Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)

Keith Antar Mason (left) and Joel Talbert (right) of Hittite Empire (photos: Jose Ivey)

The Hittite Empire is a performance collective from Los Angles with a core of ten theater and performance artists. They have a reputation as an emerging black troupe, the kind to watch because of how they effectively mix art with four-alarm social issues, as in their send-up companion piece on the male side of the coin, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Homicide When the Streets Were Too Much.  Their thought provoking text-based performances speak as frankly to white as to black audiences.

Given the boiling-over maelstrom of tensions stoked over the years by the not so New Right, whatever this group has to say through their dynamite poetics and theater, after the recent L.A. riots, is especially critical and loaded. They provide a street education aesthetically heightened by personal and dignified shifting narrative vignettes.

Take, for instance, their observation that pretty soon American black me will need escorts to travel beyond arbitrarily set boundaries or suffer physical violence from a misguided and oppressively fearful “dominant” culture.

This sadly astute observation is contextualized within the voice of the perpetually hated “other,” signified by the larger culture, but performed by this group from many different angles. Their current work specifically explores new methods in attempting to end violence among black men in the African-American community, men who have to deal with internalizations like these, which have always been projected onto them.

Hittite Empire’s provocative assessments of our current social landscape streamed over their audience during their recent performance of River: I don’t Trust Them Anymore at The Lab. Their watch lists of the near future were fast and furious strategic postmodern recalls of history. Personal stories, Greek and African mythologies, and affected self-reflexive voguing about performance art were all devices used to scramble together black culture battle stories. The ensemble shows that there has always been a war going on for them in this country, but it is getting more pitched, polarized, overgeneralized and hateful.

The notion of escort made me think of Nazi stories where entire villages were slowly decimated as the police state rounded up each minority, eliminating them one by one, when nobody spoke up for them – the other. The acts of covering, escorting and witnessing each other, as recent U.S. college students who have physically been keeping track of what has actually been happening on the ground in Nicaragua, for example, have, unfortunately, become necessary strategies again.

Joel Talbert and Keith Antar Mason, as stunning spokesmen, offered even better examples of undoing battle – or, refusing to fight. Commenting that “democracy is the white man’s burden, so fight your own war,” they make sense by showing how black men have historically been enlisted in wars to maintain systems which in turn severely oppress them. They make sense telling stories of half-beaten half-brothers in fractured black families. They make sense using the death of a hero in a Greek myth to recycle attitudes about the empty valor of someone else’s war.

In the land of “opportunity,” American democratizes material inequality while trumping the myth of meritocracy. As others have noted, things like the recent Saving and Loan scam are really about socializing losses while privatizing gains. Hittite Empire taps into black cycle of disenfranchisement and mystification to tell truthful tales about the self, with the power of re-identification within its own social body. They propose a hight critical for of self reliance and new definitions which incite change.