Arts Desk

Diary Performance Pieces of Amber Qualifies as Cruel and Unusual Punishment


"Pieces of Amber": This shit is truly fucked up. (Joseph Orzal print via "Vestibule," an event co-curated by Josef Palermo during Occupy D.C.)

Drama doesn't always make for good theater. Interpersonal conflict is at the heart of art, but drama—in the most popular and parroted sense of the word—is something else. Drama means passion and pettiness in equal parts that you don't want to hear about in equal measure. People don't want no drama, and reasonably so. At its best, art offers up the problem of other people without descending into drama—work drama or relationship drama or family drama. Pieces of Amber is not art at its best.

Actually, that's an understatement. Pieces of Amber is a small-scale disaster. One of its co-directors is now distancing herself from the production, and the performance's unhappy subject is also its unwitting playwright. Many hands helped in bringing about a production that acts as a public shaming, one fueled, seemingly, by a private vendetta. An experimental theater-ish piece that closes its run on 14th Street NW space doris-mae on Nov. 17, Pieces of Amber should serve as a reminder that hell is other people who share your group house.

Mind you, that's the message that its author, Josef Palermo, wants you to take away from the show. Palermo came to the source material for Pieces of Amber after splitting his Columbia Heights home with one Amber Walson, a 32-year-old Columbia Heights resident. After moving in with Palermo in 2010, Walson moved out after only a week. It would take a small-claims court case to determine who owes whom what, but whatever the reason, Walson moved out abruptly, and when she did, she left a notebook behind.

Today, three years later, Palermo has drawn Pieces of Amber almost whole-cloth from Walson's personal writings. Over the course of the performance, which takes place in a second-floor apartment space, two actors—newcomer Blair Boston and performance artist Jason Barnes—read excerpts from Walson's journal as they truck back and forth in the ramshackle space. Enter Walson, the show's silent and nonconsenting partner, who says that Palermo is alternately stealing her pieces for his own and shaming her for her private life.

The writings that Palermo discovered, as she told me and the Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan, are works of creative fiction that Palermo is ripping by reading verbatim. As O'Sullivan explains in his blog post about this mess, and as Palermo himself attests, he took Walson's notebook to be a diary, a work of nonfiction. Perhaps because it's more defensible (from a legal perspective) to read someone else's diary in front of an audience than to lift that person's work of fiction. (Though Walson told me in a followup email that she wasn't entirely honest while talking to reporters about her lost journals—some of the more haunting accounts are autobiographical.)

It's a catastrophe. Some might think they're both in on it. Though, through tears, Walson tells me that wasn't the case.

Pieces of Amber is set in real space, with audience and performers co-mingling in an apartment set that might have resembled the Columbia Heights home that Palermo and Walson shared for that fateful week. The production explicitly boasts that it channels the immersive experience of New York's site-specific Sleep No More, and while that’s a grossly inflated claim, the apartment backdrop is a reasonable departure from the black-box theater.

So while production designer Andrew Herndon earns a star for the lived-in feel of the set, which is strewn with empty tallboys and unread art magazines, the actors don’t do much to inhabit it in turn. Boston and Barnes cycle through the house’s rooms just enough to keep the audience shuffling; they barely interact with each other at all. It’s quite evident from her affectless recitation that Boston, who marks her performance debut with Pieces of Amber, has little acting experience. It's harder to say why the more experienced Barnes, who wears his role better than the silky robe he keeps slipping out of throughout the play, agreed to be a part of this strange and problematic work.

Virtually every line of dialogue spoken in the performance originates in the collaged spiral notebook that Walson says she wrote between the ages of 18 and 25—something she never considered to be a finished screenplay for someone else to execute. ("This was not the show I had originally envisioned," says co-director Jennifer Restak, who tells me over email that the decision to use the diaries as the "sole primary source material" was not her call.) The measured, almost sculptural quality of the notebook and its collaged pages seems to weigh against the notion that it is strictly a diary. But really, to mull any of the performance’s details as evidence is to get lost in the intractable logic of roommate drama. Fictional or not, the text is plain enough: It’s the sex-obsessed copy of a young adult woman struggling with her identity, sexuality, and confidence. And indulging in these themes, too. Just like people do in real life.

Maybe Palermo saw something of himself in Walson's writing, after he had a laugh about its more honest and explicit details. And maybe that's why he has divided her diary readings between a man and a woman. But generosity and understanding end there.

In Pieces of Amber, the sex-shaming of the text's narrator proceeds mechanically, as the actors read bare passages without ornament or interpretation. This narrator's relatable worries about being one lonely body in this meat-based world are made abnormal by Palermo’s clinical spotlight. He has built an entire production around the shock of discovering a woman writing honestly about lust, desire, and abuse—episodes she maybe did experience personally, maybe didn't—seemingly because she allegedly owes him rent money. Anyone else would've returned or discarded her diary. This smacks of revenge both petty and cruel.

Along with the sex-shaming, Pieces of Amber details a fair amount of person-shaming. One passage, in which the narrator relates a fantasy about her own (quite extravagant) funeral, is enlarged for inspection near the door along with a portion of the Wikipedia entry for "hubris." A portion of the play that takes place over a G-chat conversation is projected onto a wall; plainly readable is an email from Palermo, entreating Walson to pay up, as the landlord is calling. (This email is only dated last week, but never mind that.) A page relating the narrator's abuse of crystal meth to stay awake between classes is left out in a conspicuous place for the viewer to find. Palermo himself reads a passage in which the narrator describes being molested.

There are some positives in the show: Wax-y booklike sculptures by Bahar Jalehmahmoudi are an incongruous addition to the slovenly apartment set. And had she consented to its contribution to the play, Walson's chronicles might count as brave and bracing and honest. But Palermo's role in Pieces of Amber, if it isn't prosecutor, could only be generously described as that of a curator.

And too much drama is passed off in this town by people who adopt that self-congratulatory title—"curator," as if it provides a pass for being a bad neighbor. As if the backstage can be so easily substituted for the stage. As if curating gives someone the right.

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  • Anon

    Shame on Josef, what a talentless hack that needs to steal and publicly shame others for the sake of furthering his career. I hope that the DC arts community realizes what a parasite he is.

  • Lindsay

    I cannot imagine an "artist" ever thinking that stealing pieces from/of someone would be ok. I hope that the artistic community around him realizes him for what he is, a thief and a fraud. Thank you, Kriston Capps for helping to shed light on reality.

  • Sharon

    Josef quoted to say, “Above all else, her anonymity will always be assured since I plan to never reveal her true identity in public." However he named it after her! And made the "true" story very well known, in a small town, where he knew she still lived. Seems he could have created a fictional piece, about her and the situation. Except then he wouldn't have been able to say, "she wronged me" and "here is her personal information." The platform of him being wronged seems like the inspiration. Which shows the real intention behind his hubris.

  • Sarah G

    What a complete d*ck. Why not just sell, trash, or donate her shit, like every other scorned roommate does?

  • NoSef


  • Anon

    I know both of them and I can say that Josef greatly exaggerated the way Amber left to make the woe-is me story more believable. Also, it doesn't matter how she left.

  • Anon

    This is rich! Little Sef finally puts his ego-parade truly on view for the world to see and is revealed (reviled?) for what he honestly is - a conniving, backstabbing twit with a failed aspiration for art. I hope this misguided misery fest continues to go up in flames.

  • Anon2

    By "up in flames" do you mean, "entirely sold out"? Because it is.

  • Anon3

    @Anon2 Swerve.

  • Anon2

    I will also say this - there was no last name associated with Amber until Ms. Walson, in a moment of hubris, took it upon herself to reveal that it was her journal of "fiction." If it was called "Pieces of Amber Walson" I would call it an attempt to shame. But it had no last name until she came forward to claim it; rather than keep anonymity and plausible deniability. Frankly, even if someone knew she lived with Josef, she still had plausible deniability. Her last name was not on it; no one could prove it was hers.

  • Jim Ed

    Hmmmm. I read this and thought to myself 'man, this guy sounds like a complete dick'. Then I clicked the link to his comically self-involved website, and thought 'man, this guy looks like a complete dick'.

    So I'm going to go out on a limb and say Josef is a complete dick.

  • John

    Entirely sold out! lol the ego fest continues... there are only 15 spots. Not hard to sell that out. Making a big deal about selling that out only affirms his silly hubris. Also his website. Why must he state living a life "without malice" -- anyone without malice wouldn't need to state that in their tagline.

  • Anon4

    @Anon2: she had to come forward to charge plagiarism. are you saying she should have kept herself anonymous and then allowed her works to be used without her permission? it's not about "plausible deniability," it's about ownership of the work. your comments seem to imply she should feel ashamed of herself, like "no one could prove it was hers" so she was protected from being identified and any attendant criticism. maybe she's not afraid of criticism. maybe she just wants to claim ownership over what she feels is hers. i wouldn't call that "hubris." i would say your comment betrays a bit of "hubris."

  • Anon

    @anon2: you must be new here, DC is a small town town where everyone knows everyone and it doesn't take a genius to realize which Amber he's talking about. I think it's despicable that he sat around tittering about this woman's private writings "over a glass of wine" with his poseur friends.

    Not only that but then he reads her cathartic writing about her getting raped pn stage and labels it art. That's despicable.

  • Anon

    Rape is never ok. Capitalizing on someone's private writings where they are trying to make sense of such a horrible experience is shameful. There's a special level in hell reserved for him.

  • Ally Schweitzer

    @John and @Sharon,
    Pick a username and stick with it, please; no pretending to be multiple people.

  • digimon

    We cannot afford to tolerate Bad Art-Collingwood

  • Ron The Don

    My dad once said "You don't judge people by their words. You judge them by their actions." This so called playwright has no business using the phrase "living life without malice," since his actions contradict his comments. I'll bet a thousand bucks that if someone did the same thing to him as he did with Amber, he would be mad as hell and pop the writer in the month. Unfortunately, he thought that when choose to create this play.

  • Moo

    What I don't get is how this many people were involved in the production and none of them seemed to think this was a problem.

  • anon 5

    Seems like an odd piece, motivated by what I'm not sure. Perhaps it's the same stuff decried about in the article itself.

  • j.Cock

    This theatre should be destroyed. I've already heard that people are organizing to eviscerate their funding. Fauxhemian piece of excrement.

  • moreanon

    This piece is well written and covers all of the bases that somehow were overlooked by those who put this horrible show together. Omission of a last name doesn't make this anonymous. Calling it "art" doesn't make it less vicious. My heart goes out to Amber, who has been re-victimized by this disaster.

  • Chris

    This is all a joke, with everyone in cahoots, right?

  • Kevin

    So let's see, Amber wanted to remain anonymous so badly she talked to both the Washington Post and the City Paper?


  • anon

    @kev They contacted her actually. and who would remain anonymous when someone did (is continuing to do. the show has not been cancelled to my knowledge) this to them? Incredible that she didn't let them further victimize her and outed herself in order for the truth to be known and to stand up for herself...even though it must have been even harder on her!

  • Moo

    I'm rather shocked that no one has raised this point yet: Having a queer black man play the role
    of a woman of color is pretty fucked up. Like women of color aren't reduced to racial stereotypes about being too masculine already. Kinda racist.

  • Rajshim

    I better not ever find this guy.

  • anon

    @Rajshim Lets just remember, people make mistakes. even huge ones like this (but others didn't tell or stop him lets remember but people do get busy assume its ok or don't think everything through....) fighting in whatever form will not help him or Amber.

  • El Metro


  • Triple A

    This is the best publicity this gallery has gotten. It's brilliant because they will come out unscathed. Who's heard of Doris Mae Gallery? They're getting the publicity that they deserved, and see that they are a gallery willing to take chances... whether you like it or not!

  • anon

    @triple "they are a gallery willing to take chances" yes.... that's what we are all thinking. ha. how transparent. publicity yes but this is the one time bad publicity is actually bad publicity

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