Nudity and Feminism at Philly Live Arts

What Charlotte Ford, Young Jean Lee, and a "clown sex show" have to teach us about female liberation.

As this final week of the Philly Fringe/Live Arts Festival kicks off, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the scope of this yearly miracle: Over 200 Fringe productions, plus 14 internationally recognized artists gathering together for two glorious autumnal weeks to turn Philadelphia into the most vibrant artistic region around. Rather than hum a by-now-familiar tune of generalized praise, I’d like to focus here instead on the unusual and brilliant relevance of the Festival’s curation—specifically in terms of the timely, politicized dialogue around the female body featured in two of its offerings.

The performances in question are Bang and Untitled Feminist Show. The former is a clown sex show conceived by local powerhouse Charlotte Ford and featuring herself and two female co-collaborators. The latter is an all-female burlesque investigation written and directed by downtown New York’s theatrical darling Young Jean Lee. These two shows—though aesthetically entirely unique—find common ground in that both are fueled by prolific and virtuosic female artists investigating questions of societal gender expectation and construction, and the objectification and potential liberation of the naked female body on stage.

Basically, both Bang and Untitled Feminist Show ask us to ask ourselves: What do we expect of a naked woman in performance?

More even than our expectations, what are our judgements, sexual mores, and social associations? And is it possible—through laughter, through unbridled joy, through liberating acquaintance with the simple fact of the female body—to create a kind of female stage utopia, a real social space in which women are finally free to control their own bodies without the threat of objectification?

Full disclosure: I have yet to see Untitled Feminist Show. I’m going on Wednesday and so should you—you won’t see anything like it anywhere, even within Young Jean Lee’s venerated oeuvre of similarly boundary-pushing work. As the Time Out review of the New York production put it, “No words are spoken in the piece, and that refusal to attach language to objects underscores the director’s stated intent to explore fluidity more than fixed identity.”

I did see Bang, a hilarious, intellectually engaging and immaculately executed piece of physical comedy and clowning, peopled with liberation-seeking, cheese-ball-consuming, ecstatically and radically sensualized clowns. If it were still running, I would find a way to include in this article a mandatory written agreement for each reader stipulating that they get themselves a ticket to this show. Sadly, I have no such power.

And really, my opinion of these performances isn’t the point here: This is not a review, it’s a pledge of fealty and eternal gratitude to Live Arts for their commitment to socially engaged and politically aware performance. Our country is embroiled in a perilous new chapter of the “woman question,” a moment rife with slut-shaming, rape-denying, repressed and repressive political dialogue. Live performance, with its issues of physical objectivization and display, offers a perfect forum for the social questioning and radical experimentation that such dire days so desperately require.

So thank you, Philly Live Arts, for your determination to remain awake and alive, for your quiet refusal to opt out of national dialogues and accept the too-frequent marginalization of the live performance experience. And thank you, Charlotte Ford and Young Jean Lee, for asking the necessary, the hard and fascinating questions, for taking your own determinedly hopeful, even ecstatic, leaps towards an as-yet distant utopia of freedom and equality.