Donita Van Pop
Donita Van… Pop
Enter Donita Van Pop. She sits down on a swing set that is located on the left side of the stage. The stage lighting is a mixture of bright pink and purple. She sits on the swing, and the scenery behind her switches from a blank wall to a dreadful park background. It is of trees, bushes, and a few flowers and looks like the picture you drew in kindergarten that your poor parents were obligated to place on the fridge. Such a shame. You really made the kitchen ugly for almost a year.
Donita Van Pop: The world is mad. (Puffs her cigarette) But when you have great tits like me, it’s a little less. (Ms. Pop readjusts her bra strap that peeks out of her black and white polka dot dress. She takes another puff of her cigarette)
Enter a young gentleman who is wearing a white shirt and slightly wrinkled white linen pants. He stands behind Ms. Pop and pushes the swing.
Young Gentleman: Ms. Pop, tell me how do you stay looking so good?
Donita Van Pop: Don’t ya know black doesn’t crack?
Young Gentleman: (giggling) Ms. Pop, tell me how do you smell so good?
Donita Van Pop: Don’t you know chocolate is the sweetest thing there is?
The swinging begins to slow down.
Young Gentleman: Oh Ms. Pop, tell me something else.
Donita Van Pop: Every body –
Young Gentleman: (giggling) Tell me how you stay looking so good, Ms. Pop.
Donita Van Pop: (sighing, she takes another puff of her cigarette) Don’t you know chocolate is the sweetest thing there is?
Young Gentleman: How do you look so good, Ms. Pop?
The young gentleman stops pushing the swing.
Donita Van Pop: Black never cracks.
Cum Yum Yum
Donita Van Pop enters the classroom and places purple juice boxes on the desks of five different students. The stoic students are wearing black and grey uniforms sitting with their hands folded. Donita Van Pop places her glasses in her suit jacket’s pocket. She stands behind the students and starts reading from notecards. She’s a modern day Mrs. Robinson that all the students are happy to be seduced by. I know. Don’t you just wish you could do elementary school again and again?
Donita Van Pop: Hello my little darlings my name is Donita Van Pop and I’m your special guest this sunny Monday. (Tosses a notecard on the ground and starts reading the next notecard) Or what I like to call sunny Money-day. (Notecard instructs her to laugh. She laughs and then tosses the notecard on the ground.)
The students bring out notecards from the inside of their desks and start reading from them.
Students: Well hello Ms. Pop, we’re happy to have you here on this sunny Monday or what you like to call sunny Money-day.
Donita Van Pop: Well thank you very much my little darlings. (Tosses another notecard on the floor and moves next to the row of students) Can you tell me what’s on your desks?
Students: (reading from the notecards) Delicious boxes of Cum Yum Yum for each of us. Look out America—it’s positively out of this world, nutritious, and only cost 63 cents a box. (Stands up from seats in unison) The sweet juices of knowledge are coming to a classroom near you. Even Big brother is jealous of this stuff. (All sit down in unison.)
Donita Van Pop: (reading from a notecard) Part your lips and take a sip.
Students: (Each take a sip from the juice boxes) Ahhhh! Cum Yum Yum is delicious.
Donita Van Pop: (Widely smiling) Whip out your pen and paper and write down how you feel. 3 out of 5 consumers agree the juice taste even more yummy after completing a survey about it.
Students: (Students don’t know what to write. Instead they continue reading from the notecard.) I feel good, full, and out of this world. Thanks Cum Yum Yum.
Donita Van Pop: Close your eyes. 2 out of 5 consumers agree that the juice sends them to another planet. (Tosses another notecard on the ground.) One customer went to the john and it was perfectly fantastic. Are you prepared to go to a fun place – a place I promise you’ve never seen or heard? (Tosses notecard on the ground.)
Students: What (pauses, they are each struggling to read the notecard) does it look like Ms. Pop?
Donita Van Pop: (Pulls out large notecard from underneath her shirt) Well the hills are alive with the sound of music. It has a beautiful view from the top and is a place where anything goes.
Students: (reading from the notecards) Ms. Pop that place sounds like a perfect escape from this little shop of horrors. Oh please take us there, we promise that we will behave.
Donita Van Pop: (still reading from large notecard) Darlings keep drinking Cum Yum Yum and you’ll go somewhere.
Students start rapidly drinking the rest of the juice.
Everyone: (reading from their cards) Thanks, Cum Yum Yum!
They are all smiling at the audience. Curtains close.
At both ends of the stage are giant statues of cardboard cutouts of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white dress. Your eyes just itch while staring at her because you can never get tired of looking. Unfortunately blocking Ms. Monroe’s heels is brightly colored exercising equipment. Oh, well. Off stage, someone is counting to four. Once four is said, Donita Van Pop enters carrying a bedazzled pink boom box and four black women follow her. She stands in front of them and turns on the instrumental version of “Let’s Get Physical”.
Donita Van Pop: (screaming) Alrighty darlings! Let’s get physical. All of you wanna be Sweet Things, right?
Four Women: Of course, Captain Pop!
Donita Van Pop: All aboard then. Destination is Los Fatangeles.
Four Women: Ay, Ay, Captain.
Donita Van Pop: Get to work darlings and march. Remember no body wants a fatty. (Removes arms from hips and moves them in arm circles) Repeat after me – nobody wants a fatty!
Four Women: Nobody wants a Fatty.
Donita Van Pop: Sweat away the ugly you.
Four Women: Sweat away the ugly you.
Donita Van Pop: Now let’s move to the glutes.
Four Women: Now let’s move to the glutes.
Donita Van Pop: Silly fatties, stop repeating – I’m the only Captain here. (moves toward the left edge of the stage) For 64 bucks a week, we’ll take you from a silly fatty to a smart skinny. Everybody will love. (Moves back to the center of the stage, hands are still on her hip) Are you prepared for your special medicine?
The four women each take a pill.
Donita Van Pop: Vacation time is over. Back to running darlings.
The women start running in place.
Donita Van Pop: (Moves to the right side of the stage) Stay with me for 58 weeks (removes her hands that are on her hips and wildly points to the statue of Marilyn Monroe) and you’ll look just like her.
First and Second Women: Ah my heart.
Donita Van Pop: (Returns to the center of the stage) That’s right darlings – you’re becoming heartbreakers!
Third Woman: Captain Pop, I think Gracie is having a heart attack.
Donita Van Pop: Darlings, you’ll know when you’re having a heart attack.
Third Woman: Gracie’s not breathing!
Donita Van Pop: Gracie this, Gracie that. I’m not hearing anything about sweating your glutcies. Now repeat after me – it’s time to kill the ugly you.
Three Women: It’s time to kill the ugly you.
Donita Van Pop: Every body wants a pretty body.
Two Women: Every body wants a pretty body.
Another woman collapses on stage
Donita Van Pop: Sweat away the ugly you.
One Woman: Sweat away…(the last woman collapses on stage and knocks over Ms. Pop’s boom box)
Donita Van Pop: (quickly turns to the bodies behind her and then faces the audience) Just a bunch of dead weight. (Screaming) Next!
Four more women enter and begin doing jumping jacks in front of the fallen bodies. Donita Van Pop marches in place with her hands on her hips. Curtains close.
Two officers stand over a dead black body.
First Officer: What do we do?
Second Officer: Well shit Reynolds, I thought you were seasoned.
Officer Reynolds: If you wanted seasoned, you should’ve asked for Officer Pepper.
First Officer: Well I didn’t get Pepper – I got you.
Officer Reynolds: Let’s look in the Handbook.
First Officer: Ah yes, the good book. Look at Garner.
Officer Reynolds: Who?
First Officer: He’ll be under C’s for cigarettes and chokeholds.
Officer Reynolds: How could I forget? (He flips through the Handbook)
First Officer: What does it say?
Officer Reynolds: (Reading the Handbook closely) Umm it says that you get off scot-free. The state pays 5.9 million but hell we’re not the state.
First Officer: Reynolds before we jump to conclusions look up Martinque.
Officer Reynolds: Martinque?
First Officer: Yes, Travon Martinque – the kid with the pop and the Butterfinger.
Enter Donita Van Pop. She’s wearing a Blacklivesmatter shirt.
Donita Van Pop: It was an ice tea and a Take 5-candy bar. Trust me. I was debriefed in the situation and penned a brilliant blog post about it, if do say so myself.
Another black woman bursts onto the stage. She’s wearing an Alllivesmatters shirt.
Alllivesmatter: You all are wrong. It was organic Cheetos and water.
First Officer: Who the hell invited them? (Sighing) Reynolds just check the damn Handbook before someone else arrives. And make it quick. I have a pinning ceremony at 12.
Officer Reynolds: (flipping through the pages) Anyone wanna place some bets?
First Officer: Not today Reynolds. Keep what’s important at hand. Time is ticking.
Officer Reynolds: Drum roll please.
Everyone beats their legs.
Officer Reynolds: (Stammering with anticipation) It’s was Martin… in the street… with Skittles and an ice tea as his weapon.
First Officer: Damn could’ve sworn it was Martinque. (Shrugging his shoulders) Well the good book has spoken. We’ll leave him here then.
Office Reynolds: That’ll work.
Donita Van Pop: Perfect, I already have the tweets ready.
Alllivesmatters: The Facebook posts and filters are prepared.
Donita Van Pop: So when are we meeting again?
First Officer: This time next week?
Alllivesmatter: That time won’t work we have a protest next week. Our attendance is imperative – Trump is rumored to make a guest appearance.
Officer Reynolds: Well we wouldn’t want to trump that. (First Officer rolls his eyes)
First Officer: In two weeks, then?
Everyone takes out their phones and places the meeting in their schedules. Officer Reynolds finishes first, and places a candy cane by the body.
Officer Reynolds: What’s that for?
First Officer: The Handbook.
Donita Van Pop…
The scenery returns to the way it was in the first play. Donita Van Pop is sitting by herself on the swing. There is no man. She swings herself forward.
* * *
A Brief Analysis of Camp Camp, Bang Bang
I needed this project to be a direct engagement with Camp from the perspective of a young black woman growing up during a time of complete madness and violence. I recently read several of James Baldwin’s works, and specifically, his essays in The Fire Next Time resonated with me. They were terrifying to read because history continues to repeat itself. The racism that my grandparents fought against is the same racism that my children and I will fight. And this kills me inside. The world around me is falling into pieces and I’m stuck in the center watching the shambles of a foreign world that I was never supposed to be part of.
When I first encountered Camp, I loved how it was birthed out of oppression. Camp needed to occur because it was a way of voicing the feelings, experiences, and ideas of a minoritized group. In Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” I couldn’t agree with her statement that Camp is apolitical. Instead, I agree more with underground queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce in the statement that Camp “is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations” (LaBruce). The very act of making artwork that is from a minoritized group is political because it is subverting the art form or ideas of the mainstream or the majority. As I attempted to make these Camp plays, I looked to theater critic and scholar Stefan Brecht’s Queer Theatre for guidance. Brecht states,
Since the queer artist, having no justification for it, cannot allow himself the disfigurement of care, his art is entirely dependent on energy. But since his energy is entirely dependent on an exuberance of rage, his art, an active rebellion, is prone to degenerate into good-humored comedy and unthinking repetition, and to fall apart. (Brecht 9)
During his discussion of queer theater, Brecht highlights how anger and creativity are tied to one another for the queer artist. Even though this rage is powerful, it can overpower the creative project, resulting in a work that has thoughts that are not completely fleshed out or completely held together. In past works, I haven’t explicitly engaged with my queerness or my race. It overwhelmed my mind to think about how none of me has been wanted in history. Although in class we studied brilliant artists who make art in response to their representation being denied and their anger and frustration, writing about myself felt too close to comfort and terrifying in the same way that Baldwin’s essay did. When I started writing the plays, race was the only thing that I could discuss. I tried to suppress or deny my anger and frustration but once they were unleashed, they took control of my plays.
The swing on which Donita Van Pop sits and is pushed by an unnamed man in the first play symbolizes the energy and anger that pushes a queer artist. At the first level, the swing was both a way envisioning a sense of momentum while still having a mechanism that is generally seen as fun. Furthermore, it represented the external forces of rage and anger that push Ms. Pop.
At the second level, the swing was my way of beginning to understand how Camp and death can be related to one another. After a while the repetitive action of swinging stops, and the motion and livened language that was once accompanied by it is dull and bland. I aimed to show the deadness of language through Ms. Pop’s lack of interest in the man’s questions; he is asking the same things over and over again. The man is not interested in the answers. He just needs some placeholder to fulfill a role that he feels compelled to play.
Movement continues to function as an important theme in my plays; however, unlike Brecht’s observation, I aimed to make the repetition as purposeful as possible. There are two important reasons for this. The first reason relates to Jack Babuscio’s observation of the importance of style to Camp in his "Camp and the Gay Sensibility." For example, “as a practical tendency in things or persons, Camp emphasizes style as a means of self-projection, a conveyor of meaning, and an expression of emotional tone. Style is a form of consciousness; it is never 'natural', always acquired” (122). Not thinking about the repetition that was involved in my plays would remove the style and tone that I was trying to fixate on. I chose to include repetition and echoing of dialogue to show the play being both comic and dead.
When Sontag first wrote her essay “Notes on Camp”, Camp was celebrated as this new thing, and over time, everyone wanted to try it out. As observed by Bruce LaBruce, the Camp in Sontag's sense is dead. There are still pieces of it floating around in our culture and media, but for the most part Camp has been overtaken by the mainstream.
Initially, I wanted to provide in these plays an answer as to why Camp has died. However, by the second draft of the plays I realized that I would be unable to provide a sufficient answer. Instead, I shifted my focus to the “known unknown” about Camp and its sensibility and the feeling of chasing after the “known unknown”. Somehow within Camp there was and still stands "a secret code shared among a certain 'Campiscenti'" (LaBruce). What happens when the secret code is revealed? My manner of representing this questioning of the secret code was through the frequency and excitement of instructing. In all the plays, excluding the first one and last one, someone is being instructed how to do something. In the second play, both the students and Ms. Pop are being instructed on how to talk and feel. In the third play, Ms. Pop is instructing the other women how to feel about their bodies while working out and chasing after this ideal standard of beauty that has existed for white American women, represented in the Marilyn Monroe statue. For the second and third play, instructing either leads to a death in the language or literal, physical death. Then in the fourth play, the Handbook and the history of violence against black bodies, which is so prevalent in our society, instructs the officers and the activists how to act.
These plays were my way of laughing at the realities and histories that I have faced as a black woman. For example, when Ms. Pop calls her four students sweet things in the third play, it’s a direct reference to the Nina Simone song “Four Women”. In the song “Sweet Thing” is the name of the woman who is a hyper-sexualized object. This hyper-sexualization of Black women and their bodies has always reminded me of Sarah Bjaartmen and the sexual and racial violence against her. During the play the four women are chasing after this ideal sexual image so that their bodies might be accepted by a white society. Chasing after this sexual image is killing the women but they can’t stop, and even after the women have died, Ms. Pop still sells this ideal standard of beauty to four more women. In this play, Ms. Pop is caught in this repetitive action that leads to death. However, despite the death that in the play, it is comical. This play was my way of laughing off the absurdity that is involved with people telling women, especially black women, how they are supposed to look.
My fourth play is the most direct engagement that I have with race and death. For me, Handbook is a dark satire about how when innocent Black lives are lost, they can sometimes be forgotten in the back and forth battle between the movements. While I have immense respect for Black Lives Matter and everything that it does and consider myself a part of the movement, I am disturbed when I see people profiting off of people who have died and use this moment to indulge in themselves on social media instead of enacting change in day to day activities. I have friends who go to a protest because it’s a fun thing to do, and not because they care about the movement, and I hate this.
Babuscio mentions how Camp can also plead for the “morality of sympathy”. In a play that attempts to satirize the horrific racial climate that is occurring in America, I wanted for the audience to question who they are sympathizing with and question who were the heroes and the villains. This type of questioning is related to Susan Gubar’s analysis of Lee’s commentary in Bamboozled. Gubar notes that,
Delacroix, now himself in blackface – and with a collage of celluloid monkeys, pop-eyed Toms and Jemimas, movie clips of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in burnt cork, prancing Bojangles and stammering Rochester, all of whom “Keep ’em laughing.” Honest Abe Honeycut’s shtick – “Four score and several years ago, they waz kickin’ our black asses” – proves how long ago the disaster of slavery was supposedly put to an end, yet how long its repercussions have continued to reverberate. It is hard to know who is being satirized in Lee’s recycling of minstrelsy: the white and black audiences who are released by Camp to enjoy the degrading gags of minstrels, the black entertainers who make money from these gags, or the whites who own the whole show and make even more money on the gagging of African Americans.
Lee complicates the use of minstrelsy. Normally, an act that is deemed to reflect the racism of filmmakers throughout history is complicated. The audience does not know who is truly being made fun of. This use of confusion in his satire, adds a freshness and life to the film as it channels aspects of Camp. Without this confusion then the film would have ended up feeling like a dead regurgitation of Camp that Bruce LaBruce was so adamantly against. For the play “Handbook”, I wanted to add this sense of confusion in order to keep the freshness and life of this play and prevent the same cyclic actions of complacency that our society gets accustomed to when minoritized lives are lost.
As I worked on these plays, I personally discovered the delicacy of Camp. One wrong, over-thought, or under-thought move and suddenly the plays are completely different. While I tried to build these fantastical worlds, I was still tethered by the anger and isolation that I feel in my world. I think this sense of still being tethered to the world added the political nature of my plays. When it first started, Camp was revolutionary. However, in its replication by so many people, Camp has become dead, and does not carry the same weight that it did when it was first introduced. In a dark and comical manner, I hoped for my plays to address the feelings of deadness that is attached in replication. In a dark and comical manner, I needed for my plays to represent the feelings of deadness that are attached in the repetition of racial violence that occurs in America. Because it is a dark and comical manner that I live my life.
Jennifer Chukwu is a writer based in Chicago. She does not like Piña Coladas or getting caught in the rain.