On the Sense of Queer Loneliness: Sacha Yanow’s “Uncle!” at The Kitchen

Sacha Yanow in "Sacha Yanow, Uncle!," 2024. The Kitchen at Westbeth, New York, February 29, 2024. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A lone wolf stalks the edges of Sacha Yanow’s one-person performance Uncle! that premiered at The Kitchen in New York in February. In nature, these solitary predators can be dangerous because they threaten the social structure of the pack, as they exist outside of a nuclear family built around a mated pair. However hungry with rapacious desire (for wolves’ dispersal from the pack is often triggered by the onset of sexual maturation), their solitary existence also makes them the most in need of care. In Yanow’s deft hands, this cliché for a social outsider becomes something far more engaging; it is the organizing principle of a nuanced and prismatic exploration of a specifically queer loneliness, history, and opportunity for connection.

Sacha Yanow in Sacha Yanow, Uncle!, 2024. Performance view, The Kitchen at Westbeth, New York, February 29, 2024. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

This particular sense of queer loneliness—grounded in the realities of abandonment, grievous loss, and misunderstanding, as well as constant feelings of being othered, rendered invisible, or threatened with annihilation—often requires an isolating hypervigilance and suspicion. In Uncle!, Yanow is the lone wolf who recognizes the hold this feeling may possess while simultaneously professing against an overdetermination of queer lives. Instead, they look for nurturing bonds in an expanded field of relations, forgetting the “Name of the Father,” as Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick implored in her 1990 essay “Tales of the Avunculate,” and thinking, more prominently, about their uncle.

The performance begins in a deconstructed theater in the round decorated with string lights, asymmetric bunting, limp fringe, and a small disco ball, evoking an empty rec room ready for an ad hoc celebration. While it could have been a b’nai mitzvah, Yanow says at the start that it’s not; in fact, this performance is a wolf hunt. However, this is no quest for a trophy kill. In teasing out the wolf, Yanow’s intention is to offer it succor and solace, assuaging its loneliness through a radical empathy that transcends the self and the other. The lone wolf (as played by Yanow) here embodies grief, queer joy, and sexual delight as it evolves during the performance, at times voguing in leatherman’s clothing, becoming Yanow’s own uncle, or, in its final efflorescence, turning into a wounded beast asking to be fed honey to sate its burning hunger. Yanow asks the audience to cry “Uncle!,” clap, or make a gesture whenever the word is uttered during the performance. This call-and-response occurs in moments when grief and sadness tempt Yanow, or these different personas, to give up in the face of overwhelming anguish.

Sacha Yanow in Sacha Yanow, Uncle!, 2024. Performance view, The Kitchen at Westbeth, New York, February 29, 2024. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

In Melanie Klein’s essay “On the Sense of Loneliness” (1963), she posits that the eponymous feeling stems from “an unsatisfied longing for perfect communication without words,” which she locates in the mythically lapsed connection between the preverbal infant and their mother. The bearing of Klein’s words on the discussion of Uncle! is twofold: it speaks directly to one of the performance’s primary themes and its formal structure. For Yanow, the monologue becomes the stand-in for this desired lost dialogue, becoming the foundation to a polyvocal cabaret of heartbreakingly human divided selves: lone wolves (both figurative and literal) who are also survivors, gender outliers, unrequited lovers, relatives, mentors, and archivists against invisibility. This includes Pepi Litman, an early twentieth-century cross-dressing female Yiddish singer known for her satirical riffs on the Purimspiel, a traditional amateur performance of the story of Esther during the Jewish holiday of Purim, through whom Yanow articulates their anti-Zionist position. But it is the figure of Yanow’s own Uncle Mordechai, a gay pulmonologist in New York during the height of the AIDS crisis, who is key in initiating them into the shared histories and connections of queer life that so often go unseen. These different figures—Jewish and queer, both historically or personally significant—span centuries, forming a chorus of individuals who are crucial constituents of Yanow themself.

The richness of Uncle! exists in how Yanow shares with the audience the insightful experience of self-exploration through these sightlines: the questions posed concerning identity and attachment, the intricate nestling of metaphor within metaphor that takes the audience from Purimspiel to wolf hunt, and the affective registers of shame, fear, and joy illuminated. Sedgwick noted the power of the avuncular in her essay, writing that within queer culture, “‘Uncle’ has been common, as well, in gradation from the literal, as a metonym for the whole range of older men who might form a relation to a younger man (as patron, friend, literal uncle, godfather, adoptive father, sugar daddy) offering a degree of initiation into gay cultures and identities.” Embodying this energy for Yanow, Uncle Mordechai travels like a nomad across time and space. Appearing at one point as the figure of the same name who, in Esther’s story, encourages the Jewish queen of ancient Persia to publicly embrace her identity despite its maligned characterization, he is then transposed to 1980s New York as Yanow’s own uncle who is caring for and loving other men as they are ravaged by AIDS. Morty’s appearance—fur-clad as he narrates his poignant tale of love and loss—is a constant reminder that so many others still view queer people as threatening lone wolves. Yet, his life included family, loves, and community; a chosen queer pack that only went unrecognized because a homophobic culture demanded its invisibility. His full arc is not revealed until Yanow deftly and compassionately withdraws themself from the performance to allow the actual man to be present via a tape-recorded conversation. In it, Yanow is heard asking “Do you believe in God?” to which Uncle Morty replies in the affirmative, saying God is in the miracle of a “group effect”—the act of communal love and care in which queer people step up for each other as those for whom we have always been waiting.

Sacha Yanow in Sacha Yanow, Uncle!, 2024. Performance view, The Kitchen at Westbeth, New York, February 29, 2024. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

Sacha Yanow and Lu Coy in Sacha Yanow, Uncle!, 2024. Performance view, The Kitchen at Westbeth, New York, February 29, 2024. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk.

Yanow’s skill rests in a capacious understanding and sensitive charm that allow for a moving balance of humor and gravitas. Their playful, and at times, wrenching invitation to the audience to call “Uncle!” throughout the show initiates the audience into the pack as fellow members of the chorus of figures who compose the faceted performance. Their response becomes, as Sedgwick articulates, a reparative impulse, one of love, that has the power “to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self.” This is the spirit of Uncle! that soars in the exploration of and, by consequence, mitigation of (if only in a glistening hour) loneliness by charting “shared histories, emergent communities, and the weaving of intertextual discourse” across Jewish and queer identities. Each figure is in search of some dialogic means to stave off loneliness, placing Yanow in longed-for conversation with these solitary figures. These various monologues shed light on how internalized loss not only inflicts damage but simultaneously kindles the creation of art, activism, and connection.

One typically cries “Uncle!” when they have reached their limit, as a cry of surrender often deployed in childish roughhousing. In changing the original intent of this speech act, Yanow creates a chorus of empathic urgency that buoys them to continue. Lycanthropy becomes another symbol of not fitting in, as well as for disease and monstrosity, such as when Yanow portrays a young actor auditioning for the role of a nervous patient who is growing increasingly scared of their changing body. The layers of performance compressed into this brief scene powerfully recall both the fear of infection that was so intrinsic to gay life and the death narratives that came to be the sole representations of queerness for so long. Yanow calls on the avuncular in order not to give up but to keep going despite the violence—psychic, social, and geopolitical—we are continually forced to bear. Grappling with this brutality is isolating, and it would be easy to hibernate in denial; however, this is a sense of loneliness that is not predetermined by mythic loss and can be dispelled in recuperation of a multivalent testimony like the one that Yanow vibrantly offers to us all.

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