For actress, comedian and playwright, Obehi Janice, Giacomo Casanova is not an important figure from 18th-century Europe. The famed lover was actually an unremarkable con artist. In her latest live performance, the 2014 Boston’s Best Actress takes a critical response to the Museum of Fine Art’s Casanova’s Europe exhibit. She chatted with us about tackling power and sex, the influence of white European culture and women reclaiming the color red ahead of her upcoming MFA live show, Obehi Janice: Casanova, on Sept. 21.
What was your initial reaction when the Museum of Fine Arts asked you to create something in response to Casanova’s Europe? I heard the original title of the exhibit — “The Seduction of Europe” — and my white supremacy bat-signal went off. …But subsequently, learning more about Casanova from a colleague and friend … I was really ticked off about how ridiculous his persona is. And instead of running away from it, I thought it’d be cool to kind of run toward it and really tackle power and sex and everything in between.
You have said you didn’t know why Casanova was important and that you’d have to figure it out. What conclusion did you reach? I still don’t think he’s important. I think that we venerate these dead white men who have written books. I think that what he did was not remarkable. I think he sounds like, to me, a common day con artist, seducer, philanderer. Like, he’s not interesting to me.
But what’s interesting to me is people’s relationship to his content. If he was a current day celebrity, it would just be like this guy with tons of Instagram followers, who is kind of an asshole, you know? And who was a rapist.
I’ve had to find ways to insert myself in this content so that I can make a statement about it instead of being like, “Yeah! Now I’m convinced. I love all this Rococo.” I’m not convinced. I think there are some ways in which I’m becoming more aware of how strong white European culture has been in my life, and I’m in this place now where I’m shedding that.
What was it like creating a piece about a figure who died more than 200 years ago? [Laughs] I have been swimming in this man’s life for, like, six months or even longer, and it’s been maddening. Now I know too much … It’s disorienting. It’s fun because what me and my collaborators are constantly doing is having that be the touch point, but we’re not venerating him. In no way do we finish something and we’re like, “Oh great! Did we do Casanova justice?” It’s more like, “Did we make a point?”
You collaborated with Michelle Villada to design a deep red, Rococo-inspired dress. How does it feel to wear Casanova’s power color while you’re performing? This concept was one of the first things I knew I wanted to happen. …I actually told her, “I have been realizing I don’t wear red.” And I don’t wear red because I have been told not to wear red, either by somebody close to me, or it’s a conversation that happens among women, “Oh, you know red is intimidating. Red is too much, so be careful.”
Red is a power color. And for some reason along the way, women have been told that it’s too much for us. I think that’s what I mean by Casanova being a point of contact to run away from. Because then, what I realize is, “Oh, he wore that? They wore velvet? Let me take that and really pinpoint why that’s important for me, instead of being inspired by him.”
Do you think there’s value in reexamining historic figures against the backdrop of today’s political climate? I think there’s value in acknowledging huge points of distress and trauma and being more holistic in how we’re discussing [them] … I am much more interested in calling art a very subjective thing in humanity and acknowledging that it affects people in very different ways. When we do this thing where we just have one statement on why [art is] important, I really don’t like that. I think it’s very dangerous. ◆