Art performance in former Dallas drug house is DFW’s most fearless this year
No one else in Dallas is taking these risks.

by Brentney Hamilton

Dead White Zombies' T.N.B. runs through June 22 in a "former drug house" at 319 Poe Street in West Dallas.

WEST DALLAS — It's a former drug house in West Dallas -- at least that's what the flyers claim. Paint chips and discarded plywood litter the broken sidewalk that leads from the empty back parking lot through knee-high weeds to the house where local performance art collective Dead White Zombies' newest site-specific installation takes place. It's arguably the most important "entertainment" that the Dallas arts community will see all year.

I knew Dead White Zombies -- headed by UT Dallas professor Thomas Riccio -- would produce an intriguing, immersive experience; there was no doubt that its new production, mysteriously titled T.N.B., would be shocking enough or just plain odd enough to warrant a $15 admission ticket. Knowing now what T.N.B. offers, I would have paid significantly more.

David Jeremiah as Spooky and Rhianna Mack as Charleene take viewers on a disturbing, high-energy experience that is like attending a heady African American Studies lecture on the set of a blaxploitation film.

Written, directed, cast, and produced by Riccio and brought to life by a host of immensely talented actors, T.N.B. is frightening, sickening, humorous, unnerving, disturbing, and astonishing. There is no way to prepare for it, except by perhaps brushing up on your Cornel West, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Malcom X, and blackploitation films. Read a critical review of Django Unchained while you're at it, since this production was written by an ostensibly non-African American writer. And, be prepared to confront the ghosts of your upbringing, whether they manifest more obviously in the form of White Guilt or still-stinging, if tacit, colonial oppression. No one is getting off the hook here.

Without revealing too much, T.N.B. is graphic. We repeat: T.N.B. is graphic. There are "f" words and "n" words. There is simulated violence of the most chilling description. And, actors will look you in the eyes after committing atrocities and rhetorically ask your approval.

Becki McDonald plays "Mama," a character that pushes and supports Spooky to live up to his potential and confront his past. As evidenced here, security cameras project images on walls so that audience members can keep up with the action from different rooms.

Is it acceptable for artistic performances to use racially charged epithets? Is it forgivable, in a world where newsfeeds are constantly filled with reports of senseless shootings, for actors to brandish prop guns literally in the faces of -- and sometimes pointed at -- otherwise unassuming viewers? Of coursethese tactics are meant to disturb -- and it's clear that Riccio doesn't cheat with them simply for a cheap thrill. In fact, in later scenes, characters explicitly discuss the cultural implications, motivations, and immense power of the "n" word and the term "ho." In the end, Riccio's lesson is one of ritualistic healing, against all odds, and against miring self-destruction.

But, despite the work's high-minded message, compelling arguments stand against artistic portrayals of racial violence -- both physical and verbal. Should such be avoided at the risk of inadvertent glamorization or at the accusation of gratuitous emotional pornography? Who suffers collateral damage? What are the consequences and who bears the responsibility? I don't know. I am not entirely comfortable condoning the usage of misogyny and racism, even recognizing that both are used in an artistic context as tools to authentically depict a meaningful story. But, without T.N.B.'s aggressive push, neither would I have frankly and honestly asked myself those -- and so many more -- significant questions.

In a number of roles, Justin Locklear portrays both Spooky's [David Jeremiah] "identical" twin brother as well as a white "cracker" character who, according to the Dead White Zombies website, "variously supports, mocks, and challenges Spooky to consider his life, his performance of blackness, and self-destruction."
The action of T.N.B. takes place in a dilapidated house with a circular interior path -- making use of this set up, characters jump from room to room, often coming perilously close to onlookers.

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