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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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