TIP THE IVY, the latest stage work by Colin Self, is an opera about language. First performed last year at Halle für Kunst Steiermark in Graz, Austria, it recently had a three-night run at Performance Space New York, which cocommissioned the piece. Like many of Self’s productions, Tip the Ivy is heavily collaborative, this time featuring Bully Fae Collins, Cornelius, Dia Dear, and Geo Wyeth as well as a choir, or “XOIR.”
More specifically, Ivy is an opera about the sociolect of queers, sex workers, and entertainers in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England, known as Polari (also spelled in a dozen other variants), from which key bits of the work’s vocabulary are drawn. Now largely extinct, some of Polari’s highlights survive in queer-coded tidbits of contemporary English like “camp,” “butch,” and “drag.” It’s also an opera about language as a tool of creation and discovery, language as a connecting medium between people, language as a taunting weapon, and language as an instrument of memory, history, and praxis, a navigational tool in a fractal whirlpool of time.
Language, more than music, is also the opera’s primary sonic material—the bulk of the piece is spoken, the speech interspersed with chants, whispers, ballads, and instrumental electronic music. The spoken word is cant-like and lilting, reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, a vocal technique halfway between talking and pitched singing, slightly less through-composed than traditional recitatif. The XOIR provides not only choral support but also much of the show’s visual content, their bodies, costumes, and movements making up the backbone of the staging. The emphasis on word and speech is fitting given the subject, but it deprives Self of the full and astounding musical range demonstrated in previous stage works. Self is a deft hand at the balladic crescendo, but the searing, ululating drama of the more up-tempo numbers was missing here.
Like Self’s last opera, Siblings (an early version was staged in 2018 at MoMA PS1), Tip the Ivy explores the uses of queerness, communality, and self-fashioning in a hostile and uncomprehending world, themes that run through their entire oeuvre. Since emerging as part of Brooklyn’s early 2010s avant-drag scene, Self’s interdisciplinary work has clustered around questions of embodiment and ethos: What does it mean to be in the world as a person with a body, and how do we go about doing that? And more centrally, what do you do if none of the available models and categories for embodiment reflect your needs or desires or body?
In Self’s art, necessity is always the mother/father/other of invention, and the answer to the latter question is always, Create your own. This joyous, utopian imperative is omnipresent: Create your own body, create your own category, create your own kinship network, create your own language. Take it and make it your own. In Tip the Ivy, that last bit is quite literally incarnated in two Polari-slinging, truth-slanting hustlers with thieving tendencies named ! (Xclamation or X), played by Self, and Alphabet, brilliantly acted with dry, vaudevillian camp by Geo Wyeth. Imagine Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon living in the Golden Girls’ retirement village and you’ll be in the ballpark (to cruise, presumably, not to play sports). Warned by a bones-casting oracle (Dia Dear) that their parlance and their subculture will soon vanish and be forgotten, the two set out to record their Rabelaisian adventures in a book, and there their troubles begin. Meanwhile, in a separate subplot set in a future time, depressed influencer Busy Adams (Bully Fae Collins) is reinvigorated by discovering the book, and with it the Polari language. Rich in potential, the opera might have benefitted from a third act to flesh out both the historical dimension and the hints of magical realism. As it stands, X and Alphabet’s freewheeling lumpenproletarian adventures seem linked to the future plot more by happenstance than by history.
With Roe on the gallows and the GOP hate machine already eyeing Lawrence v. Texas, it’s a timely moment for a New York audience to remember why homosexuals and queers had to hide in the first place, and why a secret language was necessary. The threat of violence hovers over Tip the Ivy in the form of a closeted cop (Cornelius), nameless but titteringly nicknamed “Hildegard Handcuffs,” who lives in terror of being outed by the duo’s confessions. In the nineteenth century, as now, police often enjoyed—or coerced—sexual favors from those they criminalized. In England, sodomy was decriminalized in 1967. Oscar Wilde died in 1900, three years after his release from Reading Gaol; in 1952, after helping win World War II for the Allies—with his codebreaking skills, ironically—Alan Turing underwent chemical castration in order to avoid a prison sentence for homosexuality. In the United States, sodomy was not decriminalized until 2003.
Polari was not born exclusively from a homosexual milieu, nor was it reserved solely for purposes of sexual conduct. It was a language shared by those who lived on the margins, subject always to persecution, displacement, and harassment. Some scholars trace the language’s origins all the way back to the regional fairs and markets of medieval Europe, but its origins are no less in the docks where Venetian sailors sought out sex workers who learned broken bits from Italian from them; in the thieves’ cant shared by swindlers, con artists, and hustlers along with pickpockets and burglars; and in the itinerant Romani language. Both those who contributed to Polari at its roots and those who borrowed and transformed it later shared the same criminalized status—the same danger, but also the same need to find other ways to speak and to be. If hiding was half of Polari, the other half was identification, networking, a lingua franca for moving in the dark. “I recognize you in the shadows,” the choir speak-chants in the opera’s opening. There’s an inherent coded vulnerability that comes with a secret language—the reward of recognition and mutual attraction comes only at the risk of exposure. As Self’s character asks the policeman-cum-trade in a dramatic, poignant moment, “Why would you speak to me in code unless you wanted me to understand you have something to lose?”
Tip the Ivy ran at Performanc Space New York from May 5 to May 7.