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Skin Deep

Carl Hancock Rux's Tales of Black Male

At the age of 4, Rux began drawing and telling himself stories. "I didn't really have anybody else to talk to," he says. "I was inventing a narrative for myself that was sort of like an urban Fantasia."

By John Lewis | Posted 6/6/2001

For an artist who's garnered his share of hype over the past few years, Carl Hancock Rux remains remarkably aloof from the mainstream. Chosen by The New York Times Magazine in 1994 as "One of 30 Artists Under the Age of 30 Most Likely to Influence Culture Over the Next 30 Years," the poet/playwright/musician/actor seems intent on fulfilling that prophecy. He also seems determined to succeed on his own enigmatic terms.

Two years ago, Rux released a major-label disc, Rux Revue (Sony), to critical hosannahs. Produced by the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys, Beck) and Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Elliot Smith), the album wedded Rux's street-corner mysticism, heady intellectualism, and gut-bucket storytelling to a postmodern blues sound built from scraps of jazz, funk, rock, and hip-hop. Although confounding to radio programmers, the dense soundscapes proved a good match for Rux's multilayered poetry and commanding voice, especially on the stunning "No Black Male Show."

Over a foreboding bass line, Rux threaded harsh realities through that song's images of pop culture. He examined identity issues and art-world politics, referenced jazz icons and blaxploitation films, and reminded a generation of new jacks that "Lil' Kim is not at home waiting for you in thong and lip gloss with Foxy Brown, who is also not at home waiting for you."

Addressing himself and his contemporaries, he eventually concluded that society wants "your black ass, not your black art." The piece, which took more than two years to write, has evolved into a one-man show, also called No Black Male Show, that Rux brings to Center Stage June 8 through 10.

Over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. Rux recalls how he was moved to write the poem that led to his current show after checking out the controversial exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art at New York's Whitney Museum a few years ago. "It was a response to that show, but it wasn't a response with my middle finger up," Rux says. "Basically, it was an exhibit of visual art, photography, and installations dealing with the black male body and the black male icon in America. The show inspired me to look at my body, and I don't mean that literally. I mean that in terms of looking at myself as a black male. . . . Basically, you're being asked to come downtown and look at yourself, so it was incredibly personal. And then you have to deal with whether or not you see yourself.

"For me, to write this poem, 'No Black Male Show,' was to say that I don't want a show. . . . I was, in some way, lamenting the show that has played itself out in the black male body. I was asking for another kind of show. I was also thinking about the show that played itself out in my own life."

The 31-year-old, Columbia University-educated Rux was born in Harlem and grew up in the Bronx. His mother was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and institutionalized. He never knew his biological father and spent much of his childhood in foster care. A loner, he turned to the arts for solace. At the age of 4, he began drawing and telling himself stories. "I didn't really have anybody else to talk to," he says, "so I would tell myself these stories and draw them. There was so much I didn't know about my family, and, when you start off with all these mysteries, all these unanswered questions in your life, you need a narrative. I was inventing a narrative for myself that was sort of like urban Fantasia. It had its own kind of fantastical urbanity, but it was also kind of mystical. It was like, 'Yo, this is my Alice in Wonderland, or my Jack and the Beanstalk."

That sort of self-mythology has dovetailed into more confessional material as Rux explores his troubled past on record and on stage. When he claims that, like Jane Austen, he "reserves the right to invade my own privacy," he isn't kidding. Evocative and provocative, his intensely personal monologues sound like Barry White undergoing analysis on W.E.B. DuBois' couch. Deftly mixing poetry and hermeneutics, Rux elevates the diary entry to social commentary and even to holy Scripture. "In the show, I move through these different narratives and retreat into worlds that are like childhood testimonials," he says. "It's like the Rux Revue record, where a lot of people told me they were surprised at how deeply personal it was. But for me, the personal is political. I can't come to a political or social idea without discovering something personal about myself first.

"For me, that's what the show is. From the title, people might expect me to talk about the black man, and yeah, that's what I am. I live in a black male body. But this show is also about living in that body and being absent from what is typically identified with that body. I know that I live in it, but sometimes, I feel like I don't live in it. In fact, sometimes, I don't want to live in it."

No Black Male Show will be at Center Stage June 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and June 10 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets or information, call (410) 332-0033 or check out www.centerstage.org.

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