The late 1980s and early 1990s were a turbulent time on the American art scene.
Photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano were catching serious flak from elected officials and the general public over publicly displayed and federally funded art depicting sadomasochism, homosexuality and graphic nudity.
Serrano, especially, was taken to task by two powerful Republican U.S. senators for his photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of his own urine.
Topping the list of offending artists were the so-called “NEA Four,” two male and two female performance artists whose fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts were revoked under public pressure due to their controversial subject matter.
Inevitably, these controversies, which stretched artistic boundaries beyond conventionally accepted standards, became fodder for writers. In 1999, Lee Blessing’s one-person play, “Chesapeake,” opened off-Broadway, drawing its inspiration and source material from the “culture wars” that flared up a decade earlier.
“Chesapeake” returns to the New Orleans stage Thursday, July 17, at Barrister’s Gallery on St. Claude Avenue for a run of seven evening performances. Jake Bartush reprises the role that won him the 2014 Big Easy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy.
The production is directed by Harold Gervais, with a minimalist set designed by Dan Zimmer.
“Chesapeake” is the fictionalized story of a performance artist’s fantasy of getting back at a U.S. senator who was instrumental in pulling an NEA fellowship from him over a controversial performance.
During that performance, which is not seen during “Chesapeake,” the artist describes having an audience disrobe him in public view.
The artist, Kerr, makes plans to kidnap Lucky, the senator’s Chesapeake Bay retriever, retrain him and film the retraining for a public showing before returning the canine to its owner. Bartush plays both roles, plus that of the dog, using different voices for each.
The senator is given the name Thurm Pooley, a veiled reference to former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. In actuality, however, he is more a prototype of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, one of the leading critics of edgy art during the cultural wars, according to Blessing.
“In those days, I was happy to take any senator from the Carolinas and tar him with the same brush,” Blessing said. “Just as the senator in the play is inspired by Jesse Helms, I know how Strom Thurmond also voted on those (anti-NEA) bills. Much of the material (in the play) comes out of those debates.”
Author of nearly three dozen plays since 1975 and winner of numerous awards and grants, including two from the NEA, Blessing is one of the most prolific playwrights on the contemporary scene.
His best-known work, “A Walk in the Woods” (1988), based on the nuclear arms talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
Describing the role of Lucky, Blessing said, “This is a dog whose thoughts we hear, so he functions essentially as another human character. There’s perhaps a little bit of acting like a dog in the play, and each production does as much or as little of this as it chooses to do. But, basically, it’s a play about a sentient dog and its interactions with people.”
Elaborating on those interactions, Blessing noted, “This play really works well as a comedy. When you put humans and dogs together, it’s fun and it’s funny. And that’s what happens here as well.”
The debate over publicly funded art has not gone away.
“Yes, it’s a chronic issue,” Blessing said. “That’s one of the reasons why this play and some others I’ve written tend to keep getting produced. They’re about problems that don’t go away, social challenges that aren’t easily resolved.”
Blessing added: “Everybody has certain ideas about how their taxes should be spent. They often wink at some pretty egregious ways taxes are spent, so it’s always and ever will be a lively, vigorous and fascinating debate.”