HERE Arts - Photo: Benjamin Heller
HERE Arts - Photo: Benjamin Heller

An Artist’s Duty

by Elizabeth Whelan for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Benjamin Heller

“It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” – 
Nina Simone, Jazz vocalist, pianist, activist

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” – Emile Zola, French novelist

“No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others” – Martha Graham, pioneer of American modern dance

It’s no secret that artists have been using creative expression to present their sociocultural perspective.  Take Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, or Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s highly charged social commentary murals for example. In the world of movement, there is no shortage of activism-laden work: Katherine Dunham’s Southland, Kurt Jooss’s antiwar piece, The Green Table or more recently, Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America…just to name a few.

There’s a reason works like these are easy to pull off the top of my head. The masterminds behind them were revered as just that: masterminds. They had the space, the following, and the respect to develop their social commentary through their art. In doing so, they created staples in history, easily allowing future generations to look back and understand how the world felt at that time. But what happens to the stories of artists who weren’t looked upon as genius? What become of artists whose passionate dedication to their cause earns them public ridicule and the “crazy” label?

This is the story of Kathy Change, and how her life’s devotion to using her voice and movement to remove the blindfold from Americans’ eyes ended with self-immolation on University of Pennsylvania campus in 1996.

Born and raised in the greater Philadelphia myself, it wasn’t until I was seated in a theater in my new town of Portland, Oregon that Kathy’s story made its way into my world. Soomi Kim, a New York-based actor and movement artist brought her evening length work, Chang(e), a live docu-drama based on Kathy’s life and mission on tour across the country, and after the final bows, I was left with plenty of questions as to how a life as vibrant as Kathy Change’s could exist so under the radar as the years after her death grew in number.

Here’s some contextual history for fellow Philadelphians who like myself managed to be a member of the dance and arts community and not hear of Kathy’s story: A Chinese-American woman and the child of two immigrants, Kathy Change was born in Ohio, 1950. She moved to Philly in 1981, from which point forward her life became consumed by her obsession with warning the public of the country’s pending doom..  Her method of choice was sidewalk preaching, for which she selected University of Pennsylvania as her base, as well as creating avant garde movement-art demonstrations to declare her message of total socio-cultural transformation.  Creative expression and vibrant declaration were ingrained into her lifestyle, as she danced through the streets of West Philly, where she lived. After pleading to multiple local news outlets (including WXPN and The Philadelphia Inquirer) to publish her protest to the public, Kathy Change lit herself aflame in front of the peace statue on Penn’s campus in 1996 in a final act of desperation and hope to draw attention to her warnings.

Kim collaborated with fellow NY actor and director Suzi Takahashi for their creation of Chang(e). Originally premiering in Philadelphia, where Kathy spent the last few and most politically charged years of her life, the dance-theater work is a raw and meticulously crafted depiction of those riveting years in the mid-90s that led Kathy to her imminent suicide.

I spoke with Kim after the show, and ironed out the lingering questions I had about the evolution of Chang(e) and learned about Kim’s treasure hunt through Philadelphia as she pieced together the life of Kathy. Kim explained that her efforts to gather information on Change were fruitful, to the point where compiling a script for the show was a challenging act of downsizing and editing. Kim was able to connect with some of Kathy’s friends, as well as former Penn student, Brendan McGeever who at the time was working for WQHS, the student-run radio station that he invited Kathy to speak on.

One afternoon, during the initial planning for the work, Kim was filming herself dancing as Kathy on Penn’s campus. Her movement and resemblance to Kathy brought an onlooker to tears, as he remembered Kathy Change dancing in the same place over 20 years ago. There were moments during the performance that brought me close to tears as well–a clear testament that Kim has mastered her craft to the extent that her audience can be transported to a different place, where Kim is able to mask her identity with the artfully precise capability to wear someone else’s story for a few hours.

When asked about her personal connection to Kathy, Kim made it clear that she isn’t a disciple of the radical activist. “I don’t think I’ve taken on her work or carried on her legacy,” remarked Kim. Kim found connecting to Kathy was even a challenge for her. Chang(e) was the completion of a trilogy of projects about Asian-American lives cut too short. Connecting to the previous two subjects, one of which was Bruce Lee came much more naturally for Kim.

Despite Kim’s reluctance to claim the accomplishment (or burden?) of carrying on Kathy’s legacy, the power of one artist can always reach further than their intent. I’d argue that Kim did an incredible job of spreading the word of Kathy’s life, death and message. I suppose the line of communicating via art can get fuzzy when the artist is acting the life of another. At what point does an artist lose themselves to their art?

Maybe that’s a question Kathy Change would have an answer for.

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