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Opinion: Performance Space vs. Anarchy Row

BY REVEREND BILLY | I was walking toward Ninth Street and First Avenue to visit friends who are believers in the Earthchxrch, and who are artists in different ways.

One of them, Johnny Grima, lives in an encampment of the unhoused called “Anarchy Row” on the sidewalk under the scaffolding on the northeast corner. Ten souls were there with Johnny, reclining in the afternoon sun with their makeshift chairs and tents, relaxing between N.Y.P.D. harassments, Eduardo strumming his guitar. Overhead they flew a banner of a sky with the words “DE-CRIMINALIZE OUR SURVIVAL” painted by the artist Savitri D.

I offered to take them all to Mayfield Brooks’s performance “WAIL-FALL-WHALE-FALL,” at P.S. 122, now called Performance Space (PS) New York. Mayfield’s ritual piece was on the fourth floor of the very building the anarchists were leaning up against with their camp. They looked at the former school building towering over them with some distrust. Johnny said, “I’ll go.”

Around the corner, PS is a glassy, Brutalist expanse that makes everyone immediately far away from anyone else. It’s like a miniature Whitney. Two ticket-takers waved bravely from the far corner. They were tiny, trapped in the vast walls… . We stood there for a moment, wondering about the emptiness. The architect is daring us to…to what?

Anarchy Row on E. Ninth Street.(Photo by Alice O’Malley)

We walked out of Anarchy Row and into Mayfield Brooks’s “WHALE.” It was singing as we entered, with underwater, echoey music and a pale blue fog with strong klieg lights beaming blue light: the beautiful, harrowing metaphor of the dead whale providing nourishment for living beings by its fall, and the gift of the wail of ancestors and the wail of remembering the pain and murder of slavery.

Huge pillows were here and there, with prayerful meditators, one dancer kicking like a finned fish, and a gently giggling couple… . Johnny and I chose our two spots and I know my experience was quickly like a floating trance. The vapid art-world vibe of PS was forgotten, or you might say was drowned out by Mayfield’s leap — dive — of imagination.

In my deepsea dreams I suddenly recalled performing in this room last summer, in “Exploring the Earth as Lover: Ecosex and the City,” the festival hosted by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. Our performance, The Church of Stop Shopping, followed Courtney Desiree Morris and Dragonfly Diva. So give the corporatized PS credit for curating that bodyful, gender-swerving weekend. Tree-hugging wasn’t the half of it. In my twisted, wailing daydream, I was replaying that EcoSextravaganza, only down here in this blue underworld.

Now, as I type, it occurs to me that someone at PS invites artists and political uprisings against the corporatization of performance art, as if out of respect for PS’s beloved predecessor P.S. 122. The EcoSex Fest and this series, “Invisible Culture,” featuring Mayfield’s “WAIL-FALL-WHALE-FALL” take on the corporate architecture with the body’s love, border-crossing and the rights of all humans and all life. The body is holy. The Earth is teacher. That’s not what the architecture of this building says.

“That was like being on mushrooms,” Johnny said.

Choreographer and dancer Mayfield Brooks. (Photo by Nir Aireli)

As I returned with Johnny to his open-air home on Ninth Street, Johnny’s friend Trip showed up, another believer from Earthchxrch. Forced to live outside, and finding this underused stretch of concrete under the roof of the scaffolding, a few feet from the crazy traffic of First Avenue. I was struck by the home of it, in the blankets and cardboard boxes of Anarchy Row. Here was an outpost of humanity, where people help each other for nothing and face the bad moods of cops and staring tourists.
I said my goodbyes and walked Downtown one block to Eighth, then turned east.

Suddenly, I was deep in a street fair from Hell. Eighth Street was turned into an occupation of public space of a very different kind. From First Avenue to Tompkins Square stretched a sea of hundreds of white people drinking white wine. All the diners were identical, not just in skin color and clothing, but in the same fierce, generic happiness, a frat party for Google brats. I walked halfway down the street, weaving through the tables. Then, I stopped and began to slowly spin around and around, speeding up like a drunk dervish, confused by this crowd, drilling down into this metastasizing monoculture. I suddenly saw Helen Levitt’s children playing here, chalking the street.

Sometimes this gentrification feels inevitable. But in the days when Charlie Parker and Bimbo Rivas and Allen Ginsberg lived here, the enemy was the empire-building 1950s of Joe McCarthy. Now it’s these unconscious super-consumers, looking like glossy ads for international brands. Hard to see the war mattering here. We will have to baptize them with humpback whales and Anarchy Row.

On Nov. 1, Trip and Eduardo from Anarchy Row were arrested by the N.Y.P.D.

Mayfield Brooks’s “Wail-Fall-Whale-Fall” continues through Nov. 5, a part of “Invisible Cultures” at Performance Space New York, at 150 First Ave., at E. Ninth Street.

Reverend Billy (a.k.a. Bill Talen) and the Stop Shopping Choir hold forth Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Earthchxrch in Loisaida, 36 Avenue C. On Nov. 26 they open their annual run of shows at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, at 425 Lafayette St. Shows are designed and directed by Savitri D.


  1. Bob Holman Bob Holman November 10, 2023

    Now THAT is a review!

  2. John Penley John Penley November 8, 2023

    Thank you Rev. Billy for writing this uplifting op-ed. One of the best I have ever read.

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