John Kelly’s “live memoir” entertains while enlightening audience to LGBT history

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John Kelly’s memoir began a long time ago. Since 1976, he has been filling journals with ideas, sketches, and plans—many personal, many more related to his extensive career as a performance artist, visual artist, musician, poet, and on and on.

These journals are the substance that makes up his most recent project, a “live memoir” called Time No Line (a compressed rephrasing of “Time Is Not Linear). On Saturday, Kelly came to MASS MoCA for a workshop performance of this new piece. It was his third time performing at the museum.

The show begins simply enough. A projected slideshow of photographs from his journals runs in the background, while Kelly tapes Xeroxed pages to two boards on either side of the stage.

Pages flash across the screen too quickly to even skim. It’s difficult to tell which fragments are important and personal, and which are jokes or doodles. It would have been frustrating, if the snippets I was able to discern weren’t so compelling: Kelly apparently likes making lists, one of which was titled “A list of the reasons for castration;” another “Art or die.” With bullet points, no less.

It’s difficult to describe Kelly, because he’s so many things at various times. Depending on what character he’s playing at the moment, his movements are graceful, delicate, forceful, or even slapstick, but always precise. Not prepared, however: he revealed after the show that there was no choreography, just blocking.

As far as costumes go, let me put it this way: at one point, Kelly walks out from behind a wall wearing socks, a silver prom dress with a “Miss Canada” sash, and a beanie—to perform “Blue” by Joni Mitchell (beautifully, by the way).

Kelly also performed lovely falsetto renditions of “In My Room” by The Beach Boys and “What Makes a Man a Man” by Charles Azvanour.

Out of character, Kelly is an eloquent and passionate speaker with a good sense of irony, cocking an eyebrow when he’s unsatisfied with his locution and frequently causing the audience to burst out in laughter.

Some of Kelly’s strongest and most authentic moments occurred during spoken-word segments, and during the Q&A after his performance. Kelly used this time to speak about his experiences as an actor, drag performer, member of the LGBT community and HIV-positive gay man.

As a young man, Kelly studied ballet and fashion illustration before becoming involved in the growing New York City drag scene of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

“When I started doing it in ‘79, it was the nastiest thing I could think of doing,” Kelly said. Drag has informed his performance ever since, but along with it comes an underlying frustration at being labeled a “drag artist” rather than just a performer or actor.

“I came from visual art and dance; I work through character,” Kelly emphasized during a break in his performance. “For me, it’s more acting than drag.”

However, both his personal life and his work are closely tied into the issues that have historically affected drag and the LGBT community: namely, the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“The AIDS epidemic has informed my work my entire life,” Kelly explained. “My generation died, my partners died, my collaborators died, my audience died.”

Part of the retrospective focus of his performance is intended to help a younger audience discover an LGBT history which has largely been erased. During one of the more sobering moments, Kelly pointed out how full the room would have been if his peers had survived.

“There’s a sinkhole in the cultural dialogue,” Kelly said. “There’s really no way to convey that catastrophe.”

Time No Line is very much a work in progress. Kelly anticipates a written component at some point, but the performative aspect will continue to exist and evolve.

“I don’t know what form the performance part of the memoir will take,” Kelly admitted.