BY WILL KENTON
Just as 1913 now seems like a cultural tipping point (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the Park Avenue Armory Show, the completion of the Woolworth Building, and the prelude to World War I), 2013 may also be a tipping point. The reelection of Barack Obama ended the paleo-neoliberalism of the Bush years. The election of Bill DeBlasio as Mayor of New York may signal the end of a city increasingly split between the carefree few and the impoverished many. To discern a coming culture quake, one might look to independent theater, which is close to the ground and sensitive to seismic tremors. This year, I saw 45 Off-Off Broadway plays: the best of them tremble with an explosive energy that hangs in the air, the kind you catch in your peripheral vision or hear just below the threshold of recognition. The 10 plays below offer clues to shifting discourse about race, class, economics, sex, and justice, reflecting both anxiety and hope for the future.
10. The Service Road
Erin Courtney’s play dramatizes innocence and childhood as fictive idealizations, thoroughly dyed in nostalgia, presented from the point of view of an adulthood stained and torn by life. The playwright complicates the audience’s assumptions about reality, where magic is either the result of mental illness or the real magic that invests the world of childhood, when a freak summer storm hits Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Lia (Kalle Macrides), an ornithological tour guide, sees a little boy separated from his people running into the woods after the storm. She gives chase, and on her journey through the (artificial) wilderness encounters several other adults traumatized by life seeking shelter, seeking home. In the end, Lia’s journey demonstrates the resiliency of children and the necessity for some wounded people to return to childhood as a prerequisite for healing.
The Service Road also gives voice to a subdued anxiety that erupts with increasing frequency in our political and cultural discourse that the Gold Old Days are coming to and end soon. Just as Millennials fear they will be the first generation whose lives will be poorer, their social mobility more constricted, their life options more limited, The Service Road leaves the viewer with the impression that our tribulations have just begun.
The fear that self-actualization is a natural resource that has been depleted, that we’ve reached “peak hope” for the future, strikes to the heart of artists and aesthetes. In Nick Jones’s play, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the title character is a chimpanzee who thinks he’s human. Even worse, he thinks he’s an out-of-work actor, desperately trying to get his career back on the rails, who can’t seem to catch a break. Of course, it’s harder for him than other actors, but what is acting, if not method? If he can just act human, hone his craft, sharpen his skills, practice, practice, practice, he’s sure he’ll get there.
Trevor’s tragedy stems from his inability to admit he will never be a real little boy, that he lost the game before he even started to play. Based on the true life and death story of Travis, the chimp in Stamford Connecticut who, in 2009, mauled Charla Nash, Trevor puts the impossibly wide gap between those who can afford to hope and everyone else in sharp relief.
Science fiction has been the ideal forum for articulating our collective anxiety about the repercussions of rationalist hubris since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818. Our elites tells us they are smarter than circumstance, complexity, and error until something goes wrong, and then, without fail, it’s the poor and powerless who pay the bill. In Occupation, Ken Ferrigni imagines a not-too-distant future where the Chinese decide to cash in their US Treasury bonds. But the US is broke, so it offers to give our Chinese overlords creditors a lump sum payment called Florida. Now the 21st century Sino-imperium has to subjugate and civilize the dirty, addicted, and impoverished swamp dwellers in Alligator Alley. What does fear and failure look like? The detritus of moonpie wrappers and RC Cola cans, White arrogance and the rusted out hulks of muscle cars. On the upside, Chinese restaurants in Florida are now just known as “restaurants.”
7. The Last Saint on Sugar Hill
Not all the frightening changes in the world are happening to white, emo 20-somethings. In The Last Saint on Sugar Hill by Keith Josef Adkins the changes in Harlem present Napoleon, Dexter, and Z (a father and two sons) with a terrible dilemma: keep it real, or sell out the soul of Harlem by cashing out some prime real estate to a predatory developer.
Harlem has been the soul and brain of African-American culture for almost one hundred years, but the only constant is change. Will Harlem end up like the Lower East Side where synagogues have been repurposed as luxury lofts or Little Italy where the only Italians are on vacation spending Euros?
To make matters worse, Napoleon is truly a creature of the 20th century. He’s grasping, selfish, brash, and loyal to only one person – Napoleon. Z represents that part of the new generation that has had it too easy. He’s more interested in seducing a French tourist than doing something good for the community. Dexter (the last saint from the title) dropped out of college and dropped his ambitions to be a doctor to be the muscle for his father’s rackets, but to atone he runs a secret free clinic in the basement of one of his father’s derelict buildings.
The Last Saint on Sugar Hill is an entry in the record of soul-searching that has played in the black community in Harlem as long as there has been a black community in Harlem. What is success? Chasing paper is noble enough, but if you get it will you lose that thing that made you real in the first place? If your identity was forged in pain and suffering, what does it mean to leave it behind, to want to obliterate it? Will you be obliterated in the process? These are the questions the saint asks as he fights for the soul of Harlem.
6. Two Point Oh!
Elliot Leeds is on a plane to Osaka. As his body streaks through the stratosphere at nearly supersonic speed, he is rehearsing a speech via satellite video link to his wife Melanie, who is at home, her feet firmly planted on the ground, her mind on her “fertile window” which will open the day Elliot returns. Elliot is a tech billionaire. Melanie wants to start a family.
A month after Elliot and his plane are lost in the ocean on the way to Osaka — a fitting “tech FAIL” to introduce this tech fable — Melanie finds a package from a lawyer. Inside is a disk, and on the disk is a post-it note in Elliot’s handwriting. “Play me,” it says to her, and like Alice staring down the rabbit hole, she follows it to the unknown. We soon find out that Elliot had been planning the ultimate exit strategy for years. All his thoughts and feelings, all his gestures and expressions, have been saved on servers around the world, and when Melanie presses “play” their super high-tech house becomes inspired with its designer’s invisible spirit. Elliot becomes the ghost in the machine.
Philosophers since Aristotle have (unsuccessfully) tried to understand the relationship between the material world that affects us and our mental world that affects it. Two Point Oh revisits the question of artificial intelligence and what it means to be a thinking creature in a world of lifeless matter — a question that has gained new urgency in the era of Big Data.
5. The Downtown Loop
Nostalgia may be to 21st century America what fresh-faced optimism was to the 20th. Without doubt, rivers of tears, bile, and ink have been spilled on the subject of gentrification in 2013. The Downtown Loop, written by Ben Gassman, directed by Meghan Finn, with video design by Jared Mezzocchi, takes its audience on a bus tour Manhattan, where memory and loss appear around every corner.
The production team constructed the theater seats atop a eleven foot plexiglass riser to resemble the top of a double-decker bus. Before you climb a set of stairs to take your seat, you can grab a dirty-water dog from an umbrella cart vendor (which I did) and buy a beer. Once in your seat, a guide wearing a neon colored vest informs you the tour is about to begin.
The house lights go down and the walls disappear, replaced by a panoramic view of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. You can see forward to the Empire State Building. To your left is a department store (Bergdorf?) and to the right storefronts, pedestrians, cars. The projections used to create this illusion are brilliant, more realistic than a trip in Google Maps, and well timed to the narrative, which is supplied by a bearded young man in his mid to late 20s, a Queens native whose commentary on the tour is eclectic and whimsical — kind of a 21st century, hipster Holden Caulfield.
The tour guide, who has been doing this particular menial, underpaid job way too long, reveals to the audience streetscapes that no longer exist, layering on elements so present you might miss them if you blink. Where the original St. VIncent’s Hospital once stood, that neighborhood anchor on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic, contractors are planning to build outrageously expensive condos.
“What is the city but the people?” It seems as though New York’s residents, permanent, transiet, native, immigrant, rich and poor, as well as their city, have become too unbelievably rich, too unimaginatively different, too far off the script for Hipster Holden. They have erased what appeared to be their essence, but what was, in retrospect, merely the baseless fabric of this vision called The Big Apple.
The stage of Mike Bartlett’s new play Bull (subtitled “The Bullfight Play”) might mislead you into thinking you are at a boxing match rather than a bullfight. But that is just a geometric trompe l’oeil of Soutra Gilmour’s spare, industrial set design. Though the stage is square, like a boxing ring, tricked out with grey office carpet, a water cooler, and clear plastic file holders, the interaction between the players follows the tripartite form of a bullfight.
The play’s mise-en-scène — a meeting where three members of a team have to plead for their jobs in front of the Big Boss — prompts us to root for the little guy facing off against entrenched powers of privilege and class. But something funny happens on the way to Thomas’s confrontation with Goliath. Thomas loses his cool. He makes the critical, fatal mistake of invoking a higher law — justice — in a space that has been designed to embody its own justice, with its own built-in rules of engagement. In a word, he invokes his weakness as a defense.
Just before Isobel is about to deliver the donner la mort, she admits what we unconsciously know but won’t admit: “I don’t feel any [guilt] because I think I know at my heart that if it wasn’t me there would be someone else doing this to you. I think I know in the deepest bit of my heart that actually, you bring all of this on yourself.” Most of us have experienced, even if we have not heard, the maxim: “There is always one person in a group that people secretly trash. If you don’t know who that is, it’s probably you.” The festival atmosphere produced by the staging of the play amplifies the fact that we are watching a blood sport, and that we find secret satisfaction in watching a weak competitor die a deserved death. It’s not pretty, but it is beautiful.
3. Long Distance Affair
In February the Gershwin Hotel hosted a theatrical experiment. As you walk past the reception desk to the back of the building, two ushers appear through double doors and take you into a room with several laptops and headsets. You sit at one of the laptops and through the miracle of modern telecommunications are transported to three different countries to engage in three long distance affairs.
My first journey took me to Mexico City, where Laura told me I was a bastard for leaving her. She tore up my favorite pair of underwear and threatened to kill my cat. The second trip was to Brazil where Dani told me she and her husband moved to the city so she could study oncology. Though we hadn’t seen each other for many years, she said I would be happy to know she gave birth to a daughter. Finally, I was transported to a kitchen in Romania, where a man named Lucian asked me about my favorite childhood food and then made it for me.
Perhaps the mediating effect of technology produces a paradoxical illusion of intimacy that you don’t feel when a three dimensional, living human is standing in front of you; or perhaps we have become desensitized to the vastness of space and the lived difference of time since the Internet has collapsed local experience from a collective perspective dependent on the position of the sun and stars to an atomistic chaos of perpetual nows.
Technology in The Long Distance Affair is both a screen and a scaffold. Movies are projected onto screens, but the screen between two people on Skype is permeable and two-way. Verbal and visual information are transmitted back and forth, but the threat of physical intimacy is screened out.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the uncertainty produced by the technological screen between me and the actors. They clearly knew more about me than I did about them — they knew where I was and what type of person would chose to be their audience. But I felt safe exploring my inner actor, sealed off from the world and connected to a laptop, exploring the most transgressive desire of all — the desire to make an emotional connection with another human being.
2. The Fallen
The Fallen by Yasmine Beverly Rana opens in a bedroom, but the audience quickly learns this is a courtroom drama. The lights come up on Sabine and Andrej in a hotel room in Trieste. The two are glowing post-coitally and ruminating on the wonderful strangeness of their random sexual encounter. Andrej admits there is something about Sabine that compelled him to talk to her when he saw her sitting at a table in his local cafe. “I remind you of home?” she says. Yes, that’s it — home. And where is home? The former Yugoslavia.
Enter the courtroom. Sabine (her name evokes the famous rape of early Roman lore) is also from the former Yugoslavia, though it appears they were on opposite sides of the civil war. Andrej is a Serb and Sabine saw what the Serb men did in Sarajevo. He protests his innocence; she denies his protests. He asks what she really wants; she says, “an apology.”
The purpose of a trial is to find the objective truth of wrong doing behind social relationships in order to punish the guilty. But the reifying process of the trial itself, reducing people to identities worthy of punishment, perpetuates the conditions of genocide and prepares the way for the next one if (or when) the historical worm has turned.
The Fallen argues that the only possible reparations for systemic social evil cannot be found in the deadening language of laws or courts but only in poetry, a search not merely for ethnic identity but for human identity. Drama’s function as an imaginative place of closure and healing has the power to transcend the courtroom, and its power lifts this compelling and extraordinary play above other plays that try to wrestle with genocide and ethnic cleansing. When Anais, a young woman who is the product of a rape intended to break the spirit of her people, tells the audience about her quest for a love that can heal all wounds, you feel its truth because it embodies contradictions, impossibilities and, maybe, miracles.
Can any word be as offensive to white people as the “N-word” is to black people? The answer, according to Greg Kalleres’s brilliant play Honky, is “the R-word.” No one under fifty living north of Maryland wants to be called a racist. For that matter, not many folks south of the Mason-Dixon line like being called racists anymore. Just saying you’re not a racist, however, doesn’t mean you aren’t one deep inside.
Davis is a white ad exec who thinks invidious comparison – that inspires one black youth to shoot another over a popular shoe – is a wonderful marketing tool. When Wilson, a white, upper-manager at the ad company tells Davis he has been accused of racism, Davis freaks out. “You wanna talk about stereotypes?“ he asks. “We pay a premium for them. They’re called demographics.”
Dr. Driscoll has invented a pill that cures racism. The mantra around the Driscotol office is “One who thinks, is. One who does not think, is. But one who is not one, thinks he is.” Driscotol, like many legal psychotropic drugs on sale these days has side effects – though Driscotol’s are more, um, colorful. The pill makes Davis see a streetwise, jive-talking, Frederick Douglass apparition late at night, who convinces him to educate himself on the Plight of the Black Man. Emilia, a black psychotherapist, also takes the pill to see past her disdain for her white patients’ “first world problems.” A drunken, lecherous Abe Lincoln appears to her like a vision from a Dickens parody.
Like Clybourn Park, Honky relies on dramatic irony structured through the white and black characters’ parallel experiences of race to make an unconventional argument about racism in Age of Obama. In the twentieth century, racism meant a hostile or indifferent white attitude toward blacks. Whites had the luxury of being racists because they lived in a white world, but blacks as a persecuted minority had to be sensitive to the feelings and opinions of whites.
The twenty-first century, however, will see the end of a numerical white majority in the U.S. This demographic fact has made some whites (of the Rush Limbaugh variety) say out loud and in public that white men are persecuted, which inspires derisive laughter by black cultural elites (like Ta-Nehisi Coates) and furious opprobrium from liberal white cultural elites (like all my friends on Facebook). Honky goes beyond the rhetoric and posturing to demonstrate an uncomfortable reality: the politics of the American color line are far from being resolved in this dawning millennium.
Will Kenton is a writer, teacher, critic, and the editor of Cultural Capitol. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.