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IMPRESSIONS: Leslie Cuyjet's “For All Your Life” at The Chocolate Factory Theater

IMPRESSIONS: Leslie Cuyjet's “For All Your Life” at The Chocolate Factory Theater
Sarah Cecilia Bukowski

By Sarah Cecilia Bukowski
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Published on April 22, 2024
Brian Rogers

Creator and performer: Leslie Cuyjet

Co-director and Dramaturg: Sean Donovan

Stage Manager: Tess Dworman

Set Designer: Neal Wilkinson

Lighting Designer: Amanda K. Ringger

Video and Sound Designer: Max Ludlow

Production Manager: Shana Crawford

Co-Producers: Jennifer Castro Song and Sweat Variant

Film Credits: Director, Daniele Sarti | Assistant Camera, Max Nemhauser and Joe Kickbush

Audio: Will Scott | Assistant Set Design, Joseph Wolfslau | Makeup: Jane Serenska

Production Manager: Tess Dworman | Editors: Daniele Sarti, Leslie Cuyjet and Tim Donovan

Sound Mixer: dayae choi | Additional Performers, Tess Dworman, Jacque Betesh, Katrina Reed and Jason Watt

Leslie Cuyjet is a master of layers. Her multimedia performance exhibition For All Your Life teems with interpenetrating modes of expression as words, objects, imagery, and movement echo, morph, and recur in clusters organized by the ever-present dark matter of her research. In this project the artist directs her research as much inward as outward: seeking, nourishing, and growing in both directions at once like the roots and branches of a tree. What lurks in the depths of the archives — of body, of heritage, of history — surfaces in the bright light of performance as a revelatory act of cathartic transformation. Cuyjet lies at the center of her work, yet her message points outward, broadly to society and intimately to each individual witness. As a performer she is darkly comic, incisive and charming and terrifying in her beauty and power; she goads your laughter with a wink of horror. Her layers shift in their visibility, delicate cross sections tumbling in slippery suspension, densely protected and suddenly sharply defined.

Leslie Cuyjet. Photo: Brian Rogers

For All Your Life centers on the value of Black life and Black death — past, present, and future — through the curious lens of life insurance. The artist stages a “performance seminar” for her small captive audience, inviting us into a social experiment in which our collective witnessing is just the first step. The experience begins with an extended film, directed by Daniele Sarti and starring Cuyjet in an array of distinct characters: a red-blazered insurance agent, a beaming TV shopping network host, a pair of sassy disembodied alter egos encased in mountains of brown paper bags, and the core of her silent, expressive self. Sequences of character-driven scenes and exposition settle and shift as their thematics cohere around the same problem: What is life, and how is it valued?

For people of the African diaspora, the notion of quantifying life — of lives bought and sold, of the complicity of buyers and sellers — holds both historical significance and contemporary resonance. The educational portions of the film presentation bombard us with factual exposition, taking aim at the New York Life Insurance Company’s entanglement with the Atlantic slave trade while espousing the functional value of life insurance through a flickering sequence of slogan-laden New York Life ads. The lingo is as tight as the subtext is thick. 

Leslie Cuyjet. Photo: Brian Rogers

Even at her most raucously hilarious — her ludicrously bewigged TV personality nearly sold me on her heirloom chamberpot — Cuyjet remains deadly serious underneath. The cheeky question, “What’s your body count?” volleys between her flower-crowned spirit twins as they chatter subversively around the intrusive interrogations of life insurance assessments. The character of Dee, For All Your Life insurance agent, emerges as our principal; we watch her prepare for and conduct a seminar not unlike our own as her shiny veneer cracks and shatters from the strain of cognitive dissonance.

Leslie Cuyjet. Photo: Brian Rogers

Following this film primer, Cuyjet (as Dee) emerges in the flesh, triumphant in her business casual strut, red blazer flying and sensible red pumps blazing. She throws us her pitch through a megawatt smile before peeling back her layers, little bits flaking off her hard shell of charisma in disturbed glitches. She stutters, repeats, extends, or exaggerates a word or gesture to the point of absurdity. Cuyjet shows her knack for pairing visceral movement and sound: big, juicy bends sigh with exhaustion, monster stomps bark with tension, a deep laugh ripples from her spine through the ends of her hair. 

Leslie Cuyjet. Photo: Brian Rogers

We’re in the palm of her hand as she pulls back from absurdity to get at the real reason we’re here: the “social experiment” portion of For All Your Life. The hook? Life insurance, of course: an investment opportunity to insure the artist (whose lifetime value, she admits, has soared in the wake of the 2020 racial reckonings) and receive benefits upon her death. She confronts us: What is the value of her life? Of her death? Even with all the buildup, we are taken unawares, made suddenly complicit. How do we, the audience, create and benefit from the valuation of an artist—their work, their body, their life, their legacy? With these questions she stands before us, revealed. Her image reappears on screen, her tense face — dolent eyes, bared teeth — morphing between smiling stiffness and lurid horror. We’re invited to the next step: become For All Your Life member-investors. The coming months will show what Cuyjet has in store for this ongoing project with its big, bold questions and reverberant implications, all of which I await with curiosity (and a dash of trepidation).


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