"Citizens. Wake Up. A new day is dawning in San Francisco and all over the world."
Keith Hennessy, "A Speech to the Poor Artists," San Francisco City Hall, Oct. 4, 2000
Keith Hennessy has made work in the Bay Area for more than 20 years, yet he has stayed at the margins all this time. Yes, his audiences are good, and they show up time after time to watch his latest work, but he hasn't gotten the grants that would allow him to do big tours or reach a more mainstream audience. Maybe he prefers it that way. Maybe big audiences wouldn't be comfortable with hearing what he has to say. But Hennessy is that rare artist who succeeds in transutf8g fierce social concerns into artistically satisfying creations that enlighten and entertain.
"Why are you wasting your time researching the grace, beauty, and strength of the human body in motion?"
Hennessy started out as a competitive social dancer in his native Canada and worked his way to San Francisco by clowning, juggling, and doing political street theater. In the Bay Area he studied with Lucas Hoving; in 1985 he became a founding member of Contraband, the most radical dance-theater group of the period. He has had a roller coaster existence ever since, pushing himself to develop new theatrical expressions that allow him to explode the conventions of form in order to speak to and about the marginalized: the poor, the victims, the ostracized, and the homeless. Against all odds he believes in art's power to reassume its ritualistic and healing function.
"Stop trying to hack your way alone through hostile jungles in the dead of night. Take the FreeWay. It's paved and easy, and a 24-hour SafeWay is always available."
One of Hennessy's most daring and controversial pieces was his 1989 solo Saliva, for which he collected spit from willing audience members, mixed it with pigment, and painted his naked body with it. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, courage, and solidarity as well as spectacular theater.
Spectacle, Hennessy has discovered, is a way to draw in audiences, not to expose them to mindless entertainment but to amuse and challenge them. This can be an intoxicating mix. During his four years with the French circus Cahin-Caha, he became an experienced aerialist and refined his skill of using circus, cabaret, and other popular art forms to create works that foster a sense of community and a set of shared values that are difficult to resist. Hennessy believes in the power of the imagination and in art as a spiritual practice. He also allows his collaborators the full range of their own imaginations.
Last year's double bill "How to Die" was raw, violent, and difficult to watch. Both pieces examined the erotics of death. SDF USA (Sans domicile fixe, i.e., homeless) paid tribute to the many homeless people, primarily male, who kill themselves every year. American Tweaker honored disco diva Sylvester and an era of unprecedented sexual abandon and sense of liberation within the gay community.
This year's Sol Niger is probably Hennessy's best work yet. Looking at the devastation humankind has brought on itself up to the present day through a series of tightly structured vignettes, the work celebrates and laments the glory and the frailty of being alive. This is activist art that works as art and as a call to action. Sol Niger returns to Project Artaud Theater from January 16 to 26, 2008.
"Citizens of San Francisco. Citizens of the second millennium. Wake up. The global city is yours. Blessed be."