IN DIALOGUE: Imaging Political Theaterby Emily DeVoti
The prevailing downtown theater aesthetic, if one can define such a thing, is perhaps a direct descendent of the avant-garde, a movement where “aesthetic experimentation” unto itself was political: challenging the hegemony of Aristotelian drama with a bold slash-and-burn manipulation of form; defying insistently conservative “representational” modes with more imagistic and allegorical ones; challenging the self-proclaimed authoritative laws of fact with the deeper truth-seeking outlaws of fiction; shooting incisive barbs at dominant rationality with the entirely subversive language of the irrational. Aesthetic warfare was, at its core, a reaction against pervasively conservative politics. It was indeed very much a form of political theater.
However, at a time when the formally subversive is so quickly co-opted into the mainstream, it is easy for the pure images and suggestive formalistic challenges of the avant-garde to lose the vigor. Times have complexified. The media manipulates by co-opting the visual language of subversion, and, in accepting this language, almost immediately renders it impotent.
One theatrical response might be to co-opt the media in turn, cannibalizing these mediated images into one’s art, in a retaliatory gesture that nonetheless continues the conversation. This tact, though, could also quickly get insular, placing too much import on the media. And insularity has little place in time where what is needed is the confirmation of community, and a medium—a platform, or stage, of you will—for the articulation of what being a member of this community actually means.
Early in November, I attended a meeting of downtown theater artists, who gathered together at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa to discuss the recent events—9/11, the ensuing war, our national involvement—and just what our role as theater artists should be. No easy agenda.
Organized by playwright Anne Washburn, the event brought together about sixty artists, a promising majority of them writers. The discussion zigzagged across the map. Some of the more established downtown voices (ok, Mac Wellman) suggested that perhaps we should accept the difficult challenge of not doing, and instead just learn to sit quietly and mourn… a notion which at first might seem like a cop- out to fiery young politically motivated artists (ok, me), but after some discussion yielded some good sense, mostly imparted by dramaturg Kimberly Flynn: that perhaps the knee-jerk military response of the U.S. to the situation belies a national inability to mourn, a pathology whose exploration might yield some productive insights. A good thing to think about, certainly, but as Flynn would agree, theatrical inaction hardly seems the most effective use of drama in such a critical time—assuming, that is, that art can or should indeed have a “use”, a concept which is at the very core of the debate.
Playwright Erik Ehn, who moderated the open forum, asked, “How do we play after 9/11?” While inadvertently belying the overwhelming acceptance that theater is at its core simply “play” rather than an active voice or protest or a thought-provoking forum for social dialogue, the issue remains a vital one, and the question of the role of play in theater is at the essence of the discussion of “which way theater” now that America, as they say (or, more importantly, our awareness) has changed forever.
Perhaps the most promising idea from the evening came from the actor/director John Holyoke, who proposed “imagining information,” an elusive but intriguing tern which was met by a distinctly thoughtful hush. Of course, what makes the term so attractive – that it is vague and open to multiple interpretations—also makes it dangerous. For instance, was this some new philosophy of allowing artists to write about politics without doing any research? Did it hearken back to the Information-as-concept-wary resistance of the avant-garde? Was it guerrilla effort to obfuscate the “facts” of what is going on in Afghanistan even more than they already are?
After talking with other artists in the weeks after the event, and tumbling the idea over myself, I started to appreciate its potential significance. In an “Information age” where we are barraged with, and often mesmerized by, “information”, we can easily become numbed to what these facts and figures mean, their impact on the people they are sweeping up into easy statistics. In “imagining information”, the role of the dramatist might thus become to dredge through the information, find those sources which seem most true, and then breathe life into them. In recent years, people have misinterpreted the old writing adage, “write what you know,” to mean, “write only about yourself.” While writing about contradictions and confusions of self can also be effective, imaging the “other” might be a theatrical trend that reverses this popular, often-apolitical approach to writing.
Imagine: Iraq, an evening of short theater pieces inspired by the Gulf War of the early '90s, as presented in mid-November at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. Organized by playwright Naomi Wallace, with Connie Julian of the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!, the collection of theater pieces had been in development for the past year, and was not at all an outgrowth of the session at the Flea. However, the echo of this concept of imagery information certainly illustrates its potency and pervasiveness as an idea.
The evening was uneven, but a great case study in what works and what doesn’t, in terms of political theater in the present “climate”. The pieces which seemed most successful fell generally, into two categories: the personal narrative, best illustrated by Palestinian-American playwright/performer Betty Shamieh, and the biting political satire which we have come to expect (eagerly) from the California-based Latino performance group Culture Clash, as co-written and performed on this evening by Richard Montoya.
Betty Shamieh’s piece, “Tamam,” is the monologue of the title character, a Palestinian woman, the sister of a suicide bomber. The premise is that her brother, who started his protests throwing Palestinians rocks at Israeli guns, was pressed into terrorism after Israeli soldiers tortured him, forcing him to watch as they raped his sister, Tamam, the speaker. After that, it was a short step onto an Israeli bus with a bomb strapped to his chest.
What makes Tamam’s character most compelling is the honest wavering that Shamieh imagines for her. Stoic about her rape, a hardened survivor, she is moved only by her brother’s death to question her politics. Her emotion effects her politically, as her faith in Palestinian nationalism momentarily slips, showing her desperate willingness to overlook broader oppression if she could only enjoy the remaining shreds of joy in her life: love, tea, childbirth, family, her brother beside her to share it all. Paradigms and ideals break down in the face of institutionalized terror; doubt and regret set in as she struggles to not become a victim in this cycle of violence in Gaza which both created and destroyed her brother. “I could have stopped him,” she mourns, later adding, “Instead I said, don’t go, and I didn’t say it loud.”
Against Tamam’s looser, naturalistic rhythm—quite moving in performance—comes the sharp, sure, poetic precision of her brother, as Tamam remembers his parting words to her:
The day he did it,
he told me over breakfast—
is like a coin maker.
You put in human beings,
press the right buttons and
get squeezed, shrunk, flattened
till they take the slim shape of a two-faced coin.
one side is a martyr, the other a traitor.
all the possibilities of a life get reduced to
those paltry two.
The coin is tossed in the air
it spins once for circumstance,
twice for luck,
and a third time for predilection
before it lands flat.
The face that points down
determines not only who you are,
but how you will become that way.”
What he was really saying was
In contrast to Shamieh’s intimately tragic portrait, comes the brutally funny, tragicomic voice of Culture Clash. Also a monologue, “Anthems,” performed by Richard Montoya, is about a writer (in Washington, D.C.) sorting through history and precedent to try to come up with a new anthem for our contemporary, fractured culture when all America wants is “lullabies and war cries,” and all he wants to do is:
…go hide in
some Lake Woebegone
and raise children that grow strong
far away from the terror and
the Columbines sure to come,
And suicide bombers that can never truly be stopped
We have access to the Senate Library
I went to a five kegger party with
Chief Rehnquist and the 4th Circuit Judges,
The fuckers know how to party
That the desire to hibernate, pontificate, and party fiercely can come in one breath is no surprise to anyone who went through the phases of shock after 9/11. But as with most artists trying to stumble out of denial in the face of responding to an impossible situation, the monologue and political focus are quickly grounded in real stories:
I talked to two students at American University,
An Israeli girl whose little sister
Rides the school bus with her feet up on the seat
She doesn’t want them torn off
When the bus gets blown up,
A Palestinian girl who saw
Israeli soldiers kill a man before her eyes,
She didn’t speak for a year
A silent anthem,
Is this our community Ben Bull?
The link is there somewhere.
Not just in me.
In the evening’s program Culture Clash notes that, “Urgent times require urgent art!” The great thing about this group is that they acknowledge that ALL times are urgent and require urgent art. Their 17-year dialogue with politics—getting into the bodies of diverse, clashing cultures trying to co-exist in America—has prepared them to deal eloquently with what is merely a heightened moment in the political spectrum.
Crazy Horse used to eat peyote before battles,
He understood his enemy,
The Madhatter lives in Capital Hill,
The Buffalo Soldiers were the best Indian hunters,
Oppressed as oppressor,
Patriotism is the last refuge to which a
Dylan said that – the greatest Chicano poet ever.
The process of finding a new anthem thus becomes a sifting though history, with all its tragic contradictions, finding a frame for the present, with all its tragic contradictions, moving from profundity to hilarity with ease:
And if I don’t go to that Jersey stripper club?
Well, then the terrorists win.
If we don’t do that 8 ball,
Then the terrorists win, see?
The really skillful thing that Montoya has done here is bring us a character who we can relate to—the rage, the humor, the conflicting impulses, fumbling for a way to create something meaningful in urgent times. It’s not till more than half-way through the text that we discover this is in some way “Arab-American character” we’re getting to know. In the process, the piece questions the very nature of nationality:
My mother is half-Syrian
My very own smoking gun for sure,
But my father may have Sephardic-Jewish
For my 15th birthday I had a piñata shaped like a
Cortez and Cuautémoc
Yes, I’m an autumn
All Mixed up and
Kill afghan kids
War on Drugs
Who killed the Kennedys?
Smoke those bandits out,
C.I.A. kills Che Guevara and now
Kids in the suburbs wear his tee shirts
The sins of our fathers
The touch of thirteen swords knighting out futile
Efforts, no longer illuminated by fifty
I am fond of the Mexican immigrants with
3,4, and 5 flags to a car,
cop: where are your papers?
Mex: no papers senor, just flags!
Cop: go on then…
It’s no mistake that the character’s well-crafted, stream-of-consciousness-seeming reflection moves through dips and valleys of poignancy and humor, as our identities are made of this complexity, just as his personal history is linked to the cultural and political histories, the contradictions, that bind us all together.
So that by the time we reach the end of this anthem, these anthems, the collection of anthems embodied in one man, the lines are blurred, between history and present, between individual and national, between “him” and “us”. And when the final lines descend, complete with their bitterly funny racial profiling barb as punctuation, we’re all equally vulnerable:
Sometimes the face of terror wears a mask
Sometimes the face of terror is John Wilkes Booth or
The face of terror
I’m not an Arab Terrorist.
I’m an equity actor.
It’s politically dynamite language, and theater from artists who not only write politics, but who live it and play it in the same full-bodied ways their characters reflect.
As Culture Clash shows, imagining information is not always imagining the lives of “others”. It can also translate into imagining ourselves. Which brings us to the risk of apolitical art. Art, and particularly theater, serves as a mirror to society, and if it persists in showing people reflections of themselves where they do not exist in a political context, perhaps they will start to forget—or will never be aware of—the actual power structure that shapes their lives.
Culture Clash had found a way to remind us of the importance of this awareness with vitality, humor, subtlety and the brazenness of artists who revel in the right of a citizen to be angry at, and vulnerable to, the contradictions of our society and yet still be an American. Now surely there is a mirror worth gazing into.
The excerpt from “Tamam” is reprinted with the permission of Betty Shamieh. “Anthems,” by Richard Montoya/Culture Clash, was originally written for the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. It is excerpted here with the author’s permission. For more information about Culture Clash, or to find out more when they’re back in town, check them out at: www.cultureclash.com. Keep an eye out for a fuller production of Imagine:Iraq some time in 2002. Updates on that event can be found at artists.refuseandresist.org.
NOTE: As a result of the meeting at the Flea, playwright Madelyn Kent and other downtown artists have come together to plan a series of workshops designed to explore ways of making theater in the current climate. The first session, aimed at getting artists into their bodies, will be at Meyerhold’s Biomechanic Workshop. Led by Carlo Altomare (for many years a member of the Living Theatre). The next session will be based on guerilla theater exercises of Keith Johnstone, encouraging participants to imagine characters somehow inspired from news clippings, and then improv scenes, with an attempt towards creating a group theater. The final session will encourage the work of the individual writer. The first session will take place in January. For more information, please contact Madelyn at email@example.com.
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are playwright, and would like to write a column contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.