Within the first minute or so of Mr Mineshaft, my mind immediately started thinking about whether this was a performance about a performer, a drama about drama, an indulgent love letter to one of the entertainment industry’s own. This whistle-stop tour of the life of Julius Eastman, an African-American composer and musician, is more than that, however, exploring in some detail his adult career – not having been acquainted with Eastman’s work before seeing this production, I can only assume his childhood years were relatively untroubled.
That Eastman remains a somewhat unknown quantity is partly due to him becoming a victim of circumstances: as the play makes clear, he was evicted from his New York apartment in 1981 after falling into rent arrears. Everything he owned was taken away, including his compositions. In another scene (the show is not entirely in chronological order), the avant-garde nature of his works is explained beautifully – the music, performed live, should breathe fully through the increasingly heightened emotions of its performers, such that there is no need for notation. Here, then, is another reason why few of his works have been revived: it is quite impossible to do so if there are no scores for them. It’s telling that this show about a musician should itself be music-less.
Adam Courting as Eastman puts in an energetic and highly nuanced performance, periodically engaging in direct eye contact with members of the audience, and coming close to breaching the fourth wall. (I very nearly responded to an invitation to return a ‘high-five’. Thank goodness I didn’t: what was said immediately afterwards may have been less impactful.) The set and props are minimal – effective and straightforward use of projections help set time and place. Plainly dressed throughout – the scene changes are therefore swift – Courting’s Eastman is a paradox, with academic constructs expanded on in some detail, while expressing a preference for simplicity.
Eastman’s intelligent nature led him to work in academia for a time. Mr Mineshaft being a one-man show, the audience only sees one perspective, and the one witnessed concludes that American higher education, and Cornell University in particular, are too strung up on maintaining tradition and being up-to-date with paperwork to appreciate the benefits of having an outspoken homosexual black man on staff. Or, rather, a man who happens to be outspoken, homosexual and black.
One of Eastman’s works that did survive was a series of songs that, for the most part, had the N-word in their titles. He would not, I would have thought, if he were still with us, approve of me not using the full N-word in this review: for him, it was a term to be explored, considered, investigated, even ‘reclaimed’ – anything but suppressed. Perhaps he was a man before his time – a voice like Eastman’s may have gained more positive notoriety in today’s world with the likes of YouTube, TED Talks and Spotify.
The play provides some rich and well-referenced lines of argument and debate, leaving me with much to think about, not least in its demonstration of Eastman’s decline. A short and tight production, not a minute longer than necessary, this is a truly fascinating piece of theatre.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Mr Mineshaft explores and exposes the extraordinary life and work of forgotten black composer, Julius Eastman, articulating his pitiful fall from the heights of the American avant grade to the depths of drug addiction, vagrancy, and early death.
Eastman is a lost genius – a virtuoso musician, classical composer, vocalist, dancer, and gay rights activist lost by posterity. At the height of his career he toured across Europe and played with eminent artists like John Cage, Arthur Russell, and Meredith Monk, whilst simultaneously embracing the heady New York gay scene centred around the meat-packing district, sometimes arriving for classical music rehearsals wearing army boots, a military jacket and vest, and holding a bottle of scotch.
However, after his increasing dependence on alcohol and drugs, and his growing frustration with lack of artistic opportunities for black and gay men, his life fell apart. He was evicted from his apartment, losing many of his scores, he failed to gain a promised lectureship at Cornell University, and he eventually became a vagrant in Tompkins Square Park, New York. He died alone several years later in 1990 (at the age of 49), of reported ’cardiac arrest’, possibly due to complications related to HIV.
Mr Mineshaft rediscovers and celebrates his remarkable life and fall from grace – something never more relevant today. #Blacklivesmatter
14th – 15th January 2017