“Tonight’s poems are dedicated to all the sad people in the room. Sad people are sexy,” said Alok Vaid-Menon in a rare moment of impromptu stage banter on Saturday night during Asymptote, a shot in the arm of poetry and pathos with Janani Balasubramanian at Abrons Arts Center.
Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian met as undergraduates at Stanford University and shortly thereafter, according to their website, realized they had much in common as “two brown sad queers trying to make sense of ourselves in both queer communities and South Asian communities that erased our identities.” They began performing on the college slam poetry circuit, and in 2012, the trans duo made their first appearances together under the name DarkMatter. They have since integrated The Public Theater’s Devised Theater Initiative and they performed in the Incoming! series of the Under the Radar festival in 2015.
Asymptote, a mathematical term describing a line that continuously approaches a curve without reaching it, is an apt title for the pair’s performance, which frequently expresses a sort of longing—for understanding, for justice, for a less violent and oppressive world — without much talk of its fulfillment.
The atmosphere in the theater was, as a result, often somber. Unlike the raucous poetry slam audiences the two 20-somethings address, the crowd Saturday night was mostly quiet and attentive. There were few moments of levity; a notable exception was a brief poem in which the pair began flatly reciting nursery rhymes, only to disrupt them with hilariously dark and perfectly out of place one-liners that could have been overheard in a graduate school seminar.
Not that many in attendance would, or should, mind the solemnity. As Vaid-Menon noted in a blog post last year, in a time of increasing visibility for trans people, stories of trans suffering without a fairy tale ending are, unfortunately, less than eagerly received.
“I think we’re in this really terrible moment right now where the alleged ‘trans tipping point’ only allows us to share our narratives of triumph, of victory, of strength, of resilience as if we are supposed to endure all of the hardship we go through and emerge with a smile on our face. Never forget: the only space that trans femmes have in our culture is to entertain the very people who will turn away the minute we step off their stage,” Vaid-Menon wrote.
For most of the evening, Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian performed separately. Vaid-Menon’s contributions frequently involved singing, and the impressive navigation of a loop pedal. One memorable poem, a rumination on pain, centered on their experience getting massages from a white woman. Another segment featured a slideshow of photos of Vaid-Menon in public—typically dressed in dresses, skirts, and platform boots—while they recounted incidents of street harassment and, ultimately, reflected on their fraught relationship with images.
“The only place I’m allowed to exist is a photograph,” Vaid-Menon said, at one point during the piece.
While some of Vaid-Menon’s presentations didn’t stray too far from what you might expect to find at a poetry slam, Balasubramanian’s tended to resemble something closer to nerdy, poetic Ted Talks, in which explanations of scientific concepts often gave way to moments of profundity. One such segment, accompanied by a slideshow, started with an explanation of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. Another touched on Jae Rhim Lee and Mike Ma’s Infinity Burial Suit, or “Mushroom Death Suit.”
Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon are both highly effective performers in their own right, but watching them together is a pleasure too rarely experienced in this show. Newcomers to DarkMatter’s art and activism undoubtedly got a solid introduction in Asymptote, but they’d be missing out if they didn’t seek another opportunity to see the duo in their fully collaborative splendor.