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The National Theatre’s staging last spring of the Vashti performance collective’s funk opera Delicious Hunger, Hunger Delicious unwound like a salacious nightmare of anarchy. In a hellscape of ecological and spiritual decay, a circus of foul-mouthed witch doctors, mummified children, mutant burlesque dancers, and transgender cabaret singers ran hither and yon about the theater through a series of carnal rituals in search of somethinganythingsacred and transcendental.
Everywhere, painted bodies gyrated to undulating rhythms of drums and bass. A bikini-clad woman, wearing a gas mask and dripping with blood, sang the blues. A nearly nude man cried and cradled his eggs. A voodoo priestess appeared and launched into a vitriolic rant, and a haunting cello coalesced with a searing guitar until the madness of the atmosphere welled up and threatened to flatten the bewildered audience.
Imagine Pedro Bell’s magnificent artwork for Funkadelic’s Cosmic Slop, with its sprawling, scatological decadence come to life. At the center of it all stood an androgynous waif, guiding his hostages through their harrowing excursionpart griot, part sassy chanteuse, part Peter Pan: Delicious Hunger’s creator, performance artist Reggie Crump, affectionately known as Monstah.
It seems that Monstah, to paraphrase Sun Ra, has been bored with Earth for a very long time. He drapes his delicate, sinewy frame in outlandish vintage clothes, spacey makeup, platform shoes, do-it-yourself jewelry, and facial piercings as if he were a blaxploitation pimp-daddy wigging out at a drag ball. His performances conjure up collages of ’70s horror, sci-fi, cartoons, glam rock, funk, and the flamboyant gay underground. Monstah doesn’t offer another point of view; he is the other point of view.
“I was always fascinated with otherness,” reflects the typically fey Monstah, who grew up in Williamsburg, where his teachers once told his mom that his daydreaming was hurting his grades, “fascinated [by] and frightened of other worlds.”
Beneath the absurdity, mixed metaphors, and conflicting emotions of Delicious Hunger and other Monstah works such as Acid Box Cabaret lies a crazed imagination confronting alienationfrom our environment, our homes and families, and ourselves. Monstah eschews linear storytelling to unfold his narratives like West African griot tales; time and space become obsolete. And, in a blues vein, his main characters confront their adversaries, choosing redemption and deliverance over misery and chaos.
“You don’t know what to expect when you’re watching his work,” observes Maida Withers, curator and producer of the D.C.4th Annual International Improvisation Plus+ Festival, where Monstah performs Dec. 5. At last year’s festival, Monstah improvised a dance and storytelling routine with a vacuum cleaner as he searched for an electrical outlet. “He uses everyday objects and pushes them to the edge,” says Withers. “He brings light and outrageousness to the situation, so you can go and travel with him in this absurdity. And you feel good once you’ve seen his work…because it’s couched in extreme reality.”
As for his performance this time around, Monstah says, “I have no idea, really, what I’m going to do.”
He got a lot of notice for Delicious Hunger, but still can’t exactly describe its purpose. Something about “sex and love and the future of the world,” he half-explains. His main collaborator, Gabriel, who wrote the narrative, says, “It’s about two people that meet and bring [out] all the history of individual issues with sex through a friendship.” But, he adds, “we were not telling people what this [work] is about.” The point, he says, is to share a set of experiences. For Gabriel, the work concerns the experiences of looking for identity in crisis. For Monstah, it involves the experiences of transcending and moving beyond what you see in everyday existence. But what it really seems to mean is that the two collaborators cook up the outlandish details of their performances and then try to ascribe their meanings.
Monstah is currently a member of the Liz Lerman Dance Company, having nestled in D.C.’s small, fragmented dance community after jaunts up and down the East Coast. He studied choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University and wound up afterward in New York, where he attempted to break into the performance art scene. He stayed for three weeks. “Everyone [in New York] was doing the same thing,” he recalls. “They were all trying to be so different that they all ended up doing the same thing. I figured if I moved to some place where no one else was trying to do something different, I would have a better chance. So I moved here.”
In D.C., Monstah began working with a dance company called Shadow Dance and later with D.C. dancers “Ajax” Joe Drayton and Brooke Kidd. While working with local dance companies, Monstah was also beginning to develop his own theatrical gifts among a group of roommates, including Gabriel, who were dancers and musicians. Together, they started throwing ambitious, performance-heavy theme parties, called Field Trips, at the house they shared.
These performance series would eventually act as blueprints for Delicious Hunger and Acid Box Cabaret. For the first Field Trip, called “Fantasy Island,” the principals led their guests through a maze of absurd situations and eventually upstairs to a bathroom, where Monstah was sitting in a tub filled with blue Kool-Aid. Dressed as a mermaid, Monstah began singing one of his signature songs, “Mandy Wanna Coosh Coosh,” whose sultry melody sounds as naughty as the title suggests. A month later, the group did “Love Boat,” wherein they staged a whimsical weddingwith Monstah as the pregnant bride. As the wedding climaxed, Monstah broke water and gave birth to…himself.
“Our house was definitely a laboratory,” says Monstah, “for us to feel around and figure out how to do stuff.”
He did his first real D.C. dance gigs with Lisa McLaughlin and Carla Perlo at Dance Place. He says he got strong working with McLaughlin because she does a lot of lifting. Also, he says, “I learned a lot about spatial awareness, because of the way [McLaughlin] likes to dance with a lot of space.”
The grandiloquence of Monstah’s work today grows largely from his intuition about theatrical spacehe likes to use it all. Delicious Hunger was an obese affair that consumed the entire National Theatre, from the lobby to various anterooms. Without a traditional platform stage, nothing stood between the performers and the audience, and the emotional intimacy reached the point of overwhelming the crowda situation that typically yields either an improv masterpiece or a disaster.
Monstah has not yet pushed his bent for outsized, unsettling production to its final limit. “My desire for Delicious Hunger,” he says, “is really for it not to be in a theater but in a stadium or coliseum…because it would mean having even more people scattered around and having all this stuff going on. If it can be done in a smaller space, it can be done in a huge space, too.” Where his creative impulses take him and what they stand for, only Monstah knowsif, in fact, he does know. CP