“Last Gasp WFH” and “I can’t breathe”: BLM and Politically Engaged Theatre

Given the preponderance of feminist discourses in our current political context (e.g. with the #MeToo movement), I was excited to watch Split Britches’ new digital performance “Last Gasp WFH” (which stands for Working From Home). Since 1980, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver of Split Britches, the lesbian-feminist performance troupe, have been creating politically engaged theatre. 

My excitement, however, was momentarily stalled. I was nervous this performance would be a product of white feminism, instead of inclusive intersectional feminism. This was an assumption on my part because Shaw and Weaver are in their 70s and were part of the explosion of second wave feminism, which took place between the 60s and 80s. I tend to associate second wave feminism with white feminism and its exclusion of women of colour and trans and non-binary women. Fortunately, I was able to push my biases and worries aside and muster up the courage to watch. And boy oh boy I was pleasantly surprised!

This past year has been fraught with political tensions, economic uncertainty, and other challenges brought about by the Covid-19 public health crisis. Amid lockdown and stay-at-home orders, people become more politically aware, realizing that modern racism does not look like Jim Crow-Era lynchings. In 2020, millions marched, risking their lives to give voice to the lives silenced by police brutality: lives like Ahmaud Arbery’s, Breonna Taylor’s, George Floyd’s, and the list goes on and on.

Screenshot from “Last Gasp WFH”

The Black Lives Matter movement bled into the art Shaw and Weaver were creating. In a New York Times article, Elisabeth Vincentelli says that the play’s title, “Last Gasp” became “premonitory” (2020). Vincentelli writes that the title initially referred to “Peggy saying it was going to be her last show, the last gasp of democracy” but the meaning compounded as the play came together “…in a pandemic, where you couldn’t breathe, and in a civil unrest that was symbolized by “I can’t breathe.” The “Last Gasp” weaves the Black Lives Matter movement into the performance. From a monologue about how popular 1950s singer Johnnie Ray’s “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” was written by Johnny Bragg, a black prisoner wrongfully accused and incarcerated, to a Black Lives Matter poster in a background shot, to Shaw recalling examples of racism in policing and the broader American penal system. In addition to the Black Lives Matter movements, the performance addresses queerness, gun laws in the United States, and the systemic problems of incarceration. During my viewing, a pivotal moment for me was when Peggy Shaw asserted that prisons should be colleges. 

This digital performance is a timely, powerful, and politically engaged theatre production. As I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised by this performance. It intersected queerness with feminism, race, and gender to become “among the most evocative art to emerge from the Covid era” (Vincentelli). I cannot imagine “Last Gasp WFH” taking place live and in-person and not during the pandemic and explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. I am so happy I never have to.

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