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Plays in Performance Response #449

Skeleton Crew Response

So, I saw Skeleton Crew (at the Calderwood Pavilion produced by the Huntington Theatre Company). My first Dominique Morisseau play I have ever seen. As a black theatre artist, I am ashamed that this was the first play of hers I have ever heard after learning about her name in the past few years. I could shame myself even more for not being more proactive in researching her name or claiming her as part of my aesthetic just because she is a black female theatre artist…but I’ll let myself slide. I’ll be okay because no one had brought her my attention in a formal way. One day, people just talked about Morisseau as if I should know about her already. Understandable, she deserves this respect. I admire the secret and elegant way her work has plopped into my life. And, in fact, I am going to do an entire 180 degrees in this paragraph to say I am glad the first time I saw or heard her words, I heard them played in a dark room with bodies right beside me.

Skeleton Crew was loud. The first thing I clocked and responded to was the projection at which these characters spoke. As if they knew we were listening to them. As if they knew I was all the way up in the mezzanine, four rows from the back. But they never addressed us. The set was very realistic to a break room and they looked at each other because, duh, they were talking to each other and we were there to observe…? They played for us, but they spoke for each other. Because they knew if they played, the people would listen in the audience.

I appreciated that this piece was done on a huge proscenium stage, but it made me think what if the drama was done in an amphitheater. I wanted to surround them with the bodies beside me in a dark room because the world seemed flat. The set design made me think there was a greater world they’d constructed out there, but here was where we were meant to be. The break room was pushed forward, taking up one-third of the stage. In back of the break room was space covered in a blue-ish or purple-ish wash of light. And when characters would exit through doors they would go back to space. How peculiar. My belief was not suspended in regards to the space the team had built for me. We all knew they were going nowhere. We all knew they were not going back to work. We all knew they weren’t going to the bathroom, but we humored them. These characters stood their ground and their intentions so fiercely that I knew they were going somewhere. Just not where the text told me they were going.

My mind further expands on this idea of these workers in Detroit who are part of this cycle/progression, a stall and stop, if you will. And no, not Dominique Morisseau’s cycle, a grandeur one that I can infer she is commenting on. The cycle of the lower class black person. Not necessarily a cycle of poverty, but pretty darn close. Work is where we, black people go, where we, the black people, need the money. If we miss a day, we’re $70 short of rent. Short of supporting ourselves and our families. And in that work day, maybe in that break room, we, black people, eat our lunch to devise a way to get through the stinging feet, devise a way to survive out in a less safe world (maybe it is less safe, we can never be too sure when you think about where black people work). So, as we, black people, sit in that break room, we breathe, we are really seen in a place where we can air our grievances or nap or whatever. But when we exit into the space back…there…to that other side of us, black people, we cannot be diluted down to a mere break anymore. We’ve gone to a more spacious, less sure, deep world. An all consuming world. Where we, black people, have a conviction, you, other people, just aren’t privy to what dat isssssssss.

The director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, confirmed my leaps and inferences and excitement. She knew what she was doing. And if I’m right or wrong or on the right track, I knew I was taken care of by this creative team. The transition lived in a dissonant place from the action of each scene. The machine working above the action of the characters with part of cars moving back and forth, dancing to contemporary, techno, “black?” Music — and these parts slowly faded away one by one in contrast to the fire between the characters sped up and blew up in their faces for better or for worse.

I’ll conclude with talking about the post-show discussion the Huntington held after the show. Between the audience members and the literary manager. They wanted to get the audience members to discuss with each other and unpack. I appreciated this moment mostly because I was excited to hear what all these older white people had to say. Aahhh millennials favorite phrase “old white people,” even young white people say it now! And well, yes, I was the only black person in there left. And yes, I responded to the man who claimed the play was not about race because none of these black people said “race” or “i’m black.” And yes, he heard me, and then, yes, this white man said, “and now I see! It’s more about class. you can plug any group of people in lower-middle class into this play and it would still ring true…” Hmm…how do we explain intersectionality without throwing around the term intersectionality willy nilly. I said, “people, all things can be true at the same time. do not put your poor white people in this play and say it’s by Dominique Morisseau because that is a completely different thing. BUT, write that play and I’m sure it will be in conversation with this beautiful text of action.”

**these quotes are actually paraphrased, but trust, how you are reading them is how it felt to listen to and posit back to**

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RE: Who Let John Patrick Shanley Have a Twitter

Hey Elena,

I was tickled with your recent blog post.

In response to your post :

“Who Let John Patrick Shanley Have a Twitter

I too am familiar with the Twitter of JPS and can’t help but feel similarly. I understand that Twitter is an informal platform in which people are free to express themselves in any way they see fit. However, if JPS is going to put this content on the public web, I’m going to feel free to discuss it.

For me, Shanley’s twitter is an immaculate, hyperbolic symbol of most straight-white-male art. It’s self-important, elitist, and empty.

I do not think it is a coincidence that I became familiar with JPS’s tweets through an avid follower and fan of his, Timothée Chalamet. I am a huge fan of straight, white male actor Chalamet and his work, but every time he retweets Shanely, the artist in me dies a little, or is maybe fired up; it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes. As a younger generation, of which Chamalet has a popular voice, I hope we can push towards art that is something other.

The sentence structure of Shanley’s tweets is confusing and imagistic and once you parse out the thought, it truly makes no sense, yet something in it draws people in. It feels to me like a grand symbol of artists making work because it feels good to their own image or identity, with little to no point to the work itself. It feels to me like a grand symbol of the liberal elite who hide behind heightened vocabulary and three year long sentences. They are smarter than you; that’s why you don’t understand. When in actuality, if they had a real point to make, wouldn’t it be easier and certainly more successful to say it straight out? In contrast, I think of artists and academics like Junot Diaz who are actually doing the work to produce full, deep, and yet comprehensible work. (Junot Diaz does not use Twitter, but you can follow @JunotDiazDaily for an unofficial consortium of all things Diaz).

I digress.

But as Shanely so deeply puts it, “Don’t ask me what’s new. Are you a thief? When you reach out, are your hands offering dried flowers or just awakening blooms? If I throw you down and write on your breasts, be assured my lyric will have green shoots aplenty. My hands are not empty. Leave me with more, or leave me.”

We cannot qualify who or what makes an artist.
But I believe in art as a vehicle, as a medium towards something better.
We are consumers and creators, consciously.
And we can do better.
We can demand more from our community of developing, young artist.
As I write that sentence, I think of KIL Claps Back, and I feel a warmth and a smile emerging from inside me.
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Roy Loves America: Theatre, Dance, and Media in conversation

Lighting designed by classmate Kat Zhou, I was introduced to a new circle inside the Boston community making exciting and bold new work: the Harvard Theatre, Dance, and Media Center and their production of Roy Loves America. With Angels in America as a counter text, this play explores the conflict behind the public persona and personhood of lawyer Roy Cohn, who has gained fresh, potent relevance in today’s political climate with the election of mentee Donald Trump. Director Thomas Peterson’s notes in the program, “It appears that Trump today refers both to his specific memories of Cohn and simultaneously to a generic actor, now absent, who could perform a role for him. How does Trump’s invocation of this name, or character, communicate meaning?” 

The political questions and their relevance cannot be denied throughout the piece, which hardly ever mentions Trump at all. In fact, this piece has nothing to do with Donald Trump, and yet Cohn is a genius case study in which the theatrical canon meets a legacy that has paved the political path for Trump; as well as inciting questions about Trump’s public ‘character,’ the role of the media, and our modern search (or not) for truth. The Facebook page for the event even included a cheeky but poignant note: “Back again! The first time we tried to pub[lish] this show, facebook decided we were all robots and the show was spam and the ticket link was ‘harmful and malicious.’” We live in a society today, where internet news decides elections and computer programs scan for buzzwords as a form of truth-seeking censorship. And President Trump calls out in distress, “where’s my Roy Cohn?” 

The design of the performance successfully involves the audience while disorienting us, like a cat and mouse game. Collectively, we found ourselves asking questions from the moment we entered the space. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed often cites confusion as a necessary dramatic instrument, and Roy Loves America carefully curated and utilized this technique. The space was organized into two main areas: a set of traditional bleacher seating in which one actor sat casually eating, and the “stage” which was an open space beautifully lit with theatrical lighting and containing benches in alley-style configuration. The audience entered and stared silently at each other, trying to decipher what was the set and what was audience seating. We watched each other for a good 15 minutes as people wandered the space, sat, and then moved and sat, and then asked each other, and then moved again. Finally, we settled on the benches, very well lit and staring across at one another. Zhou’s lighting and sound by Damian Liu complete the very strong physical environment, which almost symbolizes the role of the rest of the world in this story. The design elements alone conjure a sort of external, visceral, and necessary dramatic pressure in an otherwise episodic, documentary-esque piece. This physical pressure drove the spiral-like action of the play into the inevitable balloon pop climax. 

Throughout the performance, I found myself thinking a lot about Last Call’s offerings surrounding truth. In our world where truth seems almost fully absent, I was drawn to their ideas about interweaving real recordings of primary sources with theatre (an inherently fictional form), as a way to include the truth but also recognize the validity of the untruth in storytelling. Roy Loves America also seems to understand a similar method; the main structure of the performance includes recordings from both Roy Cohn himself as well as prominent actors playing Cohn in a plethora of movies and plays, notably Angels. Deliberately, the truth gets lost in the mix. Or is none of it the truth? Or is it all truth? In the interviews, the sound of the actual recordings played as the actors, wearing headphones of the same recordings, performed the speech on top of the sound. Coming back to Boal, I had truly never seen this done before and it made me listen and observe the performative nature of this character and political speech in a thought-provoking way. The episodic structure then juxtaposes the interview recordings against gestural based movement sequences and organized exercises or games, which seemingly represents capitalism or the political machine

In the true heritage of Angels in America, nothing is hidden from the audience. We saw all of the white apple headphone wires and the actors pressing play on each recording. Technology leads the performance. Phone flashlights are utilized as lighting. Media and technology are almost god in the piece, just as it created public figures and personas: Roy Cohn and Donald Trump. The spinning technology, loud interviews, and capitalistic starkly-lit fast pace broke in the 11th hour four one of the most striking images in the play: all technology faded away for one moment, the media symbolically looked away, and supported only by the company’s a cappella voice in song and a moving tableau of the Angelus Novus, Cohn danced with a male lover seemingly leaving everything behind for just a moment, before the world of sound and light and performance came rushing back in like a tidal wave. 

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A look at Technique in “The Usual Suspects”

This weekend I watched “The Ususal Suspects” for the first time, and it was a truly fascinating film. I want to take a quick look at Form and Content through the lens of film. So i’m Going discuss the “Keaton Was Keyser Soze” Scene. I am picking this scene because in the context of the film in its entirety, Kujan’s confident and pre-mature declaration of Keaton’s identity and Kint’s dismay is quite comical. In the scene Agent Kujan uses several examples from Kint’s story to deduce that Keaton is Keyser Soze, and apparently convinces Kint of the same with the final reveal of Edie’s murder. This scene uses established expectations, patterns, and manipulation of both time and space to convey a sense of urgency and mounting tension.

The scene begins with a moving, low angle shot of Kujan as he starts to piece together the ‘information’ Kint has given him, this initial shot already lets the audience know that Kujan is once again in a position of power, and the motion of the shot adds a menacing almost predatory tint to his argument, using a voice-over Kujan continues his argument over the sequence of shots, but now the sequence is interspersed with close up shots of Kint’s face as he attempts to digest the realization of Keaton’s ‘betrayal’ as well as cuts back to scenes from his story, highlighting the most suspicious parts of Keaton’s behavior. This seems to clearly support Kujan’s argument, drawing from the expectation that one of the members of the lineup must be Soze. The shots alternating between Kujan and Kint form an interesting juxtaposition. Using continuous action and the previous low-angle placement of the camera, we are given the perspective of Kint. The resulting effect is that as more incriminating arguments of Keaton are drawn, Kujan is proudly circling Kint, lauding his ‘knowledge’ over him, a throwback to when Kujan states he is more intelligent than Kint. The shots on Kint however are still close-ups and tend to be longer as we are made to focus on how Kint is receiving the information, with each close-up the camera is more zoomed in, implying that Kint is feeling more intensely. Finally, the movement stops briefly with Kujan’s declaration that Keaton is Keyser Soze, and we see the first high angle shot of Kint in the scene. Here he is hit with the news that his friend might be responsible for horrible deeds. As Kint shakes his head in vehement denial, and the thematic score intensifies we cut to a rapid sequence of shots between Keaton and Kint culminating in a low-angle barely lit shot of Keaton’s face as he shoots a gun in the fashion of Soze and the knowledge of Edie’s death. This signifies a climax, as it negates the bad cop turned good by love idea of Keaton, that Kint believed was his redeeming factor, in a way confirming the supposed truth about Keaton.

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This Is America

*SPOILER ALERT* If you haven’t seen Childish Gambino’s new music video for his song, “THis is America”, then you need to stop what you’re doing and what it ASAP no Rocky. I shall be discussing the music video now. I haven’t been able to get the images of the song nor the song itself at of my head. The video and the song itself does an incredible job of reflecting how we as Americans distract ourselves from the brutality that exists along side us everyday. The video is packed with images of rioting, police brutality, and gun violence if you pay close enough attention. Most of the violent action takes place behind, Gambino and a group of school children who perform popular dances like the “Gwaragwara” and “Roy Purdy dance,”. But Gambino and the children remain the focal point, representing how social media blinds people from the true problems in America by feeding them entertainment and pointless trends. At the same time, it begs the question: where is the balance between numbing yourself, and protecting yourself? Though the violence rages in the background, the children are pure black child joy, when so often black children are depicted as being more dangerous and older than their white counterparts.

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Brawler

A few weeks ago, I saw Brawler by Walk McGough at the BPT. I cringed in my seat through the whole thing, suffering as I often do from terrible second-hand embarrassment, but texted my friends the moment I was out of my theatre to tell them they had to see it.

I love stories about men, I really do. Perhaps this is why I was not content to remain a woman but normally stories about men don’t know they’re stories about men. They think they are stories about everyone or they thing they stories about a man and not about men. Stories about women always know they are stories about women.

Brawler has minimal design elements during the show, there were sound at the beginning and between the two scenes that made up the play, but other than that the fluorescent lights and silence remained constant.

The play asked the audience to sit with out anything to distract them and watch a play that is about the pain caused for white men by white men, and the havoc the wreck because of that pain. It shows you misogyny and racism and entitlement and it also shows you bruises and how players in pain are abandoned by the sports industry that created them. The play, and thus McGough knew what it was about.

I remembered watching that play thinking about every time I wished I could be athletic and a professional sports player, wished I could be one of the men, wished I could belong in a way I couldn’t and I cried for how I had turned my eyes away from the broken bodies that same institution that makes us want to belong creates.

I want more theatre like this. Please.

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A Manifesto

A MANIFESTO; AN ATTEMPT AT AN EXPLANATION FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T REALLY DO THAT SORT OF THING

BY AINDAN NEWELL & KALEI DEVILLY

I We are looking for an answer but don’t need one.

Our art is living in the question.

We don’t know.

Contradiction is okay.

II Our art is…

In the moment.
Our truth.
Wacky.
Active dreaming.
Dark and light.
Trash and sometimes trash art.
Gory sometimes.
Dismantled/Rebuilt.
Dirty sometimes.
Loud sometimes.
Violent sometimes.
Soft sometimes.
Completed by the audience.(FOOTNOTE)
Not just Theatre (We wont be reduced to the popular ideas of what theatre is).
For anyone.

If it’s a thought that comes or a thing you see, it’s both (no or).

III Realism is not enough.

You/we/they don’t get to decide what is real.

Real things should be happening on stage.
(Contradiction is okay.)

The dirt and sweat on our faces is real.

IV We will be as honest as possible…

with our words and how we say them.
with our actions.
with the sounds we make.
with how we feel.

(We invite our audiences to do the same.)

V We are not alone.

(Right?)

(FOOTNOTE)
(1) The audience’s history is just as much a part of the work as our own.
(2) It is okay the audience is confused.
(3) Have fun but don’t deliberately fuck with the audience’s head.