Sebastian Cummings has always been a little edgy. A military brat, a black man in the white suburbs, a Jamaican American in African American black society, a gay actor in a straight-role world—throughout his life, he’s embraced the fringes. He’s had show-stealing turns for several indie companies—Quince Productions, Hella Fresh Theater, SmokeyScout Productions, Fever Dream Repertory—but he eschews traditional theater in his own work. He uses drag, but he’s no diva: his wardrobe is all style even when he’s paying tribute to Beyonce, and he’d never think of lip-syncing Madonna. His latest work, LIFE ON THE FRINGE , opens this Friday (July 18, 2014)—and closes this Friday, after five performances. Billed as a multimedia concert for adults, LIFE is the latest in Sebastian’s series of self-choreographed performances exploring identity and sexuality. Danced to his own beat-heavy music and contemplative voice-overs, his work is informed by race and gender, but with a pulsating heart of high-octane entertainment. Phindie asked Sebastian a few questions about his style and show.
Phindie: Your work doesn’t fall into easily labeled categories; it’s part dance, part theater, part concert, part drag, part performance art. How would you describe your style?
Sebastian Cummings: The easiest way to describe it is simply “performance.” I don’t like the word association society has developed to use anything other than that really. I occasionally call it a concert, because that can be pretty loose and maybe people won’t get it in their minds that they are coming to see “this kind of show.” My work is… my work.
Phindie: What does “life on the fringe” mean to you? What are some of the themes you seek to explore with this show?
SC: Life on the Fringe, is really just what it sounds like. Life – The experience of being alive. Fringe – not on the mainstream, peripheral. I am not part of the mainstream, people can say what they want and scream about how everyone is treated equally in this country, but I am a black gay male… I am not part of the main stream. I am not eligible to be play 75% of male roles, because everything is written for the mainstream (which I am not). I am gay. I was once part of an audition process where I learned that “TGTF” was used internally to describe male actors as “Too Gay Too Function.” Things like this remind you that you are, indeed, on the fringe. The show talks about the ways I am on the fringe and how other people with different circumstances are also on the fringe. The goal of the show is for us to better understand each other. All of us.
Phindie: Who do you think the piece will appeal to? Do you think we all feel a bit like we live life on the fringe?
SC: I’m not sure. To be honest, I don’t create to appeal to people necessarily. I create, because I have this thing to say and I feel people need to hear it. So, I guess I hope this piece appeals to “people”. I do think we all feel like we live on the fringe. That is the purpose of the show. For people to think more about their neighbor and understanding them. The more we listen and understand each other as opposed to pointing fingers and name calling the better off we will be. But today, it feels like every article I see is about how someone said or did something and “let’s all attack them” as opposed to letting this be a learning opportunity. Or “let me get defensive, because I think you’re trying to say I’m a bad person” instead of just understanding others and overall just denying the experience of others.
Phindie: I first got to know you as an actor in some fairly traditional independent theater shows. Is that something you’ve consciously moved away from. Why? What do you see as its limitations?
SC: I stopped doing Theater here because I felt uninspired by most of the things I did and most of the people I worked with. Everything is not worth doing. Most things are not worth doing. The work ethic, the professionalism, it is lacking with a lot of these companies. It feels as thought so many people are here to do theatre because “it’s fun” or “I’m an actor” as opposed to really trying to tell this story and taking it seriously. And the amount of ego I have come across is outrageous…. and the thing that bothers me the most is that there are a large number of actors who know exactly what I am talking about, but they just go along with it. I’m not interested in that. Lastly, as we all know, there are not a plethora of roles for someone like me. So, I create my own work as opposed to waiting for someone else to give me something.
Phindie: Tell me a little about your collaborators
SC: I have 2 dancers in the piece: Messapotamia Lefae and Drew Kaiser. I have known both of these amazing dancers for years now and we work well together because they understand me and they know I am serious about my work. I also use portions of a series of interviews I did with a couple people from the theatre community, Dana Kreitz and Sarah Gafgen.
Phindie: So… what is “postmodern drag”?
SC: For me it’s breaking the convention of drag and using elements of it to explore issues with society. I’m not here to lip-sync and look fabulous, although I do look fabulous… I can’t help that. I’m here to say something while presenting me myself in a non-traditional way.
Phindie: What’s next from Sebastian?
SC: Living life until I feel an overwhelming urge to express myself, yet again.
LIFE ON THE FRINGE has five performances on July 18, 2014. [Aux Performance Space - Vox Populi, 319 North 11th Street #3 Philadelphia, PA 19107] Tickets.