“Rooted,” the new performance by internationally acclaimed solo performer Tim Miller, digs deep as it explores New York history, his family trees that grow here, and what happens when we actually manage to achieve one kind of social change — like marriage equality — after a long effort only to face huge new challenges in 2017.
With stops along the way at the Department of Homeland Security, amidst the queer history of hurting hearts, and at the DNA roots that lead him to Central New York and an ‘80s power rock epiphany on a farm road in Yates County, “Rooted” is a funny and charged story of the times we are living in.
Miller will perform “Rooted” at Dixon Place on October 14 and 21, and will also lead an intensive performance workshop October 16-21 that will culminate in a separate public performance on October 21.
Tim Miller celebrates the victories won, braces for the struggles at hand
“How do we as American citizens ground ourselves — root ourselves, really — for the assault on democracy and civil rights and sanity that we are currently in?,” Miller said in discussing his new work. “Artists like me need to ground ourselves, pace ourselves, root ourselves in community, and create the performance that we and, hopefully, others need. The piece is very much about connecting the historical dots.”
Speaking of history, Miller has certainly played his part in it. No stranger to controversy, he was one of the notorious NEA 4, the four performances artists who had their National Endowment for the Arts grants taken away in the early 1990s for the content of their work but successfully took their case all the way to the US Supreme Court. Miller’s performances have been at the center of the culture wars, the fight against AIDS, and the struggle for lesbian and gay civil rights for the last 30 years. For years, he was also at the forefront of the battle for equal marriage rights — especially equal access to immigration rights long denied his Australian husband Alistair McCartney because of the so–called Defense of Marriage Act. Now that DOMA is dead, Miller and McCartney are married and Alistair is finally a US citizen.
I caught up with Miller to talk about the State of the Union — both his marriage and what is going on in our country.
Performance artist and teacher Tim Miller emphasizes the importance of getting rooted in this age of Trump. | COURTESY OF TIM MILLER
WILLIAM J. MANN: What made you start focusing on the roots of your family tree in this new piece?
TIM MILLER: Well, I knew I needed to close out the story I had traced in three performances of the struggles my Australian husband Alistair and I have been through to keep him in the country. “Rooted” begins at the Department of Homeland Security right before our interview for a green card through marriage, and I tell the story of getting married in New York City.
The new show connects my husband Alistair and my New York State marriage license from 2013 with my great great grandparents Billy and Sarah Angell’s marriage license in the Finger Lakes region of New York State in 1865 right after the Civil War. When I was a kid, I saw a copy of their marriage license, and I was very intrigued with it.
When Alistair and I got married in New York City — on the very day the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned — I immediately thought of my great great grandparents who were the last members of my family to be married in New York State until us 148 years later.
WJM: Did you get to do a lot of genealogical research?
TM: Yes, I fell into the orgasmic obsessional realm of family history. I always think ancestry-dot-com should be called ancestry-dot-cum because it is as addicting as Internet porn! Once you start, you just can’t stop. And in Australia, the word rooted also means fucked — Aussies laugh when I tell them the title — so the double meaning will add resonance to the performances in Australia next year!
WJM: What did you discover?
TM: I got to do a bunch of family tree research in Central New York, where lots of my family comes from starting around 1790. In the show, I tell the story of the truly wild day at the Yates County Historical Society in Penn Yan, New York.
I made many discoveries. Especially that that part of New York was first settled in 1790 by this wild transgender radical Quaker named Jemima Wilkinson who said they had no gender and was called the Public Universal Friend. I had always heard about this figure through queer studies circles but it was great to connect the dots. Family members of mine may have been involved since they came there from Rhode Island with other Quakers. Or so I hope. Who wouldn’t want to be descended from a radical transgender Quaker prophet?
I found my great great grandpa’s military record from the New York 44th Regiment at the Historical Society so later I wandered the streets of Penn Yan, where I could visualize my great great grandpa Billy in 1861 as a sexy teenager just having joined the Union Army — and surviving the war and getting married in New York at war’s end. Naturally, I imagine Billy making out with Walt Whitman during one of his many hospital stays in DC in the Civil War.
A participant in a performance workshop led by Tim Miller at Ohio Wesleyan University. | COURTESY OF TIM MILLER
WJM: And now the Civil War is even more resonant than ever?
TM: Yes, the horror unleashed by Trump in Charlottesville with the white supremacists, Klan, and Nazis on the march and the conflicts it is exposing about how racism is glorified in public monuments have pushed all this forward. We never, ever escape the Civil War. The central fact of this country is that it was built on human slavery and white supremacism. There was slavery in the US and the colonies for almost 250 years, and we have only not had slavery for 152. At a time when I feel so beleaguered by the insane asylum of the US under Trump, it is helpful to take the long view and imagine my great great grandfather ready to step up and end slavery.
WJM: You will be doing a “Body Maps” performance workshop intensive at Dixon Place October 16-21. What will happen in the workshop?
TM: I do these performance workshops at a lot at universities and arts centers. Our work will be a fun and charged exploration into creating original performance work from our personal lives: from our dreams, obsessions, peeves, memories, and desires. Telling our own story doesn’t separate us from other people, it connects us. This “Body Maps” performance workshop welcomes performers at all levels of experience — artists, activists, queer-identified and queer-allied folks — to come together to create an original performance that maps the charged border between our bodies and society, our personal narratives and our politics, our private selves and public view.
Over the course of one week, we will shape our discoveries into a public performance. We will work intensively for a week and the workshop will culminate in an ensemble-generated public performance. This work is really important to me and is a huge part of my work. Maybe it’s also another way I send some roots out by emboldening lots of new performers to help in the battles ahead.
The cast of “Litmus,” a workshop performance created by Tim Miller at the University of Colorado. | COURTESY OF TIM MILLER
WJM: So even as you get to take a victory lap for your husband Alistair getting a green card after DOMA was overturned and now being a citizen, what journey does your show “Rooted” take you on amid this catastrophe of Trump?
TM: I am calling on the ancestors to help me deal with our current American mess. If my great great grandpa Billy Angell in Jerusalem, New York in 1861 could join the New York 44th Regiment when he was 18 years old and deal with a Civil War that would kill almost a million Americans in the struggle against the same white supremacists that now again fill DC, then I can face my own queer struggles ahead. Fasten your seatbelts. Plant your feet. Get rooted in your own history, then really root your resistance and be ready for these rocky times.
TIM MILLER’S “ROOTED” | Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts. | Oct. 14, 9:30 p.m.; Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m. | $20; $18 for students & seniors at dixonplace.org or 866-811-4111; $22 at the door | “Body Maps” performance workshop | Oct. 16-21, with Oct. 21, 5 p.m. public performance | Register at dixonplace.org
William J. Mann is a novelist, biographer, and historian and the author of the widely praised “The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family.” Mann is working on a biography of Marlon Brando. For more information on him, visit williamjmann.com. For more information on Tim Miller, visit TimMillerPerformer.com.