newfound mainstream success is just another example of the New Tokenism

<i> Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

Five nooses dangle ominously above the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. At center, a nearly naked African-American man is strapped to a tall stake. To one side, four men sit by a long table, incanting a poetic and wrenching recitation.

On the other side of the stake, Keith Antar Mason sits in a rocker, piles of books at his feet. The African-American performance artist is wearing a black T-shirt that heralds a phony upcoming “Florence/Normandie” film and baggy bright yellow clothes that look like rain gear.

“Didn’t you see the video?” his voice pleads as he rocks, almost trance-like, back and forth. He voices the phrase again and again, the meaning changing with each different inflection. At other times, other members of the Hittite Empire ensemble speak a different refrain: “The bullet went here. The scar is invisible, but the pain is real.” The text is neither narrative nor theatrical in any traditional sense. The staging is a medley of styles, from voodoo to hip-hop to butoh . The performance is undeniably a collaborative product, but Mason is responsible for the direction and much of the script.

He’s responsible for a great deal these days. The Los Angeles performance artist-writer-director and founding artistic director of the black company known as the Hittite Empire is having a year filled with both glory and grief. Through all the newfound acclaim and controversy, Mason always returns to his main task: wrestling with the degradation of African-American men.

Mason was already breaking through as the preeminent new African-American performance artist when, perversely, the Los Angeles riots placed his career even more on fast-forward. Last winter, he had become the first Los Angeles artist ever to be commissioned by Lincoln Center’s prestigious Serious Fun festival.

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The piece, “Forty-Nine Blues Songs for a Jealous Vampire,” performed in July, was described by the New York Times as “an interlocking series of incendiary riffs on racial oppression.” The newspaper praised Mason for a “humor (that) evokes a depth of anguish that eclipses even the punchiest diatribes against white oppression.”

The Hittites have been racking up the air travel miles. Presented recently by the Mark Taper Forum, Atlanta’s National Black Arts Festival and San Francisco’s Solo Mio Festival, the Hittites also have upcoming gigs in Minneapolis, Chicago and the Sudan. They have graced the pages of Vanity Fair; trendy apparel maker Cross Colours is their corporate backer. Even Arsenio Hall has called.

On the last two weekends of this month, Mason will perform with four colleagues in “The Warrior’s Council” at Highways Performance Space, commissioned by the Santa Monica venue and funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. And on Dec. 5, the Hittite Empire will perform what the collective considers to be its most important project in some time. The event, described as an “urgent message and grieving ceremony” will detail “the collective’s vision of the (April-May) insurrection” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.

Mason is known as someone who talks straight about both the familiar and the taboo aspects of the volatile topic of race.

“I like the way Keith approaches what shapes black male identity in America and what irritates him about it,” says Serious Fun’s Jedediah Wheeler. “I don’t think anybody is as articulate on that as he is.”

But Mason has alienated longtime colleagues and arts administrators, especially in the months since the riots. In August, he was fired from his position as special events curator and community resource director at Highways, his artistic home base during this key phase of his career.

Perhaps more important, even Mason worries that his sudden quasi-celebrity begs some larger, uncomfortable questions about his place in the art world. Is his sudden popularity in the mainstream theater and press an example of the New Tokenism--when one or two artists are tapped as an ethnic group’s designated hitters, often to the exclusion of others working in the field?

“There can be only one black man on top in any field,” Mason laments.

Producers, of course, say that it’s the quality of Mason’s art that makes him desirable.

“Because he lives here, he can’t help but relate to what happened in the uprising, but the strength of his work is that he writes from passion, giving words to the rage about what goes on all the time,” says the Mark Taper Forum’s Josephine Ramirez, producer of the recent “Out in Front” festival, in which the Hittite Empire performed.

The Hittites, whose name is that of an ancient culture from Asia Minor and Syria, are known for dealing with issues of African-American identity, particularly from a male perspective. Theirs is an experimental and confrontational style that Mason likens to a blues ensemble. “Don’t go to a literary reference,” he says. “I was raised listening to jazz and classical music, so it’s in my art.”

Mason, born Nov. 3, 1956, in St. Louis, studied at his hometown’s Webster University. He worked in regional theater but soon tired of the regular diet of “Amen Corners” and period musicals.

He started a theater company called the Afrikan Peoples Art Continuum in 1979 and, prompted in part by the success of such African-American women writers as Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker, became a writer and director. He first made his mark as a dramatist with ". . . for black boys who have considered homicide when the streets were too much . . . "--a response to Shange’s play " . . . for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf. . . .”

In 1987, after moving to L.A., Mason and others founded the Hittite Empire, which now has 31 L.A. members, a core group of 12 and a traveling contingent of six performers (Mason, Ellis Rice, Joel Talbert, Nigel Gibbs, Wheaton James, Michael Dyre) and technical director Tom Dennison.

Hittite works draw their inspiration from sources as various as classical mythology and today’s headlines. A 1990 work called “Prometheus on a Black Landscape: The Core,” for instance, explored the 1989 “wilding” incident in New York’s Central Park with symbolism drawn from hip-hop and Haitian temple ritual.

Wheeler, the force behind Serious Fun since 1987, had been looking to broaden the New York avant-garde festival’s scope for a while when he came upon Mason. “I was impressed with the writing, the ideas and the fierceness of his integrity,” Wheeler says.

An early version of one section of “Forty-Nine Blues Songs for a Jealous Vampire” convinced Wheeler to commission Mason for the 1992 Serious Fun. “There are a lot of controversial ideas centering on black men and black male stereotypes in his work that needed to be aired, particularly in New York,” Wheeler says.

Although Mason praises Wheeler’s unequivocal and non-intrusive support, the New York producer did get his share of flak about the Mason commission from back home.

“When I announced that Keith was coming to New York, a couple of friends of mine--black women whom I respect greatly--were outraged,” Wheeler says. “I had women leave the performance here in New York because they felt he was presenting female stereotypes and that he was degrading women.”

Actually, it’s not that Mason’s work is degrading to women but that it focuses almost entirely upon men.

The door to Mason’s studio No. 5 in the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica has been decorated with a memorial commemorating the six-month anniversary of the April-May violence. It is, says Mason, an installation about tokenism.

A black T shape and voodoo symbols including a mojo bag, a doll and a red feather hover over the “Florence/Normandie” T-shirt tacked to the door. Flyers and letters about various events in which Mason has been asked to participate are also pinned to the plywood, while orange and red flowers rest on the floor below.

At the center of the display is a piece of paper alleging that “racism is alive and well at the 18th Street Arts Complex.” Predictably, Mason’s message has caused tempers to flare in the compound, which houses Highways, High Performance magazine, Community Arts Resources and many other arts organizations and artists studios.

Controversy is hardly new to Mason. Long before he was approached by Lincoln Center, he had been invited to create a work at the Whitney Museum of Art. However, when Mason went back east to further explore the offer, he chose to back out, saying now that he had experienced “sexual harassment” there.

The Whitney incident, though, was nothing compared to Mason’s go-round with the Taper before “Out in Front.” Mason was angered when festival producer Ramirez sought out a video of Mason’s work.

“I got a phone call when I was in North Carolina from someone at the Taper saying I must send them a video,” Mason says. “Well, I must do nothing. That word must is not something you just straight up say, not knowing me.”

Because Mason was out of town and unreachable, the Taper tried other channels. “It escalated,” he says. “They started to call around asking my friends. By the time I got back I had identified the person as Josephine Ramirez. I just told her no, and the Hittites wrote a letter to (Taper Artistic Director) Gordon Davidson.

“I said this is not a good scenario for me if I come in blind thinking you’re doing me a favor. I don’t want this favor, and these are the reasons why. I let him know in a very direct way that this was not going to work and that he should call his people off.”

Mason further resents that the Taper’s interest was piqued only after his New York success, when he had been creating works in L.A. for years: “I never had approached the Taper outside of the traditional ways that you get rejected. They only wanted ‘Forty-Nine Blues Songs.’ They didn’t even want us to create a special piece for them. And I knew why they wanted it: It was the review in the New York Times. The Taper does prefer something sanctioned from New York.”

But persuaded by fellow artist Theresa Chavez, and because of the involvement of Community Arts Resources, Mason reconsidered and chose to present a work in the festival. He was slated only to direct the “Forty-Nine Blues Songs” excerpt, but when Hittite Ellis Rice had a family emergency, Mason joined the cast in his stead at the last moment.

Despite the difficulties, Ramirez stresses the importance of artists like Mason participating in “Out in Front”: “His voice is portraying people who haven’t been heard before, who have had large doses of injustice daily by the society at large and who don’t get a voice at the normal venues. It’s especially important to have that at the Taper.”

Unfortunately, Mason doesn’t want to work on the Taper main stage again, although he would consider participating in one of the theater’s outreach programs.

“I don’t see the Taper as a community-based theater,” he says. “People marched past it during the insurrection because that’s how unimportant it is to everybody. The people I want to reach do not go to the Taper. But more important, it’s just technically not a good space for me to perform in. It has lousy acoustics. The (‘Out in Front’ crew) was great, but that production was treated like a rummage sale.”

Mason also has his bones of contention with another major L.A. presenter, the Peter Sellars-directed Los Angeles Festival. “The L.A. Festival thinks I’m calculating this ranting in order for them to place me in the festival,” Mason says. “Hear me now: I don’t want to be in the L.A. Festival.

“What I want is for them to deal with the local artists and give them a commission like Lincoln Center gave me a commission. I don’t want to see a gospel concert, I don’t want to see a jazz concert, I don’t want to see no wild-ass Africans playing drums, whether or not they put karate on top of it.”

Mason’s work space bulletin board is overflowing with letters and flyers that suggest a career in overdrive. Boxes of brilliantly hued Cross Colours togs--sent to the Hittites from their corporate sponsor--lie half-unpacked at his feet.

All this new prominence makes Mason uneasy. “I don’t like it,” he protests. “I like working, but I’m unsettled by the attention.”

Again, it’s the “one black man on top” syndrome. “Inside of the performance art world, you’ve got the Urban Bush Women and the Hittites,” Mason says. “You don’t have anyone else. That’s wrong. And it takes my work out of context. It puts a hell of a lot of responsibility on what I’m doing.

“When other artists get cut out of the mix because they’re not doing it the way the Hittites are doing it, that saddens me. I sometimes question myself as an artist: Is my art good or am I being produced because I’m ‘it’? I think I’m getting a lot of attention because I won’t shut up.”


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