Anthony R. Green is a composer, performer, and social justice advocate splitting his time between the U.S. and the Netherlands. With violist Ashleigh Gordon, he is the co-founder of Castle of Our Skins, a Boston-based presenting organization dedicated to promoting Black artistry through music.
With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Green has two upcoming commissions that explore some of the most prominent figures of this movement. On June 13th in Denver, Playground Ensemble will give the world premiere of Shot Glass (Saint Marsha – Pay It No Mind), a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson with text by Elizabeth Baker. In October 2019, the London Song Festival will feature Green’s work about the drag queens of Stonewall, including Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. We asked Anthony five questions about his upcoming performances, celebrating Black queer sexuality, and artistic activism.
For those who might not be familiar, who was Marsha P. Johnson, and how does your June 13th premiere Shot Glass (Saint Marsha – Pay It No Mind) pay tribute to her?
Marsha P. Johnson was EVERYTHING! Born biologically male, she was a transvestite who was among the first to throw objects towards police who wanted to unnecessarily cause trouble and harm to the transvestites, gender-queers, and LGBT people at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago. Legend has it that she said, “I got my civil rights!” before throwing what has come to be known as “the shot glass heard round the world” into a mirror, which started the riots.
After surviving the Stonewall Riots, she and her dear friend Sylvia Rey Rivera formed STAR–the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. This was the first group to specifically help and advocate for the rights of trans youth. With Rivera, she responded to the deplorable anti-trans actions of gay people (mostly gay white men) at the time, who did not want trans people to walk in the pride parades in New York. Saint Marsha and Rivera, as an act of defiance, paid those men no mind and walked at the FRONT of the parade.
But Saint Marsha was selfless; she often gave her last money or bag of chips or candy bar to other queens on the street or random people whom she felt needed the kindness. In fact, it was common for her to get some money by begging or through sex work, only to help others. She sang (mostly screamed) in a cool performance-art band called Hot Peaches, which furthered strengthened her status as a beloved deity. Known also affectionately as the “Mayor of Christopher Street,” her uniqueness, kindness, and cult-of-personality drew attention from Michael Musto (The Village Voice) and Andy Warhol, who painted her. There is an amazing documentary about her that you can watch for free on YouTube, and there is another documentary about her on Netflix (which I have yet to see). Speaking for the YouTube documentary, called simply Pay It No Mind, after watching it, I really started to understand how important Marsha P. Johnson was and what her presence and her work meant to me, and I couldn’t help but cry.
For my new piece, I commissioned the ever incredible Elizabeth A. Baker (New Renaissance Artist) to compose the text. She delivered a poignant text with a unique structure, and contrapuntal internal elements which informed much of my structural and musical decisions. Perhaps the most homage-paying aspect of this piece is my quotation of one of the songs that Saint Marsha sang with Hot Peaches. I did not quote the melody as it was intended to be, but the melody as Saint Marsha delivered it. I also quoted some pop songs of the day, namely Call Me by Blondie and Venus in Furs by the Velvet Underground–a song whose title, in my humble opinion, partly describes Saint Marsha.
This new work was commissioned by the Playground Ensemble in Denver for their second annual Pride concert, and I humbly thank them for their support and their incredible musicianship and work!
Your piece at London Song Festival in October incorporates live Drag. What creative possibilities did this unlock for you?
Through various conversation via social media, the incredible baritone Michael Harper connected me to the founder of the London Song Festival, who–in turn–asked me to compose a work for their upcoming Outsiders concert. This concert will be dedicated to Stonewall’s 50th anniversary. Wanting to create a work that fits with the other works on the program, I decided to compose a work that is both serious (makes a statement, tells a historically important story, provides a learning moment) and campy (in recognition of camp being created by Black queer people). To achieve this, the work will be for two vocalists–in this case a Mezzo and a Baritone–that has a narrative of a queen helping another queen prepare for their day, and in their morning routine, they discuss Saint Marsha, Sylvia Rey, Miss Major, and other queens of Stonewall. Creatively, having this narrative allows me to approach different aspects of movement and humor in a piece, as well as gives me the freedom to focus on interactions on many different levels: the interactions between the characters themselves, between the characters and the pianist, between the music and the message, and between the serious message and the humor. For this work, I am also writing the text, and I look forward to exploring my own comedic writer personality.
What barriers have you faced in creating works that explicitly celebrate or explore Black queer sexuality?
On an external level, I have applied to a couple of different residencies and other funding sources for support to develop this artistic exploration, but every application has been rejected. One can never say that the nature of the project or the nature of my own identity (Black, queer, male) was responsible for the rejections, and I of course respect the decision. These rejections, though, have been a barrier to fully proceed with this exploration. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to compose a work for the incredibly talented Anna Elder for the recent Erotics & Music conference at the University of Pittsburgh. I used this opportunity to compose a work within this field of artistic inquiry, which Anna performed incredibly. I later performed the work for the recent LGBTQ+ Music Studies Symposium in Southampton, UK–I wish Anna performed the work instead of me!
On a personal level, it is difficult to explore this path for many reasons. In doing so, one must inevitably face personal truths and demons; aspects of yourself that you find deplorable, aspects that have been suppressed because of societal injustice, aspects that you could not exercise because of your skin color, attractiveness level, geekiness, social awkwardness, etc… all of these aspects must be addressed, acknowledged, and given attention irrespective of desire. Recognizing your jealousies, your setbacks, your defenses, your crimes–this all must happen to create an art that is truthful, honest, and pure. And after the art is created, putting this out to the public–to family and friends who may not want to know this aspect of me, to other Black and/or queer people who may disagree with the existence of this art, to professionals who may accuse me of banking on identity politics–putting this out to the public is a risk. However, considering the almost lack of musical exploration of Black queerness in the new music world, this risk is well worth the possible benefits and future developments.
In our conversations, you mentioned being inspired by Julius Eastman’s quote, “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest—Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.” What about these words in particular resonates with you and drives you?
The quote ends with, “It is important that I learn how to be, by that I mean accept everything about me.” This quote directly corresponds to what I discussed in the previous question–facing yourself, everything about you, the good, the positive, the moral, the bad, the negative, the immoral. It also means fully embracing yourself, loving yourself, and changing the things that you want to change about yourself. However, as Julius mentions specifically Blackness, queerness, and musician-ness (!!), this quote directly speaks to me, who is all of these. When writing the paper I presented before performing in Southampton, the words shot straight to my soul and charged me. It was as if Eastman himself was saying something to me. This moment also reminded me of Harvey Milk’s charge to gay people to come out, and Laverne Cox’s statement about how anti-transgender bathroom bills are about destroying trans visibility. Visibility is what creates change, and visibility is gained through expression, action, participation, collaboration, creation, and allies–but the first steps to visibility are expression and action. Eastman reminded me of this, and now I am expressing my Black, queer, musician self fully, and taking action.
What are your big picture ideas for networking and community building through artistic activism?
Too many to list!! I will mention, however, that I would like to reach out to Black queer creators of art (any art, but I would love to hear from composers, naturally!) and conduct experimental sessions. Perhaps these sessions will not be published or released to the world in any way, but I would love to use these sessions as learning and growing moments. The sessions will be a mixture of discussion, improvisation, acting, reading/research, writing, performing, acknowledging, witnessing, and healing. Through all of this, I am sure the participants can come closer to Eastman’s charge.
Outside of this, I will continue the networking and community-building work that I already do with Ashleigh Gordon and Castle of our Skins, who will soon present its first week-long, multi-event project called I AM A MAN 2019. More details at www.castleskins.org/iaam2019.