Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Terence Nance's *Random Acts of Flyness*

Terence Nash (Jemal Countess/
Getty Images), from Colorlines
Watching the first episode of filmmaker and musician Terence Nance's new HBO series, Random Acts of Flyness, five of which are still to air, I wondered, what on earth did he--or his agent, or whoever was in communication with the studio's executives with the power to greenlight new projects--say to convince the subscription channel to approve what, by my estimation, has to be one of the strangest and potentially most innovative and subversive new shows on TV? I say this as someone who grew up watching all kinds of unusual and bizarre situation and sketch comedies, too numerous to name, and, short of The Eric Andre Show, which Random Acts of Flyness mirrors in spirit, few shows on TV (The Chappelle's Show, maybe Atlanta, at times) have approached the unexpected black places, Afrosurrealist, Afrodelic, Afrofuturist, perhaps even Afrorealist if the lens were inverted, that Nance's imagination appears to take him, his cast, and his viewers.

Random Acts of Flyness is a sketch series, a video show, a quirky and queer, postmodern comic anthology and cavalcade, stitched together--or not--by Nance's dream logic.  I say his dreams, since he's directing, co-writing and executive producing, but it's clear he has gathered around him a very talented group of creative minds. (I should add that I the show's movement also reflects the associative, often desultory logic of contemporary social media. Au courant it is.) For Nance there are binding threads, however gosssamer: an impressively original ear and eye, a profound interest in blackness in its various conceptual possibilities, an aim to explore anti-nihilistic critiques in new, dramatic forms, and a willingness, from the sole episode I've seen, to see how far a comic idea, however bizarre can go. The result is a show that exemplifies a radical act of black aesthetic freedom, of the kind that most viewers are not going to see even on semi-regular basis otherwise. 

Tonya Pinkins as Ripa the Reaper,
Random Acts of Flyness, HBO
Take, for example, the first episode's mock cable show skit "Everybody Dies," featuring Ripa the Reaper (Tonya Pinkins, props to her for even agreeing to this), who sends up the idea of black death, ushering people, particularly black children, through a door marked life and out one--shoving them at one point--marked death, as she repeatedly draws out a ditty about how we'll all die set to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," accompanied by what sounds like a toy piano. (When two white children join the queue, she sends them back, to a different fate she cannot determine.) Everyone dies, the sketch shows, but not equally, and the perverse spectacle of children dying defies any attempts to make (too much) light of it. Eventually we see Ripa the Reaper's exhaustion at and surrender to the absurdity of what she has to participate in, a powerful dramatic correlative to our affective responses to spectacles of black death we all witness daily. Watching it I thought, only a very talented black writer--and actor--could pull this off, and Nance--and Pinkins--did.

I won't go so far as to say that every element of Random Acts of Flyness's--why do I want to keep calling it Radical Acts of Freedom?--debut worked, though. Nance's opening gambit, "What Are Your Thoughts on Raising Free Black Children?" which involves him riding a bike and getting stopped by a cop who demands that he stop filming what's happening, at first felt almost too obvious, even though what he was dramatizing happens so regularly it has almost become a cliché, despite its often violent and mortal outcome. To his credit, Nance did not end the segment where you might expect, and his flight--literal and figurative--ultimately did feel satisfying, no least because, in a different but consonant way, the idea animates a great deal of my collection Counternarratives. The strands of African and African American folklore that come together as Nance soars underscored for me both his creative skill and how unlike most TV this show probably will be.

Jon Hamm in a skit on
Random Acts of Flyness, HBO
Another clip, "White Be Gone," featuring actor Jon Hamm rubbing a shoe polish-like black unction into his temples to eradicate "white thoughts" also felt a bit belabored, and made me wonder whom it was geared towards, since surrounding it were other clips, like "Black Face(s)" and an exploration of black sexuality, that seemed geared specifically to black viewers. (In fact, I had the thought at one point that the show ought to be on TV One or BET since Nance seemed to be speaking so directly, and lovingly, to other black folks.)  Given the daring of some of the other sketches, I actually expected Hamm to cover his entire face, and eventually send up a kind of black-face liberalness or wannabe wokeness, though perhaps that might have gotten the show canceled and Hamm's career nixed, however evident the sarcasm. And yet given the video clips on "Black Face," contra "blackface," Nance had already established the terms to go even further.

Copyright © HBO

I will continue watching, though. I expect to be surprised, wowed, enthralled, nonplussed. This is defamiliarization in practice, as praxis. As was the case with Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, or Arthur Jafa's very different but sublime Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, I feel profoundly attuned to what Nance is undertaking, even if I have no idea sometimes what he's up to or where he will head. But I am looking forward to continuing on the journey with him. (Random Acts of Flyness airs on HBO on Friday nights/Saturday mornings at midnight.)

No comments:

Post a Comment