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 \o7 butoh\f7 . 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.
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."