Young Jean Lee – “The Shipment” (2009)

In The Shipment, writer and director Young Jean Lee brilliantly addresses the issues of gender and race in today’s American society. It feels like a plea not to forget the past, which shows us that the United States were founded and evolved into what they are today by relying extensively on the institution of slavery of black people. Although their persecution started to fade once the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted, black people or mulatto people still face racial discrimination in our society, usually in the form of derogatory stereotypes. This issue, alongside gender stereotyping and prejudice are what constitutes Lee’s motivation in conceiving The Shipment. Structured in three major episodes or acts, unrelated to each other – reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s perspective on theater – the play focuses on deconstructing current stereotypes that are attached to people with black racial ancestry or women by vividly depicting them. The goal is that the audience experiences a shock of recognition, and subsequently understands that by engaging in those practices, they ultimately restrict their own social interaction. This aim is seemingly Aristotelian, however there is no catharsis. The Shipment feels more like a modern eclectic theater piece, which has probably been inspired by many of the theatrical theories we have discussed during this past semester.

The first episode of the play is opened by a dance piece, which is highly paradoxical. On a prop-less dark stage, a black actor starts dancing on the rhythms of an alternative rock band. The typical white music is intertwined with what Adrian Piper calls funk moves – typical black dance moves – and as such, the spectator is left confused with what is going to follow. The first dancer is joined by a second one, and together they engage in what seems to be a black social dance, if we were to use Thomas DeFrantz’s terminology. They perform for the entertainment of a primarily white audience, but through their movements they subversively express issues that are representative for the black community only. Similarly, when Douglas starts his stand-up comedy act, on the remnants of a hip-hop song used as a transition, he admits that he has been accused by his black friends of portraying stereotypes on stage for the entertainment of white people. But that is exactly what he wants to attract the audience’s attention to. He defends his position by saying that he is not looking for grand gestures of apology from white people for the centuries of abuse and discrimination, but rather that he is more interested in an acknowledgement that there is racism. Douglas equally mocks his black peers, as well as the whites; just there, one can find the essence of Lee’s piece – a sharing of the blame for this apparently unending cycle of discrimination. His language itself is stereotypical, and it often includes words that one may find offensive, such as: “motherfucker”, “bitch”, “cracker”, “nigger”, “shit” and so on.

The second episode deals with the story of Omar, a young man, who is used by Lee in order to portray almost all of the leftover stereotypes that society constructed around the figure of the black (wo)man. He wants to become a rapper, while his mother urges him to go to school in order to be a doctor someday. In the end, Omar’s mom concedes by stating the clichéd truth that we have all heard: “I’m proud of you for following your dreams.” The young man then undergoes the process of becoming an adult under the influence of his entourage, which is not necessarily good. He is presented with different ‘thug’ lifestyles usually associated with the black community: stealing, drug dealing, life in the street. Omar falls prey to the illusion of dealing drugs, because he thinks that it will be a straight path towards his career as a rapper, once he can earn enough money. However, he gets caught in the crossfire between his supplier – Desmond –  and a new comer on the market – Mama – which lands him in prison. Omar realizes the consequences of his actions – “You’re the evil one and I’m the good one. But now I’m evil too. High five!” – yet chooses not to take any kind of action. In prison, he is faced with Paul the Extreme, the typical intimidating inmate, to whom Omar instantly attaches the stereotype of homosexuality.  However, Paul turns out to be completely different than that, and they end up discussing the futility of the religion of the whites, by arguing how its system of politics is flawed because it allows one person to be in charge. Omar then meets Sashay, the gay hair stylist for his music video, who wants to convert him to homosexuality. At the same time, he is confronted with the offer of a woman who advertises her physical qualities (“big boobs”, “big booty”), and stays true to her materialistic nature. Omar has become a drug addict, as revealed by his mimicking of shooting drugs up his vein. At the end of the episode, he visits Desmond’s grave and decries his life: he is famous, but not happy; he has no friends; he lives just for sex and drugs. The closing of this second part takes the form of a song, which still resonates in my head: “Anyone can equally, easily, fuck you over.” And isn’t that the perfect summary for what happens to Omar?

The last episode takes the form of a dinner party, in which certain types of people gather together to celebrate the birthday of Thomas. Each one of them is the embodiment of a stereotype: the hypersensitive and paranoid Omar, the monosyllabic-answer-giver Desmond, the romantic Michael, and the reassuring Thomasina. They stumble awkwardly through the dinner, get excited about playing a game called ‘Library’, and become upset at Thomas’ attempt of a prank, Because they are all rather tipsy, they end up spilling up all of the secrets that they knew, which leads to Thomas’ breakdown, and the destabilization of all of their friendships. What complicates everything however is the ending, with Omar responding to their game of ‘Library': “I am really uncomfortable. I don’t think we would be doing this if we had a black person in the room.” That ending took me by surprise because I was looking at black actors trying to embody stereotypes of how white people use gestures and movement, but it hadn’t yet registered for me that their characters were white. Again, this decision to work with both black and white body and language stereotypes speaks to me about a leveling of the blame for what caused the fracture between those two races.

In the end, I cannot but think about the night of the Creative Time Summit, when someone stated that black people have been responsible for starting the conversation every single time, and therefore issues about race should be discussed by white and white only. And I already replied to that that it is almost like arguing that you can have feminism without women. As if in reply to the Creative Time Summit’s predicament, The Shipment takes all of those questions, prejudices, biases on race or gender and places them center stage. It is then the responsibility of the audience to acknowledge the problems and attempt to find solutions for them. Because it is a theater piece, the advantage is conferred by the freedom of artistic expression, which prevents real consequences from affecting the actors who were involved in this beautiful and comprehensive and controversial moment of theater. It functions much like Dan Safer’s playground philosophy, in this context meaning that the actors are let to explore how the performativity of these serious issues – presented as a comedy – can work on their gendered and sexed bodies. And then, once performed, the idea is that the audience will be moved into an act of critical thought, which might help bind the community closer together through the realization that both gender and race are social constructs. It is literally us imposing constraints on ourselves, constraints that detract from community building and sharing of experiences. Therefore, the solution is simple: we should find the change in ourselves, and only then will we be able to pride ourselves in actually contributing to the bettering of the world.

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Judith Butler – “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”/ Joan Riviere – “Womanliness as Masquerade” (1929)/ Caryl Churchill – “Cloud Nine”

When one thinks of feminism, it is inevitable that Simone de Beauvoir’s famous claim that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman” will come to mind. Using this as a starting point, and then adding to it the expanse of phenomenology, Judith Butler dissects the notion of gender into its components, and aims at analyzing them, from their origin and throughout their development, in order to prove that gender is in fact socially constructed. Butler clearly separates gender and sex, and explains how they have come to be perceived as inseparable through habits in the society. The perfect example is that of a Doctor, an authority figure, who pronounces the gender of a new-born baby for the first time by inadvertently associating it with the baby’s genitalia. This simple act shows us how the world organizes us, to such an extent that we become objects in the enactment of politics on a larger scale. We are organized into categories, and we ourselves organize in categories, because that is our way of making sense of the world. From that moment of societal constraint onwards, we assume the gender provided to us and we become complicit in this cycle by starting to perform it. As Butler puts is, gender is more or less a consolidation of a number of socially constituted acts on a sexed body through repetition. The materiality of the body is used to show its performativity, or its ability to transform the acts that get soldered to the body, and subsequently become the norm. The most obvious effect of gendering is, as stated by Butler in her essay, the lack of anything natural, the lack of an intrinsic self. We are all a part of it, and what that shows us is that we don’t operate from free will (or a “locus of agency”), but rather that we all acquiesce our impotence in the face of society from fear of becoming a taboo. But what happens when one does break the rules? In theory, we have Michel Foucault’s homosexual, who works against the politics of the state. He is unable to reproduce and therefore poses a direct threat to society itself, which tries to contain or eradicate his existence. Butler proposes another example: that of a transvestite. Everything appears to be fine until the same person happens to be sitting in the seat next to yours on the bus one day. Even worse if there are children around. The transvestite is a taboo; someone who has broken the norm and has to suffer the consequences in the form of rejection.

That seems to be the case with Narcissister, an artist from New York, who is unafraid to toy with issues of gender in her work in quite a controversial manner – through pornography – and thus, comes across as an enemy towards the gender binary ideology of the state. Through her work, Narcissister, a professional dancer and a person of color, brings to the surface questions regarding sexuality and race, and proposes the idea that women should be empowered in order to succeed independently. They don’t need men as a requirement for checking off items on their to-do lists. And what better way to show that than through performance? In Every Woman, she basically takes an activity dedicated to the male gaze – striptease –  and performs it in reverse. In doing so, she reaffirms her agency in deciding what she wants or doesn’t want to do, as well as her independence. Narcissister starts the performance almost naked, with a mask resembling Barbie on her face, and proceeds to dress herself using extremely feminine gestures. What is probably most shocking is not the show itself, but rather her decision to pull her clothes from her vagina and butthole, as well as her accessories from an oversized Afro wig. Similarly, in Workout and Man-Woman, brings out the difference between the two genders by performing stereotypes about them. She introduces eroticized elements into her performances, much so than before, including phallic devices and pornographic magazines. As a result, the audience is left questioning what gender means to them and what sexual identity they belong to. Moreover, because she is a person of color, and that she always wears a mask suggestive of a Barbie doll – the white ideal – she complicates her claim even further through a fetishization of race. What it all boils down to, in the end, is the fact that femininity, masculinity and race are all masquerades, if we were to use Joan Riviere’s terminology. As a feminist – her name is a portmanteau of narcissistic and sister (60s – “Sisters can do it for themselves.”) – Narcissister is effectively reinforcing one crucial point in everything that she does: as a woman, she is still able to self-love and self-gratify, without the need for a man.

And that brings the discussion to Caryl Churchill and her equally controversial play – Cloud Nine. Set in an overseas British colony during the Victorian Ages in the first act, and then in 1979 London in the second act, the play reads as a farce about the politics of sex and as a window into how colonialism imposes itself on intimate personal relationships. What struck me when I first started reading it was the cross-gender and cross-race casting, employed not only as a means of facilitating the comic, but also as a way of showing how our society is based on stereotypes, in order to try to correct that limited perspective. Churchill casts a man as Betty – wife to Clive, the head of the family and part of the British armed forces – as a man to show her desire to become empowered as a woman and stand up for herself. In a similar way, Joshua although black is played by a white actor, because in his soul he wanted to be white, he wanted to be as close to the colonizer as possible. The same applies to Edward, Betty and Clive’s son, who is played by a woman to signify his lack of manliness, which his father is desperately trying to correct. On top of all these issues, there is the discussion about sexuality and sexual identity that pervades the entire play. Harry, Edward’s uncle, sleeps with Joshua; Edward sleeps with Harry and so on and so forth; while Betty is dealing with deviant tendencies, which are channeled towards Ellen, the governess to Edward. By the time one reaches the end of the play, s/he is constantly rethinking social norms with regards to gender, race and sexuality.

In conclusion, I am left but to wonder to what extent is society involved in our existence? How much is the effect of our will and how much is an effect from a chain of situations completely out of our control and actually engineered through politics? We ourselves are a construct of the society, just as gender is. We fight constraints as best we can, but sometimes we succumb to them and become complicit in perpetuating the cycle of dependence to politics as a template to survival. Yet how can we change it after so many years? Maybe the answer is in deconstructing taboos: Foucault’s homosexual, the transvestite, the homosocial, Narcissister. In doing so, we understand the power of performing bodies, and consequently we are not afraid to change. Change towards a better world.

Citation:

Butler, Judith.“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Eds. Carole R. McAnn and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: London: Routledge, 2003. 415-426. Print.

Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis (IJPA), vol. 10 (1929).

Churchill, Caryl.   Cloud Nine.  New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. Print.

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Thornton Wilder – “Our Town”/ The Wooster Group – “Routes 1 & 9″ (1982)

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“Our Town” – Thornton Wilder, The Broadway Production

“The play is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life” (171). This is how Thornton Wilder himself describes Our Town. Published in 1938 for the first time, and comprised of three acts, titled suggestively – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Dying – his play deals with life post-Industrial Revolution and pre-WWI in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Following closely the lives of two families – the Gibbs and the Webbs – Wilder accomplishes the strenuous task of depicting the small things that we often overlook in our daily routines. The spotlight is placed on George Gibbs and Emily Webb as they fall in love, get married, have a son, and are then separated by death. In order to encapsulate such a long period of time, the playwright effectively compresses time by presenting only one day in each act, a day that stands out from the rest, and yet is representative for a larger period of time, as well as skipping over the events of twelve years and briefly touching upon the changes that took place. Although its specificity marks it as purely American, the message that the play sends is relevant to anyone who wants to hear it, and thus it can be argued that in fact it is an universal portrayal of the human condition.

The structure of the play is rather unconventional, in the fact that it uses many metatheatrical elements that otherwise would have remained conceited. For example, the Stage Manager becomes a vital figure in the universe of the play, surpassing the limitations of his position, and becoming an active participant in the way in which the plot is carried out, much like a director. He acts both as a guide for the audience, contextualizing the various happenings in the play, the space and the time, and also as a substitute actor for the minister at the wedding, the drugstore owner (Mr. Morgan), the old lady (Mrs. Forrest). Moreover, he often breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly, an action that seems out of place in the traditional understanding of theater, and rather revolutionizing for the first half of the twentieth century. Staying true to this style, the Stage Manager often interjects in the performance of the characters, and even talks to them, as it is evident in the third act, when Emily is seeking reassurance and permission from him to interact with the memories of her parents during her twelfth birthday. In the same vein of metatheatricality, it is also interesting to remark upon the way in which the actors interact with the space in the theater. They too break the fourth wall, and in the wedding scene, they make use of the two aisles found in a theater, effectively extending the energy from the stage all the way into the seating space. Not only does that work as a mechanism of keeping the audience engaged with the performance – similarly to the Stage Manager’s remarks and questions – but also places them in the middle of it all; they become silent actors, spectactors if we were to use Augusto Boal’s terminology.

Looking back to Marvin Carlson and his categorization of plays, Our Town seems to fall under the Derridian supplement, which advocates for an interdependence between the text and the performance, a condition which doesn’t allow the two components to be complete without each other. That is why when one watches The Wooster Group’s Route 1 & 9, an endless train of questions emerges. Not only is their process of crafting a performance special, it also involves a heavy use of technology, such as television sets, telephones, and sound effects. Their rendition of Our Town starts with Ron Vawter offering a PBS-inspired lecture on the significance of Wilder’s play, and how TWG battled with the constraints of the medium in order to create an experience that can keep an audience invested for two hours. He presents three methods through which their production worked against time, both literally and figuratively: the use of music, of theme and variation and of the condensed line or word. The mimetic aspect of the video, which is played on TVs placed above the set, works as a calming agent on the audience, who is not suddenly displaced from 1982 to 1901, but rather immersed into the familiar – the condensation of time, which is reproduced through pixelation, and that permeates people’s homes through broadcasting. What the audience might not be prepared for, though, is the fact that the actors are playing in blackface, whilst performing cultural stereotypes about the African American community, as well as voodoo rituals and shadow plays. For example, in Act 3, when Emily’s twelfth birthday party is depicted, the actors start dancing wildly on twist music and they comport their bodies in a highly eroticized manner, which brings to mind Thomas DeFrantz critique on the misinterpretation of black social dances. But what exactly in this performance repulses the audience? Is it that, because Wilder omitted the racial aspect, everyone expects the play to be about white people? Is it that TWG is an entirely white company and in painting their faces black and portraying stereotypes, they seem to enforce them? Or is it the low humor employed, which is not consistent with the high brow culture, the bourgeois theater?

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Emily’s speech – TWG, Route 1 & 9 (1982)

The atmosphere seems to be restored by Emily’s melodramatic speech, which hints back to the tensions that pervade Wilder’s play. However, that is not enough to throw the spectator out of his questioning state. It is worth remembering Boal’s argument in “Aristotle’s Coercive Form of Tragedy” that everything is governed by politics. In light of this, couldn’t we read TWG’s decision to perform blackness and their use of modern technology – TV broadcasts, ordering fried chicken for the party in real time over telephone – as an intricate way of showing how new media is used to present racial differences, and therefore aim at deconstructing the justifications of discrimination based on race? Let us not forget that America was built on slavery, and portraying the mechanism through which they entertained the white population is in fact recognizing that this process has indeed taken place. This leads back to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his discussion on the role of institutions in society – for example, the school represented through the unnerving ringing of the bell – as agents of repressing body comportments. In this way, these discussions that open around the text and one of its productions further reinforce the play’s framing as a Derridian supplement, with an infinite number of possible interpretations.

What if we took the play to Romania and staged it with gypsies? Would the audience be repulsed by the fact that a gypsy could experience the same emotions as them? Or would it actually achieve its goal of pointing specifically to the existence of these ethnic tensions and the desperate need of working them out? I would be more than happy to embark on this project and see what effects it produces. Should it at least generate discussion, and I would more than gladly grant Our Town its distinction as a universal play. After all, it talks about flaws in the human nature. Irrespective of our ethnicity or race, we are all marked by daily life, love, marriage, and ultimately death.

 

Citation:

Wilder, Thorton and Donald Margulies. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003.

The Wooster Group.  Routes 1 & 9. 1982. Performance.

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Samuel Beckett – “Waiting for Godot”/ David Bradby – “Introduction;” “Beckett before Waiting for Godot;” “Waiting for Godot – The Play;” “The first production: Théâtre de Babylone, Paris, January 1953, directed by Roger Blin;” “Godot in a Political Context”/ Paul Chan – “Waiting for Godot in New Orleans”

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is by far one of the most iconic plays of the twentieth century. Originally published in French in 1948, and subsequently translated into English by Beckett himself – who is Irish – in 1949, it debuted on the stage of Théâtre de Babylone, in Paris, in 1953, under the directing of Roger Blin. Although it seems like it should belong to the absurdist theater, due to long passages that do not make sense, it has captured the attention of the critics and the hearts of the audience for decades. Vivian Mercier brilliantly condenses Waiting for Godot by saying that: “[it] has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” In many ways, Beckett revolutionized the practice of theater making and laid the foundations for a theatrical experience that is almost universal, in the sense that it would have an impact on its audience, wherever it is played, whenever it is played.

The best way in which to summarize the play itself is through its title. It is a play in which the two main characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) are waiting for an unknown character whose name is Godot, on a country road with a visible tree in the center. They act much like an old married couple, constantly bickering about trivial things and threatening that they will leave each other, yet never actually going through with it. They are joined at some point by another couple of characters – Pozzo and Lucky – who depict the relations of power between a master and his slave, however their repeated entrances and exits do not affect the development of the plot in any significant way. It is a play in which nothing happens, as Mercier puts it, and its main concern is the representation of linear time on stage. Beckett took this responsibility seriously and made major changes to the way in which a play is carried out from the writing process to its staging in a theater, with an audience. His process of writing a play is similar to that of writing a novel, giving specific stage directions that must be respected to the letter. In this way, it can be said that Beckett supersedes the role of the director, much like Bertolt Brecht did. By removing serious plot lines that can detract the attention of the audience from the central element of the play – the passing of time – Beckett focuses on carefully constructing an experience that will keep the spectators engaged from start to finish. Therefore, he becomes interested in the devaluation of language, promoted by the Dada movement and Tristan Tzara, as well as the processes of memory when time becomes stretched into a continuous present, and the musicality of the play itself (how moments of speaking and moments of silence should be put together to the highest efficiency). Thus, it becomes evident how a parallel can be drawn between Beckett and Tehching Hsieh’s work, as they are both struggling with the task of depicting real time in performance. However, while Hsieh internalizes time by transforming his own body into a stage, Beckett does the opposite – he externalizes time through language. His work may seem tedious when read, but it all comes together through performance.

In this way, it becomes useful to look at David Bradby’s commentary on various productions of Waiting for Godot, as well as Paul Chan’s production notes of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. This brings the discussion back to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his essay on “Enactments of Power”, as well as his Globalectics, in which he argues that there is a dialogical relationship between a work of art and the space in which it is created and/or displayed. But how is it that no matter where Beckett’s play is staged, be it Paris, Sarajevo, Belgrade, San Quentin or New Orleans, it will always speak to the audience? The answer which I propose is that Beckett has been careful enough in his creative process not to contextualize the play too much, leaving it mostly like a shell that people can populate with their own interpretations. Also, it speaks about core attributes of the human being such as despair, waiting, hope, the need for another, which really are not bound to a physical location. In that way, it becomes universal. Therefore, its meaning adapts to the signifying space in which it is performed. Waiting for Godot becomes waiting for freedom for the prisoners of San Quentin, and waiting for FEMA and any kind of aid for the people who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Thus, Paul Chan’s production reads as a counter-narrative to what the state is enacting – it is the story of people demanding their rights, people who are not actors on an empty stage, but who have an idea of what New Orleans should look like. Although it could easily be misread as a revolution, it is not, just as William Pope L.’s Great White Way is not. It is simply a re-envisioning of the framework of the performance, of Richard Schechner’s theater and performance.

Beckett blurs the lines between the elements of a theatrical performance, which have been established over time, by diffusing language, space, and character in order to place the emphasis on what he is really concerned with – time. Through this revolutionary process, he universalizes Waiting for Godot, making it applicable to anyone in this vast world. Everyone has a Godot that s/he is waiting for, which is brought to light through the performance of the play. Therefore, where should the play be staged? Is there an ideal location for it? I would say the answer is everywhere.

 

Citation:

Beckett, Samuel.  Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts.  New York: Grove Press, 1994. Print.

Bradby, David. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Chan, Paul. Production notes for Waiting for Godot in New Orleans and Baghdad students reading.

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Chris Thompson – “Afterbirth of a Nation: William Pope L.’s ‘Great White Way'”/ William Pope L. – “Great White Way”/ Tehching Hsieh – “One Year Performance 1981-1982″

In both William Pope L.’s Great White Way and Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981-1982, the concepts of space and time and how they influence the crafting and the outcome of a theatrical performance are the most evident. Following Ngugi wa Thing’o’s essay on enactments of power, where he discusses the politics of the performance space, as well as Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, where space becomes interwoven with the influences of time, these two performances serve as an explanation for the importance of the duality of space and time, and also as a confirmation for the necessity of being aware of the place in which a theatrical production is carried out.

In Great White Way, as well as his other works, Pope L. explores mostly the politics of the performance space as a contextualization of capitalism, in which public secrets are uncovered through the performativity of the body in antithesis with the normative imposed by society. Before going further into the discussion, it is important to mention that the space we are considering here is New York City in the United States of America, in the period of time prior and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although conceived long before the tragic events took place, the performance itself started shortly after the fateful day of September 11, 2001 and therefore, it naturally attracted a long series of criticism based on the unwillingness of the people to recognize the big public secret that pervaded their lives. As an African American, Pope L. already started to attract attention, but seeing him in a cape-less Superman costume, trying to crawl his way up on Broadway from the Statue of Liberty to Bronx, and passing by Ground Zero was all that was needed to spark controversy around his performance. Many people perceived it as an act of protest and instantly reacted in a negative way. For example, Chris Thompson reveals that Pope L. was at one point verbally aggressed by a taxi driver who demanded him to stop what he was doing, and later a white policeman started questioning his actions and even asked for a permit for protesting, even though what Pope L. was doing was just to crawl on his belly, and at times on the skateboard that was attached to his back. This confirms Pope L.’s own words that: “The artist cannot control audience. The artist can only be willing to converse (in whatever form)” (71). In light of this, it did not matter that the audience misinterpreted or allegedly misinterpreted his performance, but rather what was important was the message he wanted to express: “We are afraid. [...] Superman cannot fly anymore, just like the rest of us trying to make it through the day. Here, the heroic act is to give up his verticality, to submit to life as it is” (69). It is in the struggle to fight his inability, that Superman/Pope L./audience member can proud himself. As Boal said, “contemporary democracy [can be characterized] as a domesticating process by which individuals are estranged from substantive political involvement” (74). But should that be allowed to happen? Aren’t we perpetuating a public secret in doing so? What keeps us then from having our agency and self-consciousness taken away from us forcibly? By working against the normative (verticality) in both Great White Way and his Thompson Square Park crawl, Pope L. emphasizes the way in which society functions and how it enacts its repressive power. Having seen fragments of both of his performances, I can understand how easily they can be miscategorized as a form of protest. However, the audience should be aware of Pope L.’s immense sense of dedication, as well as the message he desperately tries to impart with the world at large. It should trigger a series of questions in a spectator’s mind regarding the degree of complicity it has in society’s impositions on its people, and ideally it should instill a desire to take action.

Similarly, but yet different thematically, Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1981-1982 depicts the passing of time and its impact on the body of the performer. What the performance consists of is a series of still photographs taken every single hour of every single day for an entire year. The setting remains unchanged, and the only indicators that we have of the passing of time are Hsieh’s choice to not cut his hair during the performance, the movement of the clock’s hands and a tally sheet in the background that documents every single picture taken – reminiscent of the laborer’s punching in/out. All of these pictures put together fit neatly into 4 minutes of video, and that alone triggers questions about the importance of time, the constraints imposed by time, and also about the compression of linear time. Hsieh’s dedication and determination for this project transcend the boundaries of film, and they are apparent throughout the performance. However one cannot stop and wonder how much an artist is willing to sacrifice for his work, and whether it is worth it or not. After watching his performance, I could not grapple with the questions I had about the motivation behind his work. And then I realized that in fact, his performance is similar in intent with that of Pope L.: Hsieh wanted to present the relation between the artist’s body and time – the disciplining of the body through time – as mediated by freedom. And isn’t that what we, ordinary people, struggle with? In a world in which time is of essence, we feel constantly under pressure and we are always forced to redistribute our freedom in order to have enough time for all of our activities. In light of this, Hsieh’s piece reads more like a manifesto of the people who feel oppressed by linear time, and at the same time by the authorities in society which take away from that time as well.

In conclusion, I cannot but praise both William Pope L. and Tehching Hsieh for their assiduous work and their capacity to continue their performances even when outside forces sought to contain their actions. Lacking words, I found them even more powerful, because they were entirely based on movement, on the comportment of the body in relation to space and time. I strongly believe that the contemporary world demands this type of work, activist theater, in which there is a shift from the present towards the future, with the question of “what will happen if we do not take action?” pervading every single element of the performance. That is not to say that I condemn other forms of theater, however I am positive that the most good can be achieved through works that strike the audience at their core, by making them realize the importance of things they take for granted. Starting with space and time, and expanding to more complicated concepts, that is where theater should be headed to.

 

Citation:

Thompson, Chris.  “Afterbirth of a Nation: William Pope L.’s Great White Way.”  Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory: Falling.vol. 14: 1, #27, 2004. 63-90.

Pope L., William. Great White Way. Performance.

Hsieh, Tehching. One Year Performance 1981-1982. Performance.

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Griselda Gambaro – “Information for Foreigners”

“Life here is surreal” is the idea that pervades every conversation with Griselda Gambaro, according to Marguerite Feitlowitz, who interviewed her on a few occasions. As an Argentinian playwright, Gambaro is profoundly influenced by the politics of the state, both in her personal and professional life, and as such she chooses to depict the mechanisms of the state in her work, in an attempt to give voice to the thousands of people who were repressed by it through torture. With a tumultuous political history, Argentina still retains echoes of its wars, military coups, rigged elections, fascism and secret services. People cannot let go of the past, much like in my own country Romania, because it is an important part of what defines their identity. The period that is perhaps most notable in Argentina’s history is that which unfolds between 1976 and 1983. It is the period of the state-run Dirty War, a series of highly dramatic acts of violence that were staged by the state in order to repress the people who fought the political ideology in power, either through physical or intellectual activism, and which resulted in the kidnapping, torture and murder of approximately 30,000 people. These are the desaparecidos, that Gambaro speaks for. Her work fully embodies the psychic gestalt of the country, the state in which everyone is aware of the self-inflicted terrorism, yet no one speaks about it, and thus perpetuates inaction and conformity. In this sense, Argentina is the perfect example for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s theory on enactments of power, and how the state chooses to perform the power that is vested in it by the people, as well as for Augusto Boal’s theory on the coerciveness of the Aristotelian tragedy, of the state.

In Information for Foreigners, Gambaro offers a “guided tour of the places of repression and indignity” (6) in Argentina’s Dirty War, aiming to stir questions of identity, trust and complicity in the audience. She gives specific instructions on how the play is to be performed, starting with the location (a large house or a warehouse), and continuing with the participants (actors and audience), which should not be allowed to talk to each other during or prior to the performance. The setting evokes the spaces used for detention and torture – residential houses – and, in doing so questions the boundaries of the public space versus the private space. It also brings up the concept of public secret, which is to point to the fact that the population was aware of what was going on in these chosen houses – due to the screams and the corpses that were left on the road – and still no one resisted because of the sense of fear that was instilled in them. As it enters the house, the audience is split into groups, which are each led by a Guide who takes them from one scene to the next. These Guides are “charming, unctuous, and ambiguous” (6), in short untrustworthy characters, whom the audience is bound to rely on, because they are the ones who contextualize each scene by reading the “Explanation: For Foreigners” – newspaper articles published in the Argentine press in 1971-72. Although the term “foreigners” can be read in its literal sense, Gambaro goes even further and uses it to refer to the Argentines who became complicit in the public secret of the war by choosing to ignore out of comfort and with no empathy or compassion. The scenes themselves are a juxtaposition of children’s games with scenes of torture, of poetry with the Milgram experiment, as well as Othello with an arrest. Probably the most notable scene, though, is that in which a young girl, soaking wet, is shivering on the floor and a man mocks her and offers her a gun with which to commit suicide. Later in the play when the audience returns to the same room, the Guide himself is the one to harass the girl with the gun, and that is the moment in which the audience’s sense of trust is immensely disturbed. Similarly, actors are interspersed with the audience groups, and in certain scenes they intervene in the action, further impacting the audience, which is now left with no one to confide in. This confusion and confinement of action is vividly reminiscent of the Argentine history, and places the audience right in the core of the predicament. What should one do in that situation, when people around them turn out to be part of the other side? When the line between “reality” and “theater” is blurred, that is the moment when you can observe more clearly what it means to be human and how the natural bodily comportments are disciplined by the state performing authority.

As a Romanian, I can most certainly relate to Gambaro’s work, as well as to the Argentines, due to the fact that I too have a historical baggage that I carry with me, a baggage filled with information about communism. Although I was born 4 years after the fall of the regime, and therefore I have not experienced it directly, my identity was formed as a result of the transition from a totalitarian regime to democracy, a process that has not been completed, even after 24 years. In school we learn about the crimes of the Communist Party, at home we hear stories from our parents or grandparents. We live in a constant reminder of the past, which will forever sit at the core of what it means to be Romanian. It is not something to be ashamed of, nor something to take pride in. It is there, and it cannot be avoided. Avoiding it would mean to ignore a part of yourself.

Concluding on Gambaro’s work, I have to point out a few other similarities with previous theater thinkers. In many ways, Information for Foreigners is a Brechtian play. It is episodic, fractured and there are no clear arcs in any of the scenes. Moreover, it also falls under Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty, playing with the audience’s affect when portraying scenes in which the instruments of torture are exposed. While theater in itself is not torture, its aim is to let the spectator experience pain, but from a distanced perspective, so that it can be understood. What Gambaro’s piece explores even further is Elaine Scurry’s theory on the materiality of bodies in pain, the realness of materiality, which can be summed up as: “the tortured body converts absolute pain into a fiction of absolute power.” Therefore, what Gambaro accomplishes through her complex piece is not only to keep alive the memories of Argentina’s past, but also to start new conversations on the issues of how the body is exposed to the power of the other and what the implications of that process are. Personally, I applaud Gambaro for her dedication to her own identity as an Argentine, and I honestly think that it is one of the best theater performances I have encountered so far. It might not speak as loud for someone who does not have a troubled history behind, but, irrespective of that, its genius cannot be denied.

 

Citation:

Gambaro, Griselda.  Information for Foreigners. Trans. Marguerite Feitlowitz. Northwestern University Press, 1992. Print.

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o – “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space”/ Peter Brook – “The Empty Space”

In “Enactments of Power”, Ngugi wa Thing’o expands on some of the ideas that he presented in Globalectics, in terms of the performance space and how it is governed by its own politics – history – as well as the politics of the state – laws. He focuses his essay on the struggle between the arts and the state, as revealed through performance, a struggle essentially fueled by the unequal distribution of power between the two parties, as well as the differences of opinion regarding the articulation of the laws, formal or moral, and their delivery to the audience, so that they achieve their intended goal. In brief, his work can be summed up in the following statement: “The war between art and the state is really a struggle between the power of performance in the arts and the performance of power by the state – in short, enactments of power” (38). In furthering the argument, Ngugi focuses on the relationship between the conqueror and the conquered, as is the case of colonialism, because it emphasizes the conflict and allows for a better analysis of it.

Ngugi starts his essay by arguing with Peter Brook’s opening line from The Empty Space, which reads “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage” (39). Ngugi questions the emptiness of any given space, and provides his own belief that all the spaces in this world, even if they appear to be empty, have some kind of historical or emotional charge, as well as a network of connections with other spaces. This framework of thought raises the questions of whether the place in which an artist creates is in any way influential on his work, to which Ngugi himself provides an answer in Globalectics. He advocates for a heightened awareness, a consciousness of the socio-political context in which a work of art is produced, and therefore one can infer that space is a part of that context, alongside time. To exemplify his argument, Ngugi provides the story of staging The Trial of Dedan Kīmathi, with all of the conflicts with the state that emerged in the process. The play is basically about Dedan Kīmathi, the leader of the Mau Mau guerilla, which was the most important anti-colonialist group during the British settlement in Kenya, as an embodiment of the heroism and determination of the people. The problem arose when Ngugi and Mīcere Mūgo, the co-authors of this commissioned piece, wanted to have a trial run at the National Theater in Nairobi, prior to the performances that were going to take place in Lagos at the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, as an act of giving back to the community by celebrating its history. The opportunity seemed divinely planned, as during the time that Ngugi and Mugo wanted to run the shows, an UNESCO conference was also being held in Nairobi, which would have provided them with the chance to share the Kenyan history and culture with an international audience. However, the management of the National Theater of Nairobi, mostly European, rejected the proposal on the grounds that they have two other shows scheduled to run during that timeframe, and also that African theater never attracted enough audience in order to be profitable. This acted as a wake-up call for the two creative partners, but it also left them with a bitter taste in their mouths, because it appeared that a French ballet and a British farce were more important than the cultural background and history of Nairobi. Eventually, with the help of the Ministry, which was embarrassed by the press, the play was given four night performances in the theater, alongside another four nights for a second play commissioned for the Lagos festival. The success of the play was astounding, and it can clearly be measured in the response of the audience at the end of the performance: they joined the actors outside the theater in a march towards the space in front of the Norfolk Hotel – the place where in 1922 the British committed a massacre against African workers. “There was no longer any distinction between actors and the audience” (51), as they formed a procession in the historically charged place. However, the movement, although peaceful, was broken by the police, because it violated private property. Nevertheless, this kind of response from the audience kept on happening with every single performance, and that reaffirmed Ngugi’s and Mūgo’s belief that Kenyan theater can indeed thrive, if it manages to find and define its location and language.

Returning to the initial argument with Peter Brook’s statement and with the state performing power, Ngugi takes a look at Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and centers his attention on how the state regulates entrances and exits. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances” (53). Similarly, the state looks at its territory as to a performance space, in which it is responsible for who enters the space, when, how, as well as the opposite actions. And the perfect representation of that is a prison. A prison has its entrance and exits clearly marked, and it is used by the state to organize space and to repress certain comportments, in order to create what Foucault calls docile bodies. This analogy of the prison impeccably mimics the dynamics between the artist and the state, which comes down to Ngugi’s concession that: “The performance space of the artist stands for openness; that of the state, for confinement” (68). This is the root of all problems, and it is a paradigm best observed in countries which impose a system of censorship, such as the UAE, the Republic of China or Cuba.

As a continuation of Ngugi’s discussion on the politics of space, Peter Brook takes a different approach in his book titled The Empty Space. Brook believes that: “[One] can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him , and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged” (11). And it is here, in this simple act that theater emerges. In his book, he offers a profound analysis of four types of theater that co-exist in the contemporary world (the time we refer to being 1968): Deadly Theater, Holy Theater, Rough Theater and Immediate Theater, in an attempt to correct the way in which actors and directors think and work.

According to Brook, the most prevalent form of theater is Deadly Theater, which one can guess from the name that it has a negative connotation. This type of theater is brought to life whenever someone involved in a theatrical production – be it as a director, an actor or even a member of the audience – imposes his or her own preconceived notions and ideas onto the piece. In this sense, the best example comes from Shakespeare. How many times have you seen someone trying to read the lines of a Shakespearean play in what s/he thought is an “Elizabethan theater voice”? I myself have seen that happen at least ten times, and it is absolutely awful. Not only is it unnecessary stylistically (in fact, detrimental), but it is also impossible, because it is a time long gone. What should be done is to search for a balance in the process, something that suits the demands of the text without superimposing anything on it. Brook condemns Deadly Theater and the fact that it comprises most of the Western theater that is being done in the late 1960s, not only because of its artificial nature, but also because of its commercial interest, which trumps the creative process. Most of the productions that are running a the time are in rehearsal for three weeks before their opening night, and while the process can start with a lot of enthusiasm and dedication, it soon falls into a routine that transforms it into something that is dead. And just as it begins its run, it is already dead and everyone has lost interest. However, it can continue to run for years so long as it brings in revenue.

Against this highly superficial form of theater, Brook opposes lively theater, which is divided into three individual categories: Holy, Rough and Immediate Theater, or combination of them. Holy Theater is the type of theater, which allows for its participants to see something that is normally hidden from view and cannot be experienced in our daily lives. Rough Theater is the theater of the people, which is accessible to everyone, as it doesn’t hold back from portraying aspects of life that are mundane or questionable. Its main goal is to forge connections between performers, performers and audience members, and even audience members. And last, but certainly not least, Immediate Theater is the epitome of theatrical experiences. It is based on a thoroughly researched background stories, which are carefully adapted so that they fit into the present of the performances.

For me, what results from the conversation between these two authors is a heightened awareness of the performance space, regarded not as something barren, but rather imbued with historical context, as well as a consciousness of the process of crafting a performance itself, being careful not to force preconceived ideas or interpretations on it. In light of this, we can take a concrete example, such as staging a play in a graveyard or a church, and we could argue that the way in which the questions would be framed by the two authors would be the following. While Brook would ask: can you stage a play in a graveyard or a church? With the answer being yes, considering how for him every space can be a stage. Ngugi would ask: should you stage a play in a graveyard or church? With the answer leaning towards a no, given how for him every space is tied to a historical moment. My directorial nature would take Peter Brook’s side, however the lesson to be learned is how the politics of the performance space can affect the meaning of the performance itself, even though it might be brilliant in its written form. As such, one should always be aware of the hidden/ less obvious aspects of a space and reconcile those through performance.

 

Citation:

Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space,”   TDR: The Drama Review. Vol. 41, No. 3 (Autumn 1997): 11-30.

Brook, Peter.  The Empty Space: A Book About Theatre. London: Penguin Books, 1968. Print.

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