At 68, legendary New York entertainer and cultural critic Penny Arcade stands as the representation of a bygone time. She was shaped by the counterculture rock-and-roll circle that produced the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” A runaway at 13, she spent two years in a home for wayward girls. At 17, she escaped her family and fell into New York’s East Village scene. At 19 she was an Andy Warhol superstar and went on to become the outspoken personality who’s still kicking hard.
She has been crowned “the Queen of the Underground.” And now she’s producing work that arguably cuts as deep as any made by younger generations. “There is no 25-year-old who can out-rock me,” she says.
Her latest show, “Longing Lasts Longer” runs at MDC Live Arts this weekend, from Thursdaythrough Saturday.
During a phone interview last week, she was unexpectedly in the emergency room at Beth Israel in New York, acting as a healthcare proxy for someone from her community.
“I’m in here bringing somebody into the hospital, just grabbing them 10 minutes before adult protective services would grab them and they would lose their autonomy and their independence forever. And I’m doing that while I’m being interviewed by you, while I’m in a residency doing pre-production for a film that’s being shot in two days, that I’m directing. And then I’m performing tonight at 6 pm. I haven’t gotten my hair done yet.”
She did manage to talk in depth about her show that’s about to play in Miami. “Longing Lasts Longer” was created and produced with behind-the-scenes collaborator Steve Zehentner, premiering in 2016 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Now, it’s coming up on 400 shows in 40 cities around the world.
She says it looks like standup comedy with music behind it. “Our other shows have a lot of multimedia,” she says. “This show is just me, and believe me, I am my own media.”
The show, on the surface, is about gentrification in New York. But actually, it’s not just about New York. She notes that gentrification is a plague affecting cities all over the world, which is why “Longing Lasts Longer” has resonated with audiences wherever it has been performed.
The show is not simply about gentrification, either. Penny Arcade says it’s about the difference between nostalgia and longing, and the massive cultural loss we are currently experiencing, just for starters, here in the U.S.
She describes the gentrification of ideas, a core theme in “Longing Lasts Longer.”
“It has to do with the commodification of rebellion,” she says, “where rebellion has been usurped, it’s been hijacked.” She sees authenticity as a concept that is now being sold as a product, and activism as an identity that people purchase, wear, and click on.
“I’ll give you an example. Gentrification of tattoos. The people who used to get tattoos were strippers, bikers, jailbirds, and a tattoo was a signifier of a passage, of a rite of something someone has lived through. … Now, everybody has the same tattoo so they can be different like everybody else.”
She makes a distinction between nostalgia and longing because she has been accused of being wistful for the old days. But, she says, longing comes from an awareness that culturally and politically we are in difficult, frightening times, which few people at this point could deny. We are experiencing what she calls “cultural amnesia.”
“Gentrification of ideas is a very important thing,” she says, “because people have always looked at ideas for a way to evolve, a way for all of us to find our development and our evolution, and now it’s harder and harder.”
She mentions a young woman in Manchester, England, whose artistic production involves lip-syncing to Penny Arcade monologues. And the real Ms. Arcade describes how the young students she lectures to in universities have told her they are learning that there is no more originality. “And I say to that,” she says, “there is originality because what’s original is your response to something.”
Why do young people still largely play music that was made in the last century? Why are entertainment producers remaking films that were generation-defining 30 or 40 years ago? What is the social ill, and can we possibly escape it? Ask Dr. Arcade.
“Longing Lasts Longer” bites hard, but she says “it’s cultural criticism you can dance to” and her humor is devastating and smart. Lou Reed, former singer of Velvet Underground, makes an appearance in the soundtrack, along with Prince, Jefferson Airplane and many others. “The show has a hundred sound loops of the best music of the past 50 years,” she says.
The show carries the wisdom of her 68 years and promises not to leave us bereft of hope. “Longing Lasts Longer” is sharp wit, diagnosing zombie tourists and cotton candy mojitos, but she says, “you’ll walk out the door really being inspired into your own life, not into my life but supported in your authenticity. That’s what we do.”
If you go
- What: MDC Live Arts presents Penny Arcade in “Longing Lasts Longer”
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
- Where: MDC Live Arts Lab, 300 NE Second Ave., MDC Wolfson Campus Building 1
- Tickets: $30 at brownpapertickets.com/event/3589905