U.S.O.ver: Where Real Americans Perform Their Patriotism

"Patriot Act," featuring Dirty Martini, at a U.S.O.ver event. Photo: Amy Jo Jackson.

U.S.O.ver is a performance series, agitprop-cum-variety show that subverts the tradition of the classic USO show with a collection of vignettes as fun, nasty and utterly devastating as the changing political landscape. We use it as a platform to satirically indict our current reality with a gaudy, star-spangled carnival. Each installment of U.S.O.ver is set in the dystopian present, a near-future also somehow like the sepia-toned America that was once “great.”

The conceit for this performance-protest was born early last winter after the shock of November’s election results finally began to subside. The regime won power with the vague and simple promise to make the country “great” again and by conjuring a dangerous nostalgia based on an amnesiac and fantastical view of our nation’s history. We aim for an echo of the USO Camp Shows of World War II, which were quintessentially American; their sole purpose was to boost morale by providing soldiers with entertainment that would remind them of home and what they were fighting for.

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Post-election, I found myself asking a question:

What could I learn from staging a cabaret to ‘entertain the troops’ — specifically those working to bring things back to ‘great’? What happens when an audience becomes positioned as border patrol officers, as unmanned drones, as police, as agents of oppression?

It was after speaking with my fiancée, Allison Brzezinski, and with Amy Surratt — brilliant artists both — that I understood this idea is best utilized as an opportunity to build community through an evolving discourse on dissent against the administration.

Chris Tyler. Photo: Kaitlin Nemeth.

Each U.S.O.ver event feels a little like a small town Fourth of July fête decorated with paper streamers, cheap balloons, drinks and music, but populated by savage, insightful burlesque performers, musicians, comics and performance artists. In the past few months, some incredible people have shared their work, including Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger!, Amy Aniobi, Joseph Keckler, Viva DeConcini, Dirty Martini, James Scruggs and Bi TYRANT. Instead of traditional pop entertainment, the USO trope is turned inside out by showcasing diverse perspectives and through subversive forms.

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I produce the series with Allison, who recently led the Nasty Women Unite Fest, and Chad Anthony Miller.  I “host” the events myself, playing a character constructed out of pure anachronism, much like the source of the current right-wing hegemony; my character is the most productive way I can use my cis white male body in performance. This “host” is assisted by bubbly blonde arm-candy performed by Allison, her body nearly mute, almost too eager to participate in her own subjugation. While making the audience uneasy (to say the least), these characters are essential to this series probing the toxic nostalgia now plaguing our political and cultural landscape.

Patrick Scheid in mufti. Photo: Kaitlin Nemeth.

Our inaugural U.S.O.ver event was held on the night before Trump took power. We decided a protest party was required; it felt like a last hurrah before the world ended. So we sought out Rubulad, legendary for their underground parties. Our audience had to RSVP to receive the venue location and everyone trekked out to an unmarked warehouse in the middle of Bushwick. This is usually the case with Rubulad events, but extra care was taken because there was some concern that people might come with the purpose of causing trouble — this was not long after people were attacked by self-proclaimed Trump supporters on the street in Tribeca as they were leaving Decolonize this Place’s event at Artists Space. There are more than a few openly white supremacist groups in the city; our call to provide a safe space could have provided a tempting target.

Emotions were high, so people drank and danced hard. We had performance artists, burlesque performers, feminist punk bands and a great DJ. The desperate feeling of support was tangible and generous. I witnessed guests exchanging information in preparation for the impending Women’s March and sessions for calling representatives. In a performance by Howie Kenty, aka Hwarg, we were encouraged to scream at the top of our lungs. As everyone’s voices went up loud and long, we expelled the pent-up terror we had carried for months. The proceeds were donated to the ACLU. Since then, U.S.O.ver has also taken place at JACK and Irondale Ensemble.

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As U.S.O.ver grows and evolves, I am now dogged by a new question:

How can I produce activist artwork that contributes to positive change instead of simply providing catharsis?

Performance is time-tested as a way to illuminate problems with feeling. While performance offers temporary release, a therapeutic illusion of accomplishment, can it create the space for constructive thinking?

Allison Brzezinski and Patrick Scheid in subversive “host” mode. Photo: Raymond Blankenhorn.

U.S.O.ver tries to provide audience members with multiple points of engagement: donating proceeds to a good cause; lifting morale (my newsfeed feels like trench warfare); critical yet open discourse; and, of course, community. The relaxed structure of our events allow for a genuine response with the audience. There is permission to get up, to move, groove, speak up, take part. One of my proudest moments was when someone came up to me and said, “This reminded me of an incredible poem I have not thought of in years. Can I read it aloud?” Yes, of course!

And U.S.O.ver always changes. Each installment is a different lineup in a different space. We could have made a boxed up musical revue, frozen in time, with a set number of perspectives, and a clear narrative arc edited to manufacture “all the feels.” But a true multiplicity of performers sharing in response to their body and experience is more American: what is rhizomatic, or rootless, is healthier. We curate the performers but not their work they choose to share. It will often be a surprise (I love live experiments!) to everyone on the day. Artists are provided with the conceit of the event — a prompt that they can dig into or resist.

Our newest installment, U.S.O.ver the Reignbow will be on June 11, 19, and 28 — just in time for Flag Day (and Trump’s birthday) and summertime, hot dogs, barbecues, sundresses, ice cream truck jingles, the city in heat, thunderstorms and the smell of Americana. Perfect timing. We are being presented by The Brick in Williamsburg as part of This is Not Normal: an Arts and Activism Festival. U.S.O.ver the Reignbow will include performances by Miss Minty Newport, Hotsy Totsy, Fein and Dandee, Cristina Pitter, Zachary Trebino, Meta Phys-Ed and more! We will continue to hold each other close and laugh our dissent.