by Claire Moodey · August 22, 2015
Matthew Dicken | Ken Ek, Kenek Photography
There's a reason why Matthew Dicken's solo show in FringeNYC is sold out. butyou'reaman or: The Seven Men I Came Out to in India is a personal, funny and rigorously considered look at one white man's queer experience in India. After a brief prologue introducing American in India Matthew and the dissolution of his relationship with Indian lover Krishna, Dicken talks to the audience, framing the hour long journey we are about to take with him through love and queerness abroad. But Dicken doesn't approach this sticky material alone. He calls upon the aid of a thick textbook entitled How to Make Art About Cultures You Don't Understand for People Who Know Less About it Than You Do. Dicken refers to this text throughout the performance beginning with Lesson 1: Costumes Are Important.
While Dicken doesn't spend too much time unpacking or belaboring his choice of “post colonial travel drag”, he does point it out. Pointing out his dress stands in for pointing out the trappings of the entire production: the soundtrack, the scenic design, the lighting. With the aid of director and dramaturg Arthur Strimling and designers Hannah Cook, Marc Jablonski and Katherine Mitchell, this seemingly simple production offers simple sketches and plenty of room and encouragement for one's own imagination to flesh out the details of Dicken's story into a memorable and surprisingly cinematic experience. While at first these choices are reductive and appropriative as Dicken points out, they are powerfully evocative and the instigating critique allows for complexity in recollection. I found myself later in the evening and the next day struck by snippets of Dicken's story in such visceral tones that I thought I was recalling a film or my own dream.
An engaging and endearing performer, Dicken's self awareness and critique of himself, his positioning within and between cultures is uninhibited and exciting. Trying to navigate “colonialisms old and new” in his travels, Dicken brandishes a copy of A Passage to India and a gay pride flag in the same stroke. The suitcase of imperialism is baggage Dicken carries into his studies abroad, unafraid to admit to us his shortcomings and position of privilege. Rather he keeps reminding himself and his audience of it, trying to understand and recontextualize and overcome and take ownership of his position, calling upon his own guides (if not gurus?) E. M. Forster, Jack Smith and José Munoz.
True to the textbook, Dicken's performance offers some background for people who know less about the culture than he does. Dicken shares not only his own love story and the personal accounts of coming out in India, but also gives the audience some history and understanding of homosexuality and queer culture in India, including the back and forth between criminalization, legalization and recriminalization of sodomy, the legal recognition of transgender folk as a third gender and yet the simultaneous homophobic segregation and religious significance of hijras. butyou'reaman is a whirlwind, I suspect a crash course for many, and an exciting piece of solo work about being stuck in structures. If you can't find your way in to see the show, you may be able to catch some of Dicken's charm on his podcast “Only Connect.”