Cast: four actors, two musicians, thirty-five audience members, Pope.L;
based on the play The Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom (1858) by William Wells Brown
ChicagoArt Institute of Chicago
November – December, 2018
“I ask no favors if the play is unreadable!” declares a thin young man standing atop a milk crate at the corner of a fluorescent-lit corridor. He sports a frizzy green hairpiece with a bald rubber forehead and a white doctor’s coat. I am among a small crowd of thirty-five spectators somewhere within the Art Institute of Chicago’s back hallways where Dr. Gaines is holding forth. Moments before, we were in the museum’s member’s lounge, where we gathered amongst unsuspecting cocktail-sippers before the doctor burst through the service door, bid us to follow him, and the chase was on to catch his opening monologue as he shouted it down the hallways.
Or was it a prologue? The doctor, quite right about the potential for confusion, was quoting remarks by William Wells Brown, the freed black slave whose 1858 play The Escape; or, A Leap to Freedom, one of the earliest extant pieces of African American dramatic literature, which was reinterpreted by Pope.L for six audiences at the Art Institute in the waning weeks of 2018. Dr. Gaines, a fictional white slave owner with a comical Kentucky drawl, introduced Brown’s play to the audience in character, initiating a fourth-wall muddling that would persist throughout the evening. Pope.L stood next to him in jeans, a baggy sweater, and a well-worn Carolina Panthers cap. He looked exhausted, or simply bored to be there. As he led us to the next destination, or followed just behind, most of the evening he was engrossed in his iPhone.
Pursuing Dr. Gaines through the cinderblock passageways, we arrive at the museum’s auditorium just in time for some minstrelsy, all four of the cast members in some variation of green, balding wigs and white coats. Two musicians in white overalls and black t-shirts accompany them from the corner of the stage. The seats of the theater are covered by large sheets of white Tyvek, theatrical spotlights tucked beneath them like snow-covered garden lamps. The rest of the performance will take place between this performance space and its smaller ancillary areas—the upper balcony, the projection booth, the lobby, and even the women’s restroom, where at one point the band and performers sing and play behind the closed stall doors in near darkness. Between these locations, we are led by Dr. Gaines, his wife Mrs. Gaines, their loyal slave Cato, and sometimes by “Conflated Hannah”, a black female character burdened with as many roles imaginable.
Everything, and especially Conflated Hannah is confused and confusing. Little black Legos, first spotted in a small dish in the lounge, lurk in every corner along our journey. Are they bread crumbs to lead us on our way or an encroaching infestation that will eventually consume us? In a moment of madness, Cato gorges himself on them from behind a partly opened door in an exit stairwell, spitting the bricks onto the floor as we pass by. The white Tyvek conceals, but also invites. In the auditorium, Pope.L tugs at a large sheet of it, revealing just enough seats for the attendees to sit for a moment and regard the stage like a proper audience. Later, he is seen stuffing the balled up blanket into the men’s room. Like a haunted house, the performance is a drama of superficial immersion, all the action timed to surround the viewers as they amble along a predetermined path one scene at a time.
The acting is often deliberately amateur and comically overwrought. The skill this involves becomes apparent when all but Cato are put, one by one, on the hot seat by a combined psychiatrist/stage manager who consults an iPad while probing each actor on their character motivations and their actual, real-life identities. Mrs. Gaines, though white, is played by a Latina. A Nigerian-born actress performs as Conflated Hannah. She is, as we learn from the questioning, an American citizen. The actress who plays Mrs. Gaines stubbornly refuses the question, appearing insulted by the query.
Elsewise, there is talk of self-victimization and the cycle of abuse. In an especially uncomfortable scene, Hannah moves from the lap of Cato’s lecherous embrace—“Let’s play hide the snake”—to the feet of Mrs. Gaines, who is jealous of her husband’s lust for the female slave. Hannah’s dialogue slips between characters here, but I am not sure which ones or if it even matters. With Cato’s assistance, Mrs. Gaines assembles a long, phallic, hose-like torture device attached at her hips. Awkward and ill-made of foam pool noodles and tinfoil, the tubing continually comes apart to her repeated screams of “FUCK FUCK FUCK” as Cato frantically reassembles its pieces. Mrs. Gaines, we have learned from her psychiatric interview, substitutes physical abuse of her slaves for the sexual gratification she does not obtain from her distracted husband.
What the play lacks in subtlety it makes up for in errant clues and dead-ends of decipherment, the brilliant work of Pope.L’s deliberately confounding interpretation. White Tyvek and black Legos are obvious synecdoches of race and Southern Reconstruction, their haphazard scene-setting signaling that the necessary repairs to a divided nation were never completed. Several scenes drive this point hard, namely, the aforementioned citizenship queries as well as Cato’s several race-traitor remarks (“Cato Lives Matter!” and his Kanye quotation, “Slavery was a choice!”). In the final scene, with the audience surrounding the cast in some kind of a neglected VIP section of the auditorium outfitted with retro lounge chairs, Cato asks his fellow cast members, “Why is the play relevant here today?” Dr. Gaines answers that everyone should have a chance to tell their story, perhaps the whitest thing uttered that evening, with Mrs. Gaines’ reply that she feels she has not had the opportunity to tell her own story coming in a close second. Cato says something about our Trumpian times, and Conflated Hannah says the play is all about the mistreatment of the black body. “We are on a panel!” interrupts Dr. Gaines loudly, smashing through a fourth or fifth wall with a plea for decorum that would burst any academic at the seams. Many a rousing post-performance discussion must have been ruined by that final exchange of autocritique between the performers. At the very last moment, Pope.L has offered up the possibility of indulging in the easiest interpretations of his work as a sacrifice for deeper reflection.
Quietly, Pope.L himself carries the show, and not only in his jarring and revelatory writing and direction. His delight in our discomfort comes through in the most memorable scene: the Gaineses are dressed in inflatable T-Rex costumes, exchanging halted, high-pitched sentences with their neighbor slave owner, who is dressed in a Chewbacca costume, as they negotiate a fee for Dr. Gaines to oversee the health of the neighbor’s slaves. Each time a character says “n*gger”, it becomes more stilted and shrill, until they begin to shout it in unison, unable to control themselves. I found myself wondering if the overbearing humor of the scene was meant to put us white spectators, of which we were a majority, at greater ease in the delivery of such discomfort.
Indeed, throughout the performance, Pope.L facilitates much for sake of the characters and the audience. After his opening remarks, he moves Dr. Gaines’s milk crate to the side to allow us to pass. In the auditorium, he pulls the Tyvek off our seats to invite us to sit. Later, he holds the door while thirty-five of us file into a restroom, and again on our way out. In this sense, his apparent detachment is belied by his careful tending to the details of hospitality. At times, it is difficult to tell if he is following behind us or gently leading us, his prescient knowledge of the show’s course of action notwithstanding. In the final scene, Pope.L grudgingly coaxes Mrs. Gaines to the shared dais at the order of her husband the doctor. He is unsuccessful at first, but after whispering something unintelligible in her ear, she stands and joins the others. When the panel descends into chaos and the Gaineses flee, Pope.L is left with Cato and a sobbing Hannah. I half expected him to console them. Instead, he stood silently as Cato leapt up, sniffling as he declared, “I guess I’ll go check and see if Dr. and Mrs. Gaines are alright!” Of course, their comfort, and ours, is the evening’s highest priority.
ContributorElliot J. Reichert
is a Chicago-based critic and curator. He is Art Editor of Newcity and formerly Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.