Framed as a living funeral, Ugly Chief mines what is at stake when we numbly follow mainstream social norms or accept glib representations of the truth.
The entire show is founded on the misdiagnosis of Victoria Melody’s father with a terminal illness. Although he notices his health fails to plummet, he does not confer with his doctor, as is all too typical in relationships with professionals where technical prowess subsumes empathy. In the space of ignorance, Melody plans her father’s funeral, as requested, and trains as a funeral director. When the doctor’s error comes to light, the Melodys collaborate on ‘Ugly Chief’- a title that emerges from an inaccurate meaning ascribed to their surname picked up from online ancestral research. There are frequent prods at our tendency to infer truth from unsubstantiated sources, like her father’s apparent familiarity and connection with the culture of New Orleans. As revealed by her research trip, it turns out it's limited to the opening sequence of Live & Let Die.
Melody confronts the conventional taboo of talking about death, luridly describing funeral practices such as sewing mouths closed in an attempt to make corpses parody the living and for death to appear less distressing. She shows us a product range of coffins rising to one at £19,000 with no value to the end-user. These shiny veneers may offer more comfort than openly discussing death when alive, but in doing so they sidestep environmental factors and we relinquish our freedom of choice. We succumb to limited and often more costly options driven by corporate agendas.
Rather than experience emotions, we choose what psychotherapist M Scott Peck describes as 'dinner party conversations', prevalent in what he describes as pseudo community: a shallow existence. Melody moves beyond her explorations of death and goes on to break a second taboo, the public airing of familial dirty laundry as she and her father explore their fractured relationship. Experts in truth and conciliation identify this willingness to talk as a precursor to forgiveness. At the end of the show, the Melodys read eulogies for one another that are raw and touching. Although this is a performative work and we have no way knowing what is real, Melody has attuned us to this dilemma earlier by describing her dim experiences at Chelsea College of Art, which include a tutor berating her for a poor understanding of Baudrillard’s Simulacra. In the end, perhaps it is only the willingness to experience emotions, to allow discomfort and speak the unspeakable that sets us free and enables us to be real.
- Lubna Gem Arielle
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Doctor Patient Relationship - Huffington Post
A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics - Daniel Levitin
Death Doulas - Huffington Post
The Different Drum - M Scott Peck
Funerals - Ethical Consumer