Pieces of America 2 - by Rajni Shah and Mary Kate Connolly

Pieces of America 2

A very sideways look at the experience of performing and attending Rajni Shah’s Dinner with America in real and conceptual space

co-authored by Rajni Shah and Mary Kate Connolly

The following is a template designed for the consumption and digestion of splinters of cultural reference…a lump in the throat, a twist in the gut, a warmth in the heart...

A cavernous dining hall envelopes you. Upon entering, you cast aside fear and difference, strike up friendship, and explore common ground. A vast Honduran mahogany dining table inhabits the centre in isolated splendour. The linen is embellished in sparse Lutheran hand with the words ‘Pride, Hope, Kinship, Drive’. You are here with others. No one feels left out or passed over.

I am waiting, sheathed in plastic. Blind. A sweat in the palm, a loss of balance, a careful slow movement of the lashes. How many of them are there? What do they look like? Are they smiling or frowning or talking? Do they think they are making eye contact with me? Have they sat down? Do they feel welcome?

Whilst milling around the vast table and reaching out to one another, you are presented with the starter of the evening: the Optimistic Amuse Bouche. This is designed to whet the palate, and purge the body of negative expectation and prejudice. It is light, fizzy with promise, and lasts only for a moment on the tongue before dissolving.

  • 250 grams of the ice of the Delaware and the grit of the people crossing it
  • 50 grams of the majesty of untouched landscapes
  • 5 grams of the sheer size and volume of all things American
  • Shake vigorously till all ice crushed and blended with other ingredients – serve in a shot glass…

The game is on. I am in the space with you. Solo voices of U.S. citizens punctuate this quiet part of the evening. I have met them all, can picture their faces and surroundings – each now reinhabits that place and time we shared two years ago. Most have moved on to new cities, lives, and some to a new realm of being. We are dining with the dead, the angry, the ungracious and the hopeful.

Guests are called to table, and invited to share in fellowship and the spoils of a beguiling landmass. Presently, a vast melting pot arrives.

You tentatively devour the space we share. It is most probably not what you expected. I try to alleviate our frustrations by seducing you. Waves of success and exhaustion wash over us. I am blonde and blue-eyed. You are staring at me. I look into your eyes but my sadness and anger and eagerness make you shy.

Main Course: Promising Stew

Base ingredient: The power of the American identity, and the endurance of the souls and hearts and bosoms of the American people.

  • Place in a large pot with 250grams of Patriotism. Heat till scalding.
  • Temper with the Songs of the South, the Validation of the Individual and the Fear of the Other.
  • Leave to simmer, until a myriad of histories and distant cultures dragged to the shores in famine and slave ships, have all been absorbed into the mix, peppering it with the flavours of far off lands.
  • Finish and mature the dish with healthy dollops of the captains of industry, the soaring bricks and mortar of shiny sky-scrapers, the chic New England style of Boston and Cape Cod, the airy art spaces of New York, the balm of Californian breezes.

I am trying to hold this space. Voices crowd in. I am singing. You have travelled into the cradles and fields of your minds. I am still trying to hold the space. Though of course, of course, this is an impossible task. You have left and some come back. This space is one of coming and going.

Side-dish 1:

Forebear’s Bread

A simple unleavened bread – coarse and sometimes hard to digest, it is formed from the sparse sensibilities of Lutheran and Calvinist settlers, cooked by the steam of growth, and transformed into a hard-working, conservative outlook, impeccably mannered, friendly, and a touch distant.

There is nothing other than being with you in the room. All our trajectories collapse into one pointed moment. You are with me now. One last song. We have come full circle.

Side-dish 2:

Moulded Faith Rice

A sticky sweet rice, made from varying individual grains, moulded together to form a wholesome, loving solid which places the family at the centre of life, which places immense faith in a benign god, which places trust in other people, and which places emphasis on striving ahead as one.

I have made an attempt, that is all. As I shed the layers of this shiny blonde outfit, you watch from the darkness. I have no idea who you are any more. I look at you and there is pity and engagement in the space between us, but I could not say exactly where it sits. I take a practical approach to undressing. Now your thoughts cram the darkness. It is comforting. You witness my body as a shared landmark. I make my escape.

Side-dish 3:

Fun and Frolics Fondue

A frothy, synthetically-chewy dip. This contains the lure of consumerism, the whiff of fast food, the playful yellow beacons of taxis on Broadway, the gushing emotion of sitcoms and movies, the stars in the eyes of waitresses working the graveyard shift in a Hollywood diner, the preacher touting for souls outside the Elvis chapel in Vegas, and the endearing twang of ‘American-English’.

My numb feet cross the space, blundering between you and the crumbs of mulch. We find ourselves in different locations. I have left it behind. The burial of something. Preparation for a harvest. Cleaning.

Side dish 4:

Troubled Gravy

A bitter sauce which should neither be avoided, nor allowed to subsume the other flavours of the meal. Ingredients include the power and status accredited to violence, the despair of the sick unable to afford healthcare, the segregation and division of race, colour and creed, the elevation of image, and the furtherance of one nation above all others.

We watch a movie together. You pretend not to notice that I am by your side. I am afraid that at this point you are looking for the end. Some of you leave the space. I wish you would stay. But of course this is part of the deal between us. You come and go. We stay. It is almost time for the feast.

Dessert 1:

The first is Traditional Apple Pie with lashings of white peaks of cream. Warm and homely, it looks to a safe and prosperous past, a security and assurance that values were intact, that the future was golden and that America would prevail.

Oranges, Mandarins, Bananas, Apples, Dates, Pears, Plums, Dried Apricots, Chocolate, Chrysanthemums, Amaretti. How ridiculous. We consider making the world kinder.

Dessert 2:

The second is Mississippi Mud Pie. This dessert should be served cold. It is an intriguing, yet not overly sweet dish, formed by the power of hope, now muddied with change and the fear of disappointment. It looks unflinchingly forward to an uncertain future.

It is painfully awkward to find our way into this space of conversation. I come from a different trajectory into this feast. But having negotiated our differences, we sometimes fall into an entirely surprising conversation for a moment.

The lethargy of post-feasting cloaks you in warmth. Conversation wafts and thins with the rising steam of bitter black coffee…it is time to leave. Shyness tinges departures with awkwardness as new found fellowships forged amid the clamour, are met with chill night air. Smiles and connections linger, stored for a future time, a future feast…a lump in the throat, a twist in the gut, a warmth in the heart...

Rajni Shah is a performance maker, writer, producer and curator. www.rajnishah.com

Mary Kate Connolly is a freelance writer on performance and live art based in London

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