Jed: Do you ever get mistaken for anyone?
Jenn: I was told I look like Keith David. A boxer who’s now dead — Floyd Patterson. It was the former editor of Vibe Magazine who told me I look like Keith David, which I sort of understand.
Jed: What movies did Keith David do?
Jenn: I don’t know. Uhhh. . . (looks up and recites Keith David’s IMDB page)
Jed: A lot of stuff.
Jenn: Yeah. Anyway. Floyd Patterson threw me for a loop and so I looked him up and I was like, “I kind of understand.” Sometime people have to say stuff. Do they say stuff to you?
Jed: No. People don’t talk to me. I go invisible.
Jed: Unless someone’s pan-handling. Or if I’m in a good mood. People don’t seem to perceive me as someone they can talk to, which is a shame because I love to give directions!
Jenn: I think if I saw you on the street I’d assume you were thinking about loftier things.
Jed: (Talks about himself for a while) Wait. Is this about me? I’m going to ask you some questions now. Where are you from?
Jenn: I grew up in Baltimore. In a neighborhood called Pig Town. It’s between the B&O Station or Round House and the Stadium — Camden Yards and also the Inner Harbor. Downtown Baltimore.
Jed: What’s the history of Pig Town? Is it like Fish Town?
Jenn: Yeah. Which is where I live now.
Jed: Oh really? Pig Town to Fish Town.
Jenn: The Jenn Kidwell Story.
Jed: Is there a story to that name — Pig Town?
Jenn: Yeah. It’s where there used to be slaughterhouses. They would run the pigs through the streets. And the pigs — or the meat — would be on the trains. Now it’s a cool identity. There’s banners. It was not cool when I was growing up. I liked it, but there were parts that were really rough. My neighbohood is super old. It’s like an 18th century structure that had fallen into disrepair and people could buy buildings really cheap and then you could design the interior of the house. And my parents made their place really ’80’s. When I go into houses that are really ’80’s I can hear the music — Luther and the Al Jarreau. Stevie Wonder. Chaka Kahn maybe. I grew up playing violin and my dad really loves classical music. He plays the clarinet, the oboe, and the basoon. But then my mom has really terrible taste in music and also no interest. My parents do not dance. They are not physically expressive at all. My dad had polio (giggles) which is not funny at all, but for someone like me who likes to move and dance, my parents are the antithesis. When I was in elementary school I’d get my hands on instruments and just try to bleet things out. Like, for a week I would play the trumpet. The flute. The glockenspiel. No! Not the glockenspiel. “Excuse me mother. I’m trying to culture myself.” (laughs)
Jed: So you played music. Did you perform when you were younger?
Jenn: I did. I think my first play was A Christmas Carol in the 4th grade. I played Mrs. Cratchit. I had a lovely time. And then in 5th grade I was in Robin Hood. I was the narrator. Then I changed schools and after that I did every play. I loved being on stage, but I also thought it must be the thing that everyone wanted to do, and so I didn’t think I could really do it for a job. I had an impulse to be a garbage person because nobody ever wanted to do that. This was also the age of, “Nobody ever says they wants to be a junkie when they grow up.” And I just thought, “Man, some professions get such a bum rap.”
Jenn: I mean, I knew a junkie wasn’t a profession! I always wanted to be a performer, but I tried to quell it. I thought, no I’ll be a saxophonist, a photographer, and then a stand-up comedian. I thought I was funny as hell! (laughs)
Jed: Did you ever do any stand-up?
Jenn: Well, not until Donelle. And that was not my own. While in character once I did a stand-upish thing in drag with my cohort Jes Conda. Maybe we should do it in New Orleans! Wanna be my stand-up coach?
Jed: Sometimes I think I’ll do stand-up. I think I’d be so bad, but in an interesting way. Like, I think people would just feel bad for me.
Jenn: I’ll laugh for you. My laugh is good enough for like five laughs.
Jed: What were the circumstances of doing Donelle?
Jenn: I answered an ad in Actors Access. It had to have been in ’08. Early ’08, right? I get so confused. It was an ad for a performer, an African-American woman where you play this role where. . . I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it was paid. I get this call and talked to Joe [Scanlon, the artist] on the phone. He explained the project and I said, “No thank you. I don’t want to be a part of this post-colonial bullshit.” And he was like, “No no no! It’s not like that!” And he spoke more about the project and his interests, and I was like, “At some point can you envision that anyone can play Donelle?” And he said “Absolutely.” And so I said, “Okay let’s have an audition.” And so I had an audition and I got the gig. One gig. It was just performing as Donelle at an art opening for really good money. I wore my own clothes — this dress I’d never worn. And the money was so good that I thought why not. And I decided,”I’m going to play a character that’s really far from me.” She spoke really low and was a close-talker and really intellectual and had no sense of humor. If anyone said anything funny I’d be like, “Oh. Uh-huh.” It was really alienating. It was kind of fun and cool and then all these other opportunities started opening up. It started becoming more of a collaboration. We were talking about how Donelle was so awkward and I was like, “She needs conversation starters written down.” And so I wrote down ideas on index cards — like jokes. If conversation floundered I’d pull out these very safe conversation prompts. People would just halt and try to get away.
Jed: Did people know you were pretending?
Jenn: Some people did and some people didn’t. The very first time the head of the Brooklyn Museum came up to me he was like, “Wonderful work.” And other people that night had also talked to me like I was Donelle, but they seemed to know. Like they were trying to test me. But the head of the museum didn’t know. Then later there was an opportunity to go to London and so this other woman Abigail went as Donelle. The two of us traveled as Donelle. I ended up going to the Whitney and seeing Dan Graham and I got really excited about him and then the collaboration between Joe and me just kept getting more exciting and we were building on each other —
Jed: At this point are you enrolled at the Pig Iron School (for Advanced Performance Training)?
Jenn: No, I was still in NYC when we came up with the idea for Richard Pryor, but it was right before I went to Pig Iron. I was doing Richard Pryor while I was in school and had to miss a little because I went to Prelude, which is in the fall. Then I did it at Yale, then I did it in Paris. Then she got invited to the Biennial. Then all hell broke loose. The Whitney didn’t want Donelle to be in it and then they did. We had the tour laid out and then the venues fell through because they didn’t want to pay me. They didn’t realize what the project was and they decided they didn’t want to be involved. Then we went to Oakland and this Berkeley professor decried my performance. I’d just come off stage, I got some water, and sat down to do the talkback. He immediately stood up and said, “I knew Richard, this is blasphemous. Who do you think you are? You’re a bad performer. What are you, a lesbian just walking around in men’s clothes?” It was the worst. Like, an actor’s nightmare. And then I wrote something for Hyperallergic. Then we had a meeting over the summer, but what — it’s 2015? I haven’t done any Donelle stuff in a while. There’s this thing on the table to go to the Congo, but schedules have been hard.
Jed: How did you feel when that guy stood up and yelled at you?
Jenn: I felt terrible. With the whole thing I am constantly like, “Is this okay?” It’s always good to do stuff that makes you wonder if it’s okay, but . . . You don’t want to be the kind of person who’s not at all porous to what people have to say, but at the same time you have to be behind what you’re doing. What’s the balance of feedback? Accepting validity and also knowing it’s just their feeling and it doesn’t have to stop you. In the moment, I was shocked and then another man jumped up and defended me. He said he was an activist on the street, but came in here to be entertained, and that’s what I did. It’s classic for what I get myself involved in: super divisive. Sometimes I wish I could just do something really nice.
Jed: It’s funny. Even when I think I’m being provocative people are like, “Yayyy!” I wonder about people who like being in that provocative space. How do you deal with what comes from it?
Jenn: In the last leg of the tour, YAMS just happened and I was getting coded messages from people or strange friend requests. I started feeling really paranoid. And then I felt pissed because I realized people didn’t want to talk to me, they just wanted to look at me. It was just about Joe. At this talkback in Minneapolis — not at the Walker, but the curatorial staff from the Walker tried to vilify Joe. They spread themselves out around the room and then they tried to give Joe the business — a bunch of white dudes. And this one came up to me and told me that I had no agency. “You are not in charge of yourself.” They accused me of not knowing the history of performance art. And I was like, “Do you think that I don’t know that? This is a statement you’re making to me under the guise that what this man [Joe Scanlon] is doing is wrong, racist, and exploitative. But then you look at me in my fucking face and can tell me some shit?” I felt really alienated. There was this woman who had protested in LA and then this shit happened in Oakland. I did a bad show in Chicago. Detroit was fine. That’s the one that’s online. Minneapolis was crazy. Nebraska was kind of the best show, even though there was only seven people. Joe and I just drove for hours and hours and spring was coming to America and we just talked about everything. Then we pulled up at like three in the afternoon to Lincoln, NE. Our venue in Omaha had pulled out and so Joe had booked us into an Irish pub. We get there at like 3pm and our contact isn’t there. And I’m like, “I’m doing a contentious drag show in Lincoln, NE.” We went to the hotel that was part SRO — it was just a whole thing. But finally things came together and we met this beautiful comedian who was warm and warmed up the crowd and he did a great job and it was the best. Then we went to the last show. It was in St. Louis and I was like, “I can’t wait for this fucking thing to be over.” The last thing that happened before I took the mustache off for the last time, was this couple stopped me on my way to the bathroom after the show. This black couple stopped me and they said, “Hey. We loved it. The only problem was it was too short. We loved it.” And I said, “Oh that’s so nice. You know, it’s been really hard because it’s so controversial.” And they were like, “Why?” And I explained the whole thing about how I am playing this artist who doesn’t exist who’s playing Richard Pryor and it’s all these levels of artifice created and people don’t like it was all created by a white guy. And they were like, “Why? Isn’t art supposed to be like that?” And I almost started crying. I think that’s the thing you’re always supposed to remember. Are you doing the thing to please the people or to stir the people?
Jed: Was that a good experience?
Jenn: What. Donelle?
Jed: Yeah. No regrets?
Jenn: Oh! Yeah, no regrets. I would say answering that ad. . . Changed everything. It’s been really positive. I mean, I still have questions. It’s complicated.