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A Reflection on “Small Boobs” by Nora Sharp

Updated: Jan 27, 2020

Nora Sharp. Photo by Naomi Ishisaka, courtesy of On the Boards.

It’s dark in the theater. The image of a warmly lit donut shop swims through my mind. The glow, the smell, the sweet, yeasty air as I step inside from the cold alley. I have never been to this donut shop. This donut shop may not even exist. But in the past five minutes, Nora Sharp made me not only believe that this surreal oasis exists within a world of sharp edges, but that I have been there. I am sitting in a fold-out chair in the Shawl-Anderson studio theater, and my mouth is watering.

Last Friday night, I saw “Small Boobs,” the breakout solo show by Chicago-based artist Nora Sharp. I had been looking forward to this night ever since I sat down with Sharp (who uses “dealer’s choice” pronouns) a few weeks ago to write a preview for her show. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but kept returning to meditations on selfhood, queerness, and the roles our identities play within our artistic practices. Walking into the theater on Friday night, I expected to see a show on bodies, sex, and selfhood, composed with the humor, honesty, and insight anyone who has met Sharp is quick to appreciate. I did not expect that over the next hour, I would witness a process of rebirth and be offered to join in.

I swallow. The lights are very low. Sharp, lit with a fading ethereal glow, paints a mirage with her words - “I’m in the donut shop and I’ve eaten so many donuts. There’s a person next to me, their head lolls on my shoulder, sleeping, and suddenly they wake up and throw up all over my lap, but I say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and start gathering all the empty donut boxes and cans of beer and go outside to the alley to throw them away and it’s morning and I wonder where all the time went and…” It’s now completely dark. Sharp is no longer talking. I’m not sure where she’s gone.

What is required for rebirth? The show began with a playful, understated choreographed number to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls. Sharp’s direct, but receptive, gaze and acute presence wrote her dancing like an announcement of self: “Here I am.” Her own arrival complete, she facilitated ours. She transitioned to the role of host, picking up a mic and weaving an invitation to collective presence with dry, gentle banter. Attentive, silly, and spacious, her invitation was incredibly easy to accept.

She launched into a series of confessions. The stories were sourced mostly from her childhood, and spoke to themes of bodies, gender, sexuality, and identity. They read to me less as attempt to shed the burdens of her past through atonement than as an homage to the things that so deeply make us who we are that to shed them would be impossible. I don’t remember how the confessions turned into the donut shop story. All I remember is the realization at some point that the lights were going down.

I’m not sure where I am. A moment ago I was drifting from the donut shop to the alley outside, but the longer I sit in the pitch black theater, the more I feel as if I’ve entered a very quiet cave. I hear the person next to me breathing quietly, and I’m struck by the intimacy of sharing such dark silence with a room full of people. I hear a door open stage right. I assume it is Sharp. I am struck by how content I feel to be here.

After letting us marinate in the lingering impression of the donut shop for a good minute, Sharp flicked on a lamp upstage right. In the golden radius, she turned on a vibrator and held it to a microphone. She looped the sound and began a dance of accumulation, gathering clothes into a line on the stage and moving back and forth along the line. Her movement accelerated until she was sprinting, then she broke into a series of front-to-back passes that read like a bibliography of her body history - a cartwheel, a modern-dance pony step, a hip-swinging swagger. Primed as I was to read her movements as an expression of the stories that made her, each pass felt evocative of a lifetime of experience. Set along the line of clothes, I saw her traversing aspects of her identity, excavating parts of herself.

She continued to traverse the space, back to the lamplit corner where she briefly set a loop with a keyboard, and then into the space again for an eloquent dance composed of repeated gestures that seemed to melt between connotations with every slight physical variation and morph in facial expression. Of every moment in the piece, this brief dance spoke most powerfully to me of the agonizing and liberating space of ambiguity many queer-identifying folks occupy when it comes to defining themselves. Back to the blue lamp to sing over the synth loop, and by now, I felt fully immersed in the dark closet of her brain. We had entered the womb.

She rearranges the clothes into a diagonal center stage, and I find myself wishing she would talk again. Though her movement is absolutely genuine and quite evocative in its simplicity, I realize that in comparison to the directness of her verbal presence, her dancing feels like a private language. She invites us to witness her movement, but I do not feel invited into her home, as I do with her stories. I do not begrudge her this, but I do notice that this is how I feel.

The lights have started to fade once more, melting softly from a purple glow to a dusky violet. Hands in her pockets, she begins a mournful song, “If we collapse… If we collapse… If we collapse into ourselves…” As the words accumulate, the lights dim until we are once more sitting in the dark. The last image I have before the stage goes completely black is the diagonal line of neatly-folded clothes bisecting the space. Can we ever hope to unite the reified parts of our multifaceted selves?

In the dark, Nora is talking now about healing, sloughing off the things we don’t need. The darkness is a safety she returns to as a storytelling device - a time when anything is possible. It both brings us into uncommon intimacy of visionless sensation, and allows us to dive deeper into the solitude of personal experience. Right now, to me, the darkness feels like an offer for the potential to be reborn. Silence. A long pause. Applause.

Of the many things I will remember from “Small Boobs," one will be the belief I had leaving the theater that we each contain infinite potential to continue becoming ourselves. Every moment offers the opportunity to both honor the stories that compose us, and find new agency over who we choose to become. One line that struck me from my preview interview with Nora was when she shared the underlying intention for all her work: “I hope that by showing pieces of myself, I offer moments of resonance and the opportunity for others to do the same.” I applaud Nora Sharp not only for an excellent show, but for the incredible artistic accomplishment of achieving what she set out to do.


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