Category Archives: The Public Theater
The power of The Vagrant Trilogy, Mona Mansour’s incredible work, currently at the Public Theater until 15 of May, lies in the questions it raises. These concern the very real circumstances presented, especially in Act III. Mona Mansour’s connected one-act plays (that took the Public one decade to effect), ask us to empathize with the plight of the Palestinian characters Abir (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) and Adham (Bassam Abdelfattah). We watch as their world shatters and they have to decide whether to remain in London or go back home to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Before the play begins, the actors introduce the structure and events, explaining that Act I is the set up to explore a decision whose consequences offer two alternate realities. The two different outcomes that occur in Act II and Act III reveal a life of free choice versus a life where one’s every movement is controlled, monitored and limited, as the characters live in squalid conditions, and their upward mobility curtailed unless they escape.
Mansour asks us to consider the extreme consequences of a single decision to change one’s status from culturally displaced immigrant, who gives up everything to live in relative comfort, to that of a refugee who retains cultural identity and family but gives up his comfort and future. The director (Mark Wing-Davey), and the playwright with prodigious effort intend that we empathize with such decisions that the globally displaced are forced to make. These will only increase as wars and extreme events, like climate change created drought and famine destabilize nation states. These will uproot humanity, who will be forced to migrate to places of relative safety, if they can find such places.
Invariably, as we identify with Abir and Adham and walk in their shoes, we ask which sacrifice would we make if we were in their position to choose between Scylla and Charybdis? (Greek mythological monsters Odysseus faced on his journey home) Which monstrous choice would help us retain the most valuable part of ourselves? Or does the act of choosing wipe-out identity, regardless of outcome, as the decision-makers consign themselves to a life of regretful “what ifs,” every time they confront the dire obstacles which are bound to occur?
The refugee camp that Adham refers to throughout the play, is the camp where he and his mother escaped from while his father and brother remained behind. The camp was formed after the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 around the time that Israel was declared an independent state and Palestinians rejected partition and a two-state solution. As a result of the war, displaced Palestinian refugees were shuffled over to Burj El Barajneh, a camp in Lebanon that opened up in 1949. Once there, they were told that they would go home and be resettled, eventually.
One of many refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the UN has stipulated that they have a right to return. The dictum is ridiculous; there is nothing to return to, nor can they receive documentation to readily return to the area they were forced to flee as casualties of war. Meanwhile, those in the camps wait for a resolution, generations have grown up and moved on. Indeed Adham’s father dies in the camp without ever returning to the homeland he lost. Sadly, the refugees are unable to work or obtain citizenship in the country that hosts them. There’s is a never-ending limbo from which few escape.
Time has passed since the camp was formed and Adham escaped with his mom. It is 1967 in Act I when Adham and Abir meet in their small village in Jordan (former Palestine), after Adham graduates from college. It is right before he goes off to a prestigious speaking event in London where he has been selected out of many talented candidates. Swept up in their attraction for one another, Adham takes Abir home to meet his forceful, prescient, ambitious mother (Nadine Malouf), who disapproves of Abir as a wife.
Not heeding his mother’s warning, he proposes, they elope, and travel to London where Adham garners success at the lecture and is accepted by the faculty (Osh Ashruf, Rudy Roushdi), who he schmoozes with at a party. Fortunately, the exuberant, friendly, faculty wife Diana, (Nadine Malouf’s versatility is smashing in all the roles she portrays), provides the social bridge to make Ahmad comfortable. However, Abir feels uncomfortable, a fish out of water which Adham admits to. But he feels grounded in his subject of literature in academia and he speaks English, which Abir does not.
During the evening of his success at the party, the 1967 Arab Israeli six-day war breaks out. The faculty suggests they stay in London. They will get the couple visas and work out an internship or something available and doable. Abir is distraught about leaving her family and accuses Adham of heartlessly leaving his mother who sacrificed everything for him. The argument intensifies and by the end of it, their emotional fury explodes. The fact is brought out that if they leave, they may never be allowed to return to London as Palestinians, who are now in a state of flux with Israel, the Arab world and the US. They must make their momentous decision and never look back
In Act II Adham’s life unfolds as a professor applying for full tenure. He is still friends with Abir whom he has divorced because of their irreconcialble differences, mainly that Abir blames Adham for staying, a convenient excuse because after the divorce she could return. However, we learn that Abir has it both ways; she accepts little responsibility for her decision to stay and blames Adham for it.
As this section unfolds, we understand Abir’s complaining to another professor friend about him, the same rants; he abandoned his brother and mother and is selfish. She is at the home of Ahmad whom she sees frequently. For his part, Adham’s teaching career is problematic and in limbo without a full professorship. He is neither here nor there culturally; he is like the vagrant he refers to in a Wordsworth poem he has studied and teaches.
Though he has made friends at the university, he finds increasing difficulty with students and faculty as a Palestinian. Act II resolves as he visits the Lake District, the setting of poet Wordsworth’s wanderings which remind him of what he has gained and lost. It is a respite that works in tandem with his discovery that his brother has died in the refugee camp, a casualty of the further escalation of the “eye-for-eye,” “tooth-for-tooth” machinations that occur in the Middle East. Thus, though he is in comfort, he is alone to pursue his career and writings and in a kind of a limbo, without family.
The set design of Act I and II is evocative, with music from the period, projections, and more, thanks to the following creatives: Allen Moyer (scenic design), Dina El-Aziz (costume design), Reza Behjat (lighting design), Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, Sinan Refik Zafar (co-sound design), Greg Emetaz (video design). However, Act III takes place in the refugee camp in the alternate reality that Adham and Abir would have faced, if they returned home.
The Act III set design, sound, lighting are wonderful as they reveal the difficulties and conditions in the camp (power outages, etc.). The two rooms where they live are more tent than shack. There, Adham, Abir, their children Jamila (Nandine Malouf is just incredible as the teen daughter) and Jul (the fine Rudy Roushdi) eat, argue, sleep and manage to survive. The cramped, impoverished, though decorative quarters (rugs and scarves adorn the walls), also hold space for Abir’s brother Ghassan (Ramsey Faragallah) and Adham’s brother Hamzi, (Osh Ashruf in a vibrant enthusiastic portrayal).
It is in Act III where we experience the full impact of their decision to go back “home” which is nowhere, a refugee camp where they wait and wait for a resolution of the Middle East conflict. It never comes. It is heart-rending, and the actors are magnificent in their portrayals which bring Mansour’s themes to their striking and tragic end-stop. What are we doing globally about this? Why? The misery is incalculable. And Ukrainian refugees in Europe and Syrian refugees, etc. and those from South America must be helped. But how? But when? Can the refugee crises ever be stopped?
This incredible production must be seen. The three hours speed by, but it is not for the faint of heart. While I sat riveted, the couple next to me walked out after Act I, while I couldn’t budge from my seat. For tickets and times, go to the website: https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/the-vagrant-trilogy/
Flint, Michigan’s water crisis is ongoing as Erika Dickerson-Despenza clearly establishes in the world premiere production of Cullud Wattah currently at The Public Theater. Directed by Candis C. Jones the play is evocative, heartfelt and praiseworthy in its power to shock and anger the audience, as it clues them in to the Cooper family’s stoic struggles to get to the next day. Their trials become more laborsome and earth-shattering as they confront the irreparable contamination of their water supply that is slowly killing them because they were notified too late by city and state officials of its toxicity.
Dickerson-Despenza gradually evolves the situation acquainting us with three generations of the Cooper family of women who live in the house that Marion (the edgy Crystal Dickinson) and her deceased husband purchased through their hard work at the GM plant which outsourced, downsized and ended his job. Thus, to make money, her husband joined the military where he was later killed in the U.S. war with Afghanistan.
Living in the Flint house with Marion are her mother, Big Ma (the humorous and no nonsense Lizan Mitchell) her pregnant sister Ainee (the superb and empathy evoking Andrea Patterson) and Marion’s two daughters Plum, the totem-like representative for all Flint’s younger children, portrayed by Alicia Pilgrim, and Reesee. As Reesee, Lauren F. Walker delivers an apt portrayal of the strong, self-determined older daughter, who loses faith in her relationship to the Yoruba water goddess Yemoje, who doesn’t protect the family from hardship and injury.
Dickerson-Despenza’s work is culturally powerful. Her characters establish their ancestry through dialect and dialogue using an easy Black accented speech, save Marion who has been influenced and perhaps soulfully compromised by working at the General Motors plant for most of her life.
Though General Motors has provided opportunity, it has been responsible for abusing its employees when they protested for better working conditions and wages. During the play Ainee reminds Marion that GM polluted the Flint River for years and abusive workers (members of the Klan) killed their father and took vengeance out on their mother, Big Ma, for her work actions against the company which left her disabled.
As the family discusses the situation and with the news Big Ma listens to running in the background, the facts of the crisis are manifest. City and state officials are accountable for switching the water supply to the toxic Flint River from Lake Huron running on a platform to “save money.” Their MO for reelection (fiscal responsibility) did the opposite negligently and incompetently. They discounted that the Flint River had been polluted with toxic sludge from GM for years and was completely undrinkable and unusable. However, since the water was mostly going into the black community and since that community contributed less in property taxes, officials wantonly ignored the danger lurking in their unresearched, inherently racist and negligent actions.
Interestingly, the city and state grew a conscience when GM noted that the water needed for their industrial process building engines was corroding and destroying their product and bottom line. GM screamed to change the water back to the clean Lake Huron. Rather than for GM to close or sue Flint, immediately city officials and the state responded. However, only GM received the clean water. And when word of the situation leaked, city officials and then Republican Michigan Governor Snyder wickedly lied. They declared the water was safe to drink. Their lies killed, destroyed families and cost billions of dollars in medical bills and future liabilities for sick adults. The financial burden to educate and medically care for young children brain damaged by lead poisoning and confronting other ills (cancer) from the water is ongoing and especially egregious.
We learn during the play that Marion, knowledgeable about this situation at GM, withholds the secret from her family. Though she attempts to bring the water from GM to their home, it is too late. Eventually, her silence backfires on her through Plum’s sickness and the ill effects of rashes, hair loss and other conditions the family endures from being poisoned by the toxic soup.
Dickerson-Despenza uses Ainee as the foil in the arguments supporting the “good” that GM did for Flint versus their criminal behavior in not protecting their workers and their abusive acts against the union. Ainee’s stance is an indictment against GM and those workers who allowed themselves to be compromised and exploited as she argues with Marion that she owes GM nothing, and must become involved in a Class Action lawsuit against the city and officials for their negligence and responsibility in decimating the Flint community via the toxic water.
As the situation unfolds, we learn how each of the women respond in dealing with the crisis on a personal level and as a member of the Cooper family. Ainee attempts to become an activist, though this runs counter to Marion who is moving up at GM, despite their initial attempt to lay her off. How Marion manages to finesse herself an opportunity is revealed later in the play.
Marion’s daughter Reesee attempts to keep sane during the crises by praying and giving offerings to the Yoruba goddess of water which she reveals to Plum as a secret because Big Ma is religious and doesn’t approve of black folk gods. Plum attempts to take control of the situation with her mathematical skills, figuring out how much daily water they need for each of their activities.
Big Ma prays to the Christian God and helps with the chores and generally chides each of them if they step over the line of decency, especially with regard to vulgar language. However, the rock of the family is Marion. She is the only one able to work. She takes care of their financial burdens with no help from the others and is pressured by their debts: Plum’s medical bills, the upkeep of the house, their great quantity of water purchases, utilities and more.
The playwright’s details about the bottles of water required to wash vegetables, the turkey and trimmings for Thanksgiving dinner, to clean up and take care of their daily needs is a staggering reminder of how much we depend upon water in our lives. Wherever you turn in the theater, you see the reminder of the importance of clean water via Adam Rigg’s wonderful set design. Through Plum, who is dying because of the corrupted water, we note the numbers. At the play’s beginning, she chalks off the days Flint’s water supply has been corrupted since 2014: it is in the thousands surrounding the walls of the theater. On sides of the stage, Riggs has suspended bottles of water hanging down against the walls. It looks clean, but is it? The stage is filled with bottles of yellow, toxic water that the women label as a record that their water supply is still contaminated.
Dickerson-Despenza’s themes are paramount: timeless as well as politically current. What happens when an elite power structure controls the resources all of us need to thrive? What happens if they are discriminatory, partisan, bigoted killers at heart? What happens if the people they put in power in the government are those who they pay off to continue destroying the communities they despise, the voices that must be heard, but are killed off to keep them silent and the power structure intact?
Cullud Wattah is essentially a play about water as a life source spiritually, psychically and materially using the horrific backdrop of Flint, Michigan to show how Republicans and corporates (represented by GM) amorally decimated the black community with impunity safeguarded by bought corporate-backed politicos for decades. Breaking down the will, soul and spirit of a community, oppressing it, makes it easier for politicians and their donors to overcome their righteous voices and resistance. Soon, unable to maintain and uphold their rights in a country whose laws guarantee “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but judicially allows oppressors to staunch their rights, democracy, one voice one vote, becomes compromised.
Dickerson-Despenza leaves no stone unturned in claridly, unapologetically dramatizing the painful, terrible crimes against humanity represented by the Cooper family as a microcosm of the macrocosm. The abomination not only concerns Flint, Michigan, it threatens every community in the US and globally. The higher ups briefly mentioned on Big Ma’s newscasts are as invisible in the play as a clear glass of water looks clean. You have to get up close and examine the molecular structure to note the contamination, corruption, poisonous, corrosive toxicity.
Indeed, though Dickerson-Despenza and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design and composition includes a digital blow up of the litigation against the city and state officials, that the blow up is not visibly large enough for the back row to see the fine print is symbolic. Such litigation is not enough to recompense what the Cooper family has endured in psychic and emotional suffering. And indeed, lengthy jail terms for the Republican officials, including the former disgraced Governor Snyder, must be leveled, if not as a deterrent to Republicans seeking positions of power to line their pockets, but as a warning for citizens to not elect such wanton, miscreant criminally minded individuals, regardless of political party.
To elect moral, efficacious officials, one has to bring out a microscope and “test the waters.” With the lies politicos glibly use to get elected, and the collusion between them and corporations to abuse the public and communities where they settle, this appears to be impossible. However, thanks to Republicans, you can see whether the water is clean or dirty and can assess if the politicians have the public’s interest at heart. Republican extremists which govern their party are making it very obvious that their water is filthy and toxic.
Cullud Wattah covers much ground and speaks volumes about victims, activists and the unseen criminal politicos who abuse their citizens. In its unabashed indictment of racism that emerges from the discussions and conflict between Ainee and Marion, are the warnings. If this happens in one community, it can happen in every community, because certain parties don’t care who is hurt, who dies as long as they 1)make money 2)get away with murder. The title is symbolic inferring the beautiful spirit and resilience of these women who are black. Of course, it refers to Flint’s water which is yellow, and the fact that officials criminally saw “fit” to let the blacks (the cullud) drink it, a hate crime which the federal government must address.
The play is heartbreaking with terrifically current themes. The particular irony and idiocy of white supremacists is that they believe their bought “Republican” politicians will always have their best interests at heart. Those white folks who lived in Flint also drank contaminated water and suffered, but predominately, the black community was hit: this is a crime of federal proportions.
Polluted water, like COVID, is not subject to race. Regardless of your heritage, you get sick. Polluted politicians are subject to race to get elected. Once in office, in their amoral perspectives, the election gives them the legitimacy and impunity to harm citizens regardless of race, creed, religion. But the truly wicked ones unleash their hatred on specific communities, deemed to be too “weak,” to protest and be heard. Flint is emblematic of this. It is to her great credit that Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s Cullud Wattah, its director Candis C. Jones, the wonderful actors and the astute creative team brought this play to The Public. It needs to be seen across the U.S.
Kudos to the creative team not heretofore mentioned: Kara Harmon (costume design) Earon Chew Healey (hair, wigs and makeup design). Cullud Wattah is a must see that runs until December 12th at the Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
The Visitor, a haunting musical based on Thomas McCarthy’s resonant titular film (2007) has been extended at The Public Theater and is ending December 5th, 2021. That we are able to see it at all, given the former president’s COVID botch job, which, for a time, made New York City the global epicenter of death, shuttering theater for months, is nothing short of miraculous.
The egregious hell of the previous administration, including its threatened overthrow of the nation led by the former president and white supremacists who oppose immigration and the constitutional rule of law, may influence one toward a jaded view of The Visitor as woefully “uncurrent.” Some critics suggested this, sadly. Indeed, that is dismissive of the musical’s inherent hope, goodness and prescience. Not to view it through the proper lens of historical time would be as limiting as the unjust institutions and failed immigration policies that the production thematically indicts.
The Visitor, acutely directed by Daniel Sullivan, takes place after 2001 during the Bush Jr. administration when certain groups viewed Muslim immigrants as possible terrorists. The period 2001-2007 was a less divisive time in the nation, but our failed immigration policies did stagnate and worsen, setting us up for future debacles and the growth of white domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, if one’s sensibilities are too upended by the traumas of the Trump administration to enjoy the musical without keeping the 2001-2007 time period in mind, the themes and the human core of this work by Tom Kitt (music) Brian Yorkey (lyrics) Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey (book) will be overlooked and given short shrift.
The themes are relayed principally through the relationships established between white college professor Walter (David Hyde Pierce in an emotional and effecting portrayal), Syrian Tarek (the likeable Ahmad Maksoud) and his girlfriend from Senegal, Zainab (the golden voiced Alysha Deslorieux). Believing Walter’s Manhattan apartment has been vacated, Tarek and Zainab, tricked by an “Ivan,” have been staying there without Walter’s knowledge. What occurs after Walter discovers their presence, takes us back to a time before Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, Republican party nihilism and Democratic governors’ establishment of sanctuary cities to protect the undocumented and waiting asylum seekers.
The opening numbers (“Prologue,” “Wake Up,” “Voices Through a Window”) establish why Walter is amenable to not behaving like a guard dog (who would note Zainab’s accent and Tarek’s swarthy looks) and immediately call the police to arrest the couple. Walter is a professor, not law enforcement and Zainab sees the precariousness of their situation and with passion mitigates their mistake (Zainab’s Apology”). After they leave, Walter finds Zainab’s sketch pad and runs after them. What results is an act of hospitality and generosity, as he allows the couple to stay until they find somewhere else to go.
Walter’s state of mind, character, background and the loss of his wife and emotional destitution prompt this irregular action. On the couple’s part, Zainab who has been through an undocumented female’s hell which we later discover (“Bound for America”) doesn’t trust Walter and presses Tarek to leave, despite their desperate circumstances. David Hyde Pierce, a consummate actor whose Walter floats like a ghost without any sense of purpose, mission or happiness, sparks to interest identifying with the couple’s romantic love (“Tarek and Zainab,”). He wants to trust in their goodness and decency because he has already lost everything worth anything to him and he has nothing left to lose.
Walter, Tarek and Zainab take this incredible risk because of their overwhelming needs. All are visitors to this land of human decency which they extend to each other by hope and a faith that grows and changes their lives. When Tarek teaches Walter how to play one of his djembes (a goblet drum played with bare hands that originated in West Africa) and takes him to the park to play with others (the incredible “Drum Circle”) a bond is formed that will never be broken.
Above all the music (thanks to Rick Edinger, Emily Whitaker, musicians and the entire music team) solidifies the themes of friendship, unity, empathy, humanity. Significantly, it suggests that it is through our cultural differences, if we are open to them, via artistic soul expression, that the commonality among all of us may best be found. These themes, at what appears to be the height of racism and white supremacy in our nation today must be affirmed more than ever. The Visitor does this with subtlety like a grand slam played with two cool finesses.
At the first turning point in the production, the center starts to give way. Though Walter tries to advocate for the inaccuracy of the transit cops’ charges, Tarek is arrested for “jumping” a subway turn style after he pays but can’t fit himself and his drum through it. The cops’ action underscores the inequity of the justice system (if he were white, they probably wouldn’t arrest him). The cops find it “inconvenient” to believe Tarek’s explanation, nor do they follow Walter’s advice to check his card to verify Tarek’s truthfulness.
Discovering Tarek is undocumented, they put him in a detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for Tarek’s situation, Walter hires an attorney, visits Tarek and keeps Zainab encouraged. It is in the detention center that we note the cruelty toward the undocumented who are treated as criminals though they are asylum seekers and willing to work for a better life for themselves. The music, lyrics and Lorin Latarro’s choreography, especially in “World Between Two Worlds” by Tarek, Walter and the Ensemble are superbly expressive, heart-wrenching and powerful.
As the stakes become higher in the second turning point, Tarek’s mother Mouna (the effecting, soulful Jacqueline Antaramian) visits Walter’s apartment looking for Tarek. Events complicate. Walter finds Mouna appealing and authentic. Mouna and Zainab ride the Staten Island Ferry, finally becoming friends (“Lady Liberty”) sharing how they believed the seductive promises of the “American Dream.” Because Mouna and Zainab may never see Tarek again in the U.S., Walter becomes the one they must turn to (“Heart in Your Hands,” “Blessings,” “Such Beautiful Music.”). Beyond hope (“What Little I Can Do”) Walter does his best, but the institutions fail him, fail everyone.
It is through the relationships with Tarek, Mouna, Zainab that Walter’s humanity and empathy are stirred to change his soul and his direction in life. It is the love for Tarek and the hope of his release that changes Mouna’s and Zainab’s relationship with each other. And their relationship with Walter establishes a new level of understanding that there are some “good” people who will help. Finally, it is the stirring of Tarek’s concern for Zainab that helps him realize his spiritual love and connection with her is not bounded by the material plane (“My Love is Free”) or held in by the walls of his jail cell or deportation back to Syria. And it is that spiritual love for her and his connection to Walter that will help him face whatever he encounters.
As an archetype for all sane individuals, Walter realizes the issues underlying Tarek’s, Zainab’s, Mouna’s situation. We are to agree with him, the creative team hopes. These individuals are not “the other” that their nationless position or the white supremacists’ fascistic stereotyping suggests they are: dangerous, encroaching, grifting. In the showstopping “Better Angels” David Hyde Pierce prodigiously, emotionally expresses his song-prayer for Tarek. He petitions against the injustice of Tarek’s situation by a nation which should act better, but itself has become unmoored from its founding ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of human beings. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”)
As Pierce sings, the irony of an older white gentleman whose life has been bled out of him, standing in the gap for a young undocumented Syrian, who is full of vitality and hope, wanting to live his life to the fullest in a country that doesn’t deserve him, is beyond fabulous. It is heartbreaking. Pierce, impassioned, speak/sings it out into the nether regions of spiritual consciousness. Is anyone listening? Have we forsaken our citizen right to help others?
I apologize for being moved as I thought of what was to come because of these failed immigration policies which continued and inspired Trump’s white supremacist fascism: kids in camps at the Southern Border, kids lost to parents for years, the undocumented dying in stifling heat and horrific conditions, proud Trumpers appreciating Steven Miller’s cruelty while donating to grifter Steve Bannon’s fake “Build the Wall” fund.
The Visitor presciently, horrifically intimates what happens if injustice and cruelty are institutionalized and the populace is inured to it or worse, uses it as a grinding post to domestically terrorize others for pleasure’s sake. White supremacists have evolved to do so precisely because of failed immigration policies which a craven, unhinged politician exploited for his own grifting agenda.
Equally terrifying is the war of attrition against decency and the lack of wisdom to appreciate this historically as revealed by The Visitor. If we consider that critics are inured/jaded not to see in The Visitor the failed state of our culture in 2001-2007, that the next eight years augmented via the Obama administration. And while many were thrilled with Obama, in the shadows, white supremacy groups grew by demonizing “the other” until they blossomed to a “first wave” of fascism which supported the president of white supremacy who followed up with inhuman, indecent acts from immigration crimes to COVID deaths. And still no one is suing for “crimes against humanity?”
The character of Walter reminds white males it’s OK to be human and humane and decent and empathetic. To think this production is not “current” enough via its historical perspective is misguided.
In Kitt’s. Yorkey’s, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s work fueling Thomas McCarthy’s film, Tarek, Mouna symbolize the courageous willing to take horrific risks. We need to be reminded of this again and again. Sullivan’s The Visitor seeks to move us from being stones kicked around by politicians, to understand the impossible hardship of leaving all that was once familiar and comforting in the hope of escaping catastrophe only to never gain the security sought (“Where Is Home?/No Home”). As climate change continues to roil the planet and immigration issues exacerbate, we can’t drop a stitch in our understanding.
The actor/singers, phenomenal swings, musicians and creative team stir us to care and act in this call to arms to change our failed historical US immigration policies that have caused horrific pain for asylum seekers and dreamers as they wait for citizenship to no avail. Not only must changes be made, they must be made permanent so that no Executive Order, lawsuit or state can reverse it to pleasure a fascist.
Specific shout outs to David Zinn’s evocative scenic design: the steel backdrop of the detention center and its ironic contrast, Walter’s comfortable apartment. Kudos to Toni-Leslie James (costumes) Japhy Weideman (lighting) and others who helped to make The Visitor a compelling, must-see show. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.
‘A Bright Room Called Day’ at The Public, Tony Kushner’s Haunting Spectres Thread Through Hitler’s Berlin, Reagan’s 1980s and Trumpism
Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day directed by Oskar Eustis, currently at The Public until 15 December (unless it receives another extension which it should) reflects upon humanity confronting evil that on a number of levels appears unstoppable and irrevocable. Throughout the main action and play within a play, Kushner makes clear that those who recognize evil’s force and preeminence, often are too afraid to lay down their lives to fight, though fighting is the action needed to stop wickedness in political, social and economic institutions not constrained by the rule of law.
The play uses at is jumping off point political and social issues undermining the Weimar Republic in Berlin. The setting encompasses events one year prior to the “Eve of Destruction,” when Hindenburg acceded to Hitler’s government take-over after which Hitler evicted parliamentary, constitutional democracy from the minds, hearts and souls of the German people. Kushner examines the parallels of that time with our culture during Reaganism and Trumpism.
The questions he raises are pointed. Some might argue that from the 1980s to now, the decline in our democratic processes and the public’s response appear similar to the public’s response to precursor events in Germany 1933. A Bright Room Called Day relates Berlin, Germany 1933 to 1985 Reaganism devolving to the time of Trump. These three settings represent a turning point when the crisis of the period might have shifted in another direction if good citizens acted differently, affirming the adage, “evil flourishes when good men and women do nothing.” In this play Kushner examines the “What if?” Couldn’t citizens have halted the terrifying dissolution of democracy? Couldn’t they have liquidated Hitler’s fascist dictatorship before he even attempted to manifest his warped vision of the Third Reich’s reign for 1000 years?
The community of individuals we meet at the outset of the play who pop in and out of Agnes Eggling’s (Nikki M. James) lovely apartment are members of the political, liberal left, a combination of artists and activists who are/were at one point communists, socialists, progressives and union activists, one of whom is a homosexual (played by the exquisite, always present Michael Urie). All of these will be consigned to Hitler’s enemies’ list if they remain in Berlin. If captured, they will be deported as state enemies and undesirables and murdered when Hitler constructs and augments his network of slave labor and extermination camps to implement his “Final Solution.”
Kushner’s work which was excoriated when it first premiered in the 1980s has been given an uplift with an additional character, and dialogue tweaking to reference the current siege of Trumpism on our democracy. Kushner posits that our times manifest “inklings” similar to those employed by fascists and Reagan’s corrupt conservatives who sent the nation on a downhill slide which Trump appears to be pitching over the edge into oblivion unless we do something. By drawing comparisons, we are forced to reflect upon the upheaval in our democratic institutions as the political, economic and social divisiveness spurred by Trumpism augments.
Kushner interjects his own commentary as a playwright and interrupts the action during which he actively engages his audience as a silent character whose consciousness he manipulates. Through identification with the people and events in Germany, we, like they, become like the frog that is placed in a pot of cold water. As the heat is turned up to the boiling point, if the frog is alert, he can escape before boiling to death. But he must realize immediately what is happening, so he will not be too lamed to escape. By degrees the audience realizes that they are in a crucible like Kushner’s characters under which a fiery truth blazes. To that truth Kushner posits one must recognize it, or its heat and pressure will pitch one into a death-state of paralysis like Agnes’.
The play’s new character is Xillah. Xillah represents Kushner’s perspectives as a citizen playwright who comments on his play and the policies of Reaganism and Trumpism. Playwright Xillah engages with Zillah his indefinable character whom he’s written into the 1980s. Zillah complains to Xillah about her function in the play. She importunes him for a viable role and purpose. She wishes to step beyond ranting about the emotional paralysis of character Agnes. Watching Agnes frustrates Zillah, for Agnes does little but quiver in fear at the ever-worsening events in Berlin. It is her fears which manifest nightmare presences (Die Älte-the Old One, in a wonderful portrayal by Estelle Parsons) who haunt her and drive her into soul paralysis which will lead to her death under Hitler’s regime.
Xillah, a character in the play framing the Berlin events is portrayed with humorous vitality by Jonathan Hadary. His character criticizes the activities by the cults of Reagan and Trump. He sardonically characterizes Reagan’s presidency and Trump’s “monolithic” personage with abandon in a stream of hysterical epithets that are right-on. Both Xillah and Zillah (Crystal Lucas-Perry is Hadary’s counterpart in a feeling portrayal) comment on the dynamic of the Berlin characters which Xillah (as Kushner) has created. They watch as Agnes, Paulinka (the superb Grace Gummer) Baz ( Michael Urie) Husz (Michael Esper) Gotchling (Linda Emond) and comrades Rosa Malek (Nadine Malouf) and Emil Traum (Max Woertendyke) grow morose and desperate, experiencing the dissolution of the German Republic into fascism. They palpably encounter the manifested evil of the time in the form of Gottfried Swetts (Mark Margolis humorously intrigues in his portrayal). He is the Devil, whose darkness overtakes Germany as Hitler ushers himself into the government and eradicates any goodness that went before.
Kushner’s characters argue about communism, socialism, democratic socialism and the state of affairs. Their discussions fuel their waning activism and encourage impassivity with a few exceptions, for example, Gotchling (Linda Emond) who is continually putting up posters which are torn down continually. We empathize with the Berliners as they react to the brutalities and street fighting, Hindenberg’s ending the government and the Reichstag fire which Hitler blamed on the communists to ban the party, arrest the leaders (his enemies) and consolidate his power base.
The characters react emotionally with disgust and outrage but their impulses to act are largely stymied by fear. They will not move beyond marches and protests that the Brown Shirts help to render bloody and ineffective. And when back room deals are made to put Hitler in power, they become powerless. Like many they appear to believe the propaganda rallies that show support for Hitler, though initially these are largely staged until the rallies gain in momentum and many join Hitler’s party.
The historical events are chronicled with vitality. The characters reveal poignant moments expressing the mood and tenor of the like-minded populace. Baz relates a story of a man’s suicide and his imagined wish to take one of the oranges, he, Baz, has purchased and give it to the dead man as a comfort. Of course, Baz never gives him the orange, but he imagines having done it, ironically comforting himself as the man is beyond being comforted. For Baz it is a horror seeing the dead man’s body pooling blood around it. Baz identifies the cause of the man’s suicide as the despair and immobility to stop the terrible events in Berlin. The suicide rocks Baz to the core. We align the man’s suicide with Baz’s suicide attempt which he stops himself from committing when instead, he has a sexual encounter. Baz’s choice is ironic and the impact of the suicide he witnessed in the streets is nullified by sexual distraction. As Baz, Urie delivers another incredible story later on which sets one reeling. Again, when Baz could take a stand, he chooses not to. Throughout, Urie’s performance is spot on amazing.
In the “intervening” frame play, Zillah attempts to persuade Xillah to write her with character powers that transcend time and space and go back to the past to warn Agnes of the danger of embracing fear and doing nothing. Zillah is upset that Agnes is so overcome, she is zombie-like. One of the humorous parallels is that Xillah, too, is at an impasse (like Agnes) only it is about the direction of this play and how to make it more vital so that it will have a resounding impact on the audience and get them to act. But he is filled with doubts about the function of plays. Also, he fears tampering with what he has already written. Indeed, he could make his play into a worse failure. His quandary is humorous.
Kushner, the frame (the present and 1980s) around which houses his Berlin character dynamic has Xillah remind Zillah of a number of important details, in addition to the chronological events of Hitler’s takeover. As Xillah parallels the then with the now, he affirms that friends living against the backdrop of Trumpism suggested he revisit The Bright Room Called Day because it is prescient and current. Xillah wrangles how best to show the similarities and complains that the characterization of Zillah doesn’t work. However, the character very much integrates the parallels. She criticizes inaction when a nation’s political/social structure disintegrates because the populace becomes overwhelmed and doesn’t act, becoming paralyzed as Agnes is paralyzed. The question remains: how does one move out of paralysis and take effective action which will change things for the better?
The threads of alignment that Kushner makes with Germany that mirror our present are thematically chilling. Xillah reminds Zillah that the Weimar Republic had a constitution like the U.S. but their constitution didn’t save them against Hitler who abolished it. With the constitution gone, Hitler and his underlings and judiciary created laws to further Hitler’s occult mythic vision (the Master Race). And with his own race laws, he legalized the genocide of millions. Of course, Kushner highlights the turning point when death and destruction could have been prevented during the events of 1932-33. But those who saw, like Agnes and her friends, chose to do nothing. Eventually, like the frog slow boiled in the pot, the only thing they can do is escape. If they, as Agnes did, stay, they will be killed or swallowed up like Paulinka to join Hitler’s Third Reich “support group” of murderous maniacal, psychotic, evil accomplices. A different type of death, certainly more horrific and self-recriminating.
Xillah muses about changing the play and warns Zillah that Agnes can’t hear her: she is dead as the past is dead. Zillah continues to beg Xillah. The dialogue that Kushner has written between them is humorous and reminiscent of the “Theater of the Absurd” genre and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, where the playwrights tweak dramatic conventions. This is done to expand audience consciousness. Such creative license demands being available to “thinking outside of the box.” It also leads to the audience having to follow a play’s absurdities which can be as confounding as the illogical, dire thrusts of fascism, Reaganism, Trumpism.
The absurdist feeling becomes that one has been caught up watching oneself as a part of the larger picture which one deludes themselves into believing they can control. In fact the “author” of our lives is not one we’ve necessarily chosen or know. At least Zillah knows her progenitor and argues with him and finally convinces Xillah to lift space/time constraints so that Agnes hears and speaks to her.
This section gives rise to a number of themes in this work that is dense with brilliance. Before Zillah connects with Agnes, we note that Agnes’s spirit atrophies and dies because her fear incapacitates her. Even if Zillah could break through the time barrier and move from the 1980s to 1933, Agnes’s routine of embracing fear and inaction has warped and destroyed any life in her. Life is movement, action, vitality. Doing something, anything (even escaping) would be better than just withering away. The irony of the play is the melding of the frame play into the Berlin story by Kushner/Xillah. He finally allows Zillah to warn Agnes to leave because she is doomed. Though it is not mentioned, we understand that those who did leave Germany early on did manage to save themselves while millions were swept up in genocide and Hitler’s war machine.
Agnes’ reply to Zillah is not what we expect. It is mind-numbing, a warning to Zillah and us about our own time. It has the effect of a final incredible bomb blast that whimpers and fades. The full-on irony is as Agnes exhorts her/us, we hear, but it doesn’t register, it doesn’t matter. Thematically, Kushner suggests that we are plagued by the same inabilities, insufficiencies and cowardice that Husz ranted about in an earlier magnificent scene. Time inevitably doesn’t matter as we are like Agnes. Paralyzed, immobilized by discussion doing little to save ourselves. We must act! But how? To do what? And so it goes.
Kushner’s play should be revisted and it is a credit to The Public and Oskar Eustis for bringing it back in this unsettling, frustrating iteration. The parallels with each time period, whether we deign to acknowledge them or not, are striking. The threads which indict us about our alienation and powerlessness are spectres which should prick us to the marrow of our bones.
Indeed, in our time as we watch the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) illegally devoured by the Trumpist Party with the DOJ stomping down its own institution (i.e. the Inspector General’s Report exonerating FBI officials whom the WH has slandered and insulted) and mischaracterizing the Mueller Report, such “above the law conduct” to loyally support the WH is frightening and dangerous. Additionally, in our time, we note how the Trumpist Party encourages law breaking of fired officials (lawyers and others) to defy congressional subpoenas tantamount to obstruction of justice. And currently, high ranking members of the Trumpist Party in the House of Representatives refuse to listen to non partisan congressional testimony which implicates the White House in potential bribery of a foreign leader, withholding appropriate congressional military aid in exchange for a political smear of the White House’s opponent. In other words, they refuse to uphold their constitutional oath of office and do their job, instead uplifting the “dear” leader’s loyalty pledge to support him in his criminality.
These are high crimes and misdemeanors to add to a long list of acts which we need whistleblowers to come out and speak about: Trumpist bribery of foreign leaders, quid pro quos, his acting above the law, his incurring human rights violations, overthrowing military law, and Trump’s blatant importuning of foreign nations and adversaries to help him overthrow our election processes with smear campaigns against his opponents, the indefensible practice he used to win the 2016 election.
Such lawless behavior in an executive that easily vitiates the separation of powers, and bullies, insults and retaliates against anyone who would attempt to point out his law violations recalls behaviors of fledgling dictatorships. Such dictatorships grow. They make laws into what are solely “good” for the dictator/autocrat as they obviate what is good for the rest of the body politic. And if one counters with opposition? That autocrat will bully, intimidate, censure, retaliate and eventually when no one stops them, kill or destroy any opponents using what it can get away with, first character assassination, then jail, then well placed convenient suicides (check the google article about Deustche Bank’s suicides) then murder.
One may argue that Kushner’s alignment of the present U.S. “leadership” with Germany’s situation in 1932-33 is extreme and overblown. Really? And indeed, if the play “doesn’t work,” are the themes and presentments just too horrible to contemplate? Are we, like Agnes, too overcome, too PTSDed by the WH’s horrific acts to consider that we have already lost our constitution and democracy to an overweening, unlawful executive branch whose party refuses to adhere to constitutional checks and balances?
Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day raises so many parallels, similar threads and questions, that it should be seen. It should be seen not only for the superb performances, but for the humor, for the pith, the juicy pulp of the orange that is being offered as a comfort. And it should be seen as the bright bit of light in the sky before the darkness closes in and we can no longer see clearly fact from fiction. While there is that bit of light, we must discern conflicting alternative narratives from the propaganda that would occlude our minds, souls and hearts and propel us away from human decency and love for each other as citizens of a nation worthy of its ideals.
Kudos to David Rockwell (scenic design) Susan Hilferty and Sarita Fellows (co-costume design) John Torres (lighting design) BRay Poor (sound design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair, wig, makeup design) Thomas Shall (fight director). A Bright Room Called Day runs with one intermission at The Public Theater until 15 of December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
David Henry Hwang’s awards and honors are too numerous to list here. Suffice to say he won the Tony Award, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics Award for M. Butterfly (1988). He is a prodigious author, playwright, librettist and screenwriter who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize three times. With Soft Power, directed by Leigh Silverman, Hwang has crafted a mesmerizing production. Soft Power is a genre hybrid, a musical-fantasy-farce within a satire-comedy with autobiographical overtones. Primarily, the musical within a play concerns Chinese/American custom disparities, U.S./China relations and events around the U.S. 2016 election and afterward. To my mind it is Hwang’s finest theatrical production to date.
I saw a number of his works including the original production of M. Butterfly (1988) and the revival (2017), productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center (Dance and the Railroad-2013, Golden Child-2013, Kung Fu-2014) and an Off Off Broadway production of Yellow Face in 2009. I saw Chinglish on Broadway (2011) twice.
For Soft Power, Hwang wrote the lyrics, with Jeanine Tesori composing the music and additional lyrics. With choreography by Sam Pinkleton and a large Asian cast, Leigh Silverman, a long time collaborator with Hwang, shepherded the creatives and ensemble with sensitivity. Her adroit mastery pushing the envelope to achieve the right balance of comedy, irony, satire, humor, musical-fantasy-farce and stark reality to elucidate Hwang’s varied themes is a prime achievement of this production.
Hwang’s themes in this play/musical are on steroids to his credit. One should see this production a number of times; it is replete with concepts to think about including these: the U.S. is considered a dangerous country and visitors from abroad are warned of the mass shootings and white nationalist terrorist attacks. Among other concepts Hwang confronts with irony in the musical-fantasy sequence are the proliferation of guns. There is a sardonically funny song the Veep sings with the ensemble, “Good Guy With a Gun.” Hwang highlights the increasing bigoted, racist, xenophobic attacks on those who are not “white and right.” And he ironically underscores China’s move toward westernization with the U.S. creep into autocracy under an unnamed (Hwang will not dignify his name, again to his credit) lawless president and the culture his lawlessness promotes.
Another important theme the entire play and the musical presents is what it is to be an American who lives in a democracy whose constitution guarantees the freedoms it does and most especially the right of every citizen to vote. In the musical-fantasy sequence and even in the play that frames the musical, Hwang’s protagonists go head to head arguing the benefits of freedom and democracy vs. China’s autocracy and selection of leaders. Throughout, the playwright zeroes in on what it is like to be a Chinese-American in a nation that had deep xenophobic roots and anti-immigrant sentiment that since the last election have surfaced and would continue to grow into a poisonous tree overshadowing constitutional freedoms unless the equivalent of weed killer in the form of love dissolves it at the root!
The opening scene of the play is autobiographical. DHH is on the street with groceries in front of his home, right before he was stabbed in his neck and nearly died. Played by Francis Jue who is nuanced, innocent, astutely honest, funny and sings with gorgeous resonance and power, DHH questions whether he will be “able to live in the country anymore.” Then the scene quickly shifts. Hwang cleverly dislocates us in time and we follow along to the next scene unaware of what will happen to him and the import of his comment.
In the next scene DHH meets with Xūe Xíng (Conrad Ricamora is near perfect as the debonair, well-meaning, sophisticated, musical lead-Chinese style) head of the North American Division of Dragon Entertainment based in Shanghai. Xūe Xíng presents the “soft power” idea to commission DHH to write a musical based on a film with a hysterical title roughly translated, “Stick With Your Mistake.” Xūe Xíng tells the dubious DHH that because he is a renowned and successful Chinese American playwright, he would be the perfect candidate to write a musical that will open the Dragon Palace in Shanghai when it is finished. But when Xūe Xíng tells him what the film is about, DHH disagrees with the ending based on cultural American values. The film is about a couple who love other people and desire to split up; following Chinese mores, they remain together. We discover later that this film is “close” to Xūe Xíng’s heart, though the Chinese populace is changing and may find the ending “old-fashioned” as DHH suggests.
DHH must leave because he is off to see The King and I then meet Hillary Clinton at a presidential candidate reception. He invites Xūe Xíng to go with him and the married Xūe Xíng brings his lover Zoe Samuels (Alyse Alan Louis). Louis also plays Hillary Clinton in the musical-fantasy sequences and is hysterical when she sings as Hillary the “Song of The Campaign Trail” and then in full throated, uplifted glory, the smashing “Democracy.” She is sensational.
In this scene between DHH and Xūe Xíng and then with Zoe, Hwang establishes many of the humorous tropes that will follow throughout the play. The playwright references differences between Chinese culture and American culture regarding politics and election of leaders. The dialogue reveals the differences in understanding and behavior. And there is the usual mangling of the Chinese language by Americans which is humorous, especially as DHH doesn’t know how to speak his Dad’s and mom’s birth language because he was born in the U.S.
For the Chinese, duty and obligation are paramount. For Americans following one’s heart is paramount. Chinese rarely show emotion; Americans as a group show emotions and allow their feelings to be expressed. Also, during this exchange we see the exemplification of China’s concept of “soft power“ in what Xūe Xíng hopes to accomplish with Chinese-American DHH. DHH will be perfect to write a smash hit for the Chinese in a cross cultural exchange. Humorously, Xūe Xíng references Lion King and Mama Mia, but since they will be seeing The King and I before meeting Hillary, Xūe Xíng hopes DHH will write that type of musical hit for China. Considering the elements of colonialism, DHH ironically points out the problems with the Rogers and Hammerstein II musical as something he would not want to write.
When Xūe Xíng suggests that China be in the position of the colonial power (the “I”) schooling the “King” (the U.S.) the implication is absolutely hysterical. Xūe Xíng’s sardonic riff about the U.S. barbaric Asian war policies abroad (with Japan, Korea, Viet Nam, China) and at home (the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment during WWII) needing to be refined toward civility (as the teacher schools the King and the children in The King and I) is priceless. Also, the concept of China being the advanced and the U.S. being the inferior (it is happening as I write this thanks to the current U.S. president’s policies from Climate Change to tariffs) is not only funny it is incredibly ironic.
Hwang riffs on himself with humor as character DHH responds ironically about his plays-they are not quite in the same vein as Lion King, nor is his idea of a smash musical being “Sticking With Your Mistake.” But it is at this juncture we understand the underlying premise of China’s initiative to curry favor with globalists by “leveraging their cultural assets and spending large sums of money” to create initiatives in the arts, etc. This is how to influence, how to find an acceptable way into other countries’ minds and hearts. When DHH suggests that such a film may not be what the younger Chinese want that they are modernizing toward America, Xūe Xíng suggests that America may become more like China. Hwang’s portentous meaning cannot be understated.
The scene shifts again and DHH’s America is falling apart; Hillary lost. DHH argues with Xūe Xíng about the efficacy of everyone having the right to vote and electing the most qualified candidate in the popular vote and losing in the electoral college which Xūe Xíng finds appalling and illogical. It is a humorously frustrating exchange. The scene shifts; DHH is alone in front of his home in Brooklyn. Xūe Xíng has rubbed his point in about the election in the U.S. DHH questions how he can remain in a country that “voted for a guy that doesn’t believe we belong here,” and remain in a country to be nothing more than “supporting characters in someone else’s story.”
It is then Hwang brings us full circle out from the flashback into the opening scene of the play. As he ruminates about being a second class citizen as a Chinese American in the U.S., something happens that confirms his estimation, but it is beyond expectation. Reality slams into him and us. DHH as David Henry Hwang is stabbed by some white guy. Luckily, he yells in UNACCENTED ENGLISH, “WTF!” and the attacker runs away. As DHH applies pressure to the wound as per the Boy Scout instructions he learned as a kid, he walks toward the hospital and just before losing consciousness and fainting, he hears violins. And the musical-fantasy-satire emerges with chorus, dancing, orchestra and more as DHH hovers between life and death in what is a also a metaphoric rendering of his identity as a Chinese American.
Act One of the musical begins as DHH’s dream. The previous action repeats but with intensified be-spectacled musical numbers sung by Asian actors in white face. In another sardonic twist we are back in time at the beginning of Xūe Xíng’s story revealed from his perspective about his time in the U.S. After he says goodbye to his daughter (Kendyl Ito) who warns him about going to the dangerous country (“Dutiful”) he lands at Kennedy airport (“Welcome to America”) in what Hwang describes as a “deeply militarized, religious fundamentalist, violent society.” Hwang’s focus on Xūe Xíng’s perspective reveals what it is like for a foreign traveler nearly getting defrauded. However, Xūe Xíng, the hero, humorously turns the situation around by hiring a body guard Bobby Bob (the funny Austin Ku) who is always in the shadows to protect him. After all, this is a positive musical.
In this segment, DHH again converses with Xūe Xíng about the play he might write, and they go to meet Hillary (“I’m With Her,” ). In Hwang’s roiling unconsciousness he dreams Xūe Xíng and Hillary bond together as Xūe attempts to teach her his name (“It Just Takes Time”). They satirize the reverse of the relationship in “The King and I” with Hillary in the barbaric country position and Xūe Xíng as the “I.” The scene is sardonic, considering the idealized players; Alyse Alan Louis is an exuberant Hillary (she looks like Chelsea) and Conrad Ricamora is the civil, gentlemanly, Asian leading man. The satire and irony here are profound as they dance a waltz referencing, The King and I.
As the election results are tabulated, the song “Election Night” is sung by the Chief Justice (the very funny Jon Hoche) and the ensemble. They sing a LOL description of the American election process and the dire Electoral College. But at the announcement that the “guy who hates China” won, white nationalists storm the building and in the process DHH is stabbed. In a dramatic duet (“I Am”) beautifully sung by DHH (Ju) and Xūe Xíng (Ricamora) DHH realizes he has been a fake, neither Chinese, nor American in a full blown identity crisis. With Xūe Xíng’s encouragement, he affirms he is one whole not separate and distinct cultures. That viewpoint is one of love. Holding the bleeding DHH, Xūe Xíng counsels himself to the Chinese way of not showing feeling or emotion. As he faints, DHH states “Democracy has broken my heart.” The angry white nationalist mob marches with tiki torches, guns and bats. Xūe Xíng poignantly questions, “What is this America? Why do I cry for America?” as Act I chillingly ends with an emotional and heart-wrenching flourish.
Soft Power as a musical is maverick. It is revolutionary theater breaking genre molds. It diverges in the arc of development which swings like a pendulum including flashback, framing of the main story of DHH’s stabbing and his interactions and impact on Xūe Xíng and vice-versa. The action in the musical loops back revealing the story focusing more on Xūe Xíng’s perspective and the quasi love story between him and Hillary which could be read as symbolic of two countries brought together by love. Of course in DHH’s dream to recovery, there is the realistic component, but the musical is fantastic truth; in it DHH has supplanted Zoe with Hillary.
Additionally, in another amazing twist of the plot and in full on irony in a theater of the absurdist style, Act Two begins with a commentary interlude as a panel sits to discuss the impact of Soft Power fifty years later. Hwang’s panel comments on DHH’s stabbing as a “secondary character” and they argue about the form of the musical being developed in China by Xūe Xíng as “spoken and sung drama.” One expert states there are no American artists, only native craftspeople.
In this brief scene, we as audience members have been shifted via sci-fi to the future. We get to view the play in a retrospective as Hwang comments on himself ironically. The experts (one who specializes in second-world nations-that is what America has become) argues with an American expert, Adjunct Professor of American Folklore at Columbia University about the genre. The Professor argues that some of the New York entertainments were sophisticated: “One of the most popular was entirely about cats.” Clearly, Hwang gets to dish on Broadway’s tourist fare which rankles New Yorkers especially at the holidays. The Chinese refer to these American shows by “a second-world nation” as “regional folk art” which the Chinese as a first world nation elevated. The ironies are telling.
Sadly, their discussion of why DHH was stabbed is Hwang’s factual indictment of white supremacy which his experts fifty years later also refer to as a “random act of violence.” Hwang’s theme of the U.S. as a dangerous country for a traveler is brought to bear for all Americans, especially the politician who would refuse to bring the gun legislation that has been passed in the House to the floor of the Senate.
In reality, David Henry Wang was stabbed before the 2016 election. The violent undercurrents in this nation have been there in each century. America as fantasy-land of the golden dream has many caveats, one of them gun violence, the other xenophobia. These two have been merged into companions by the current president whose rhetoric has exacerbated the violence. Hwang uses the musical to unleash the satire about the election, guns, etc., because when all has been said, satire hits the target most memorably and is unforgettable.
The musical resumes and ends with Hillary overcoming her losing blues and upholding “Democracy,” perhaps the finest song in the show. DHH awakens and the ensemble joins him in singing the reprise of “Democracy,” which is beyond uplifting for not only Americans but for those remaining democracies in the world. Finally, DHH encapsulates what the citizens of this nation believe, “good fortune will follow; if we somehow survive in America.”
Kudos to all creatives involved Clint Ramos (scenic design) Anita Yavich (costume design) Mark Barton (lighting design) Kai Harada (sound design) Bart Fasbender (sound effects design) Bryce Cutler (video design) Tom Watson (hair, wig and makeup design) Lillis Meeh (special effects) Danny Troob (orchestrations) with John Clancy (dance music arrangement/additional orchestrations), Larry Hochman (additional orchestrations) Antoine Silverman (music contractor) Chris Fenwick (music supervisor/music director).
Currently playing at the Public Theater until 17th November, Soft Power is sold out after a number of extensions. Someone may donate their tickets to the Public, so check the theater in the remaining days. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until Soft Power goes to Broadway which it must. The show is astonishing. David Henry Hwang has exceeded even himself and it would be a shame if more people didn’t see it, especially this next year before the 2020 elections. In its hope, its simplicity and complexity, its truth, its charity, it is what we need right now and for as long as we are able to maintain our democratic republic.
The Michaels written and directed by Richard Nelson Tony Award-winning playwright (Best Book of a musical for The Dead) is in its world premiere at The Public. The play is part of the Rhinebeck Panaroma cycle of eight plays which include The Apple Family Plays and The Gabriels.
The Michaels takes place in Rhinebeck, New York on the Michaels’ farm in the kitchen of Rose Michaels (Brenda Wehle) a celebrated choreographer who is facing the trial of her life with an acute illness. Present are David, Rose’s former husband, a producer and arts manager (the continually on point, always listening, fiercely authentic Jay O. Sanders) Sally, David’s wife and a former dancer with Rose’s company. Sally is finely portrayed by Rita Wolf. Joining them are Irenie Walker (Haviland Morris) a former dancer with Rose’s company and Kate Harris, a retired high school history teacher. As Kate Maryann Plunkett is superb and equally on point in her moment-to-moment performance. The next generation of the Michaels family includes Lucy Michaels (Charlotte Bydwell) dancer/choreographer who is Rose’s and David’s daughter and May Smith, (Matilda Sakamoto) Rose’s niece who also is a dancer.
The Michaels is a “slice of life” drama where the development occurs within the characters as they gather for a reunion of sorts together in mindfulness of Rose’s upcoming exhibition and retrospective. They enjoy reminiscing about the past dancing. And they discuss experiences and highlight issues of currency and more. The interactions are laid back and flow like wisps on the wind that are there and gone. Their comments reveal Richard Nelson’s mastery of “everyday” dialogue. With this he manifests the importance of the little things, of appreciating what appears to be the insignificant detail that surrounds our lives, but which indeed, makes up the substance of the days and hours that we live. By emphasizing the apparently unimportant, these elements become the most crucial materials that saturate our beings in wonder.
The drama is layered with various textures. Although on one level, there isn’t much overt action, we note with the passage of time, the “how” of when friends and family are together. In the coherence there is a dynamism. During the process of gathering themselves, Rose physically reveals the nature of her condition: she is exhausted and must rest. In the first segment she goes upstairs to rest and we glide through this without much thought listening to the conversations generation about various subjects related to family, etc.
Nelson builds this situation as the play unfolds, first with lighthearted easiness then with heavier tones. Rose’s illness becomes more and more central to this evening which in fact is a turning point in all of these characters’ lives. But it is the first night they are all together to celebrate Rose’s contributions and celebration of the dance in a coming exhibit. And gradually we realize that the gathering is a reckoning that time is fleeting and their lives are moving in wheel and woe toward a rise and close on the next part of the journey.
As the conversation touches upon the dance world (primarily in New York) where everyone knows everyone else, and subjects come up about the country, politics and more, eventually Lucy and May are inspired to show the dances they are working on. They have a quasi rehearsal in the kitchen which is more of a presentation and we wonder if there is room to dance in the tight space. There is and we are amazed at their grace, their movements, their physicality and comprehension of every inch of the area they make theirs to rehearse in.
Interestingly, their dance becomes symbolic as Rose watches their progress. Another generation is rising as the previous generation of dancers is passing. We appreciate Lucy’s and May’s energy and vibrance which is a counterbalance to the stasis of the conversation which isn’t a climactic series of revelations, but of small personal observations, opinions, shared memories and moments.
As Rose’s daughter and her niece dance, Rose, may be overcome by the realization of what once was that will never be again. She falters in her strength, exhausted from the illness. She must leave the gathering once again to rest and Kate goes with her a caretaker of sorts. This is a recognition for Lucy who goes for a walk with May to deal with this incident and perhaps consider the increasing changes that will continue to occur in her mother’s condition..
In this segment where Rose is in excruciating pain and must go up for her pills assisted by Kate, a chain reaction like a surge of current ripples through the group. Expressions of what will happen spill out. It’s an irony. Mortality has a way of sneaking into the conversation when friends with a history together sit with drinks and food. Rose’s pain attack delivers a hushed response from friends and family. The characters’ sub rosa emotional ebb and flow breaks the surface and we intimate how they may be thinking what life will be like without Rose. But as David characterizes it succinctly, Rose’s condition “is what it is.” Kate will continue to help Rose deal with all practical matters. And when Kate returns to continue the dinner preparation, she mentions that Rose and she did discuss Rose moving in with her into town, leaving the farm, at some point in the future.
These are telling moments toward which all of the other “unimportant” details actually move. And we understand that this is a network of individuals who have circled each other and had their being around Rose who has been an artistic leader and the fountain from which they have been drinking and receiving their nourishment. Indeed, it is a credit to Rose and her congeniality and generosity that her former husband and she have remained friends and that David and Sally are welcome there, integral to this dinner at her farm.
As Kate finishes preparations, they converse and the others help set up the table and begin to eat, there is a familiarity that is stunning and exceptional. All of us have been in this place; we bond with the actors’ characterizations and their acceptance of “what is is, and what’s next is next.”
In revealing what is mundane and ordinary, the precious actions and conversations of these unique individuals are lifted to a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. They are there, in this space around the table eating and communing. It is a holy event. And because the ensemble brilliantly appear to be so “matter-of-fact” about it, we understand that for them such an event will never return again.
Kudos to the scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West whose functional, well-thought out spacial arrangements and utilitarian props and set pieces i.e. stove, etc., appeared authentic. Likewise, co-costume designers Susan Hilferty and Mark Koss conveyed the mood and tenor of this family unit of relatives and friends in their dress. Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer) Scott Lehrer (sound designer) rounded out the creative team. The dances based on Original Choreography by Dan Wagoner were superb and kudos to Sara Rudner for her dance coaching.
The Michaels runs with no intermission until 24 November at The Public Theater. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,’ by Ntozake Shange in revival at the Public Theater
You cannot watch for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf without your muscles vibrating in joy to the rhythms of the music of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. And when it is set to the dance with musicians pealing out the songs of multicultural generations with her choreopoem delivered enthusiastically in the personal languages of black women from various backgrounds using their unique words, gestures and dance movements, it is simply grand.
for colored girls... directed by Leah C. Gardner with choreography by Camille A. Brown is now in revival at the Public Theater. Originally, the work premiered on Broadway in 1976 and received a Tony nomination. Notably, it is the second play by a black woman to reach Broadway, preceded by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Shange updated the original choreopoem in 2010. She included additional material, the poem “positive,” and added references to The Iraq War and PTSD.
This iteration in its maverick coolness is a celebration not only of black women. It is for women everywhere. The work recalls us to a time when women reveled in the identity and unity of being female. It was a time in the feminist wave when they rejoiced being in a community of sisters from around the nation and the world. It was a time to become visible, be heard, speak truth to power, overcome, conquer. Considering the crisis and chaos the current WH administration attempts to breed in our culture in concert with a senate majority leader supportive of the white patriarchy who revel in misogyny, embrace white nationalism and leverage religion as a political tool, it is time to revisit the themes and messages of for colored girls… and view them through the lens of womenhood, including those who are most in bondage, white women.
Shange’s choreopoem as in other productions includes music and dance with some poems sung. It is performed by seven women each sporting a dress of a different color which combine to make up colors of the rainbow. As an ironic note, remember that all colors combine to create the color white representing what is sanctified and holy, if you will. Indeed, this “is enuf.”
The woman/actors depicted in Shange’s majestic choreopoem are as follows: brown (Celia Chevalier), yellow Adrienne C. Moore) blue (Sasha Allen) red Jayme Lawson) purple (Alexandria Wailes) orange (Danaya Esperanza) and green (Okwui Okpok Wasili). Together and individually, they dance to express their identities throughout the work and also listen and partake in the community by sharing their wisdom and experience. At the outset of the production, each moves to center stage where via monologue, they contribute their personal message of womanhood.
As the various women play “tag, you’re it,” the first to begin, the woman in brown, steps into herself and with her own dialect, rhythms, gestures and carriage tells a story from her youth about her love fantasy Touissant. She first read about Touissant in the “forbidden” adult section of the library. Touissant was the black general who fought for France and ended up starting his own revolution reinforcing the Haitian slaves who ignited an insurrection against their bondage. Touissant continued their work and inspired a revolution against oppression which ended in a free Haiti.
The woman in brown’s love is metaphoric and symbolic. Touissant represents freedom from enforced bondage. In seeking him as her fantasy lover, the woman embraces the freedom to be herself in a culture that attempts to nullify her voice and identity. When she shares that she meets up with a boy named Touissant Jones, she realizes that one is similar to the other in not “taking any guff” from white people. She decides in her quest for escape from white supremacy’s mores (she had planned to to go Haiti) she will continue with the real Touissant Jones and become the freedom that Touissant metaphorically represents. She will make her own place regardless of whether “they” recognize her or not, for she has empowered herself to know who she is.
Each of the women relate their personal stories in choreopoems. Some are humorous. For example, the woman in yellow shares giving up her virginity in a buick on the night of her graduation. When queried about it by the woman in blue, she tells her, “It was wonderful!” Each of the women chime in about where they “lost it.” The effect is funny and the sharing brings the group together in community. Moving in a different direction, the woman in blue riffs on her experiences running off at sixteen to dance with Willie Colon in the Bronx where she feels sublime dancing the mambo, bomba and merengue all night. But when Colon doesn’t show, she goes to a bar where she learns the beauty and subtly of musicians playing the blues. Her time center stage ends with a song/poem to the power of music and life. Sasha Allen’s voice is incredible.
The woman in red gives a lament about throwing herself into the pursuit of a lover then ending the affair, a place all the women have been as they “dance to keep from” cryin’ and dyin.'” Then there is a transition; the light signals the emotional shift which deepens into the harder subjects beginning with rape. But is it rape when you know your rapist who is a friend or close family member? Each of the women relate their wisdom and finish each other’s thoughts for all have experienced the “latent rapist’s bravado.” These are “men who know us…that we will submit and relinquish all rights in the presence of a man…especially if he has been considered a friend…”
This section is particularly powerful in light of the #metoo movement. The women in the beauty of Shange’s verse and the rhythms of their movements share how the “nature of rape has changed.” You “meet your rapist in coffeehouses sitting with friends.” We can “even have them over for dinner and get raped in our own houses by invitation, a friend.”
Sadly, these lines are even more salient today as we hear the statistics: one in three women are raped in their lifetimes and more than a few are raped more times by different men. One thinks of the power dynamic of the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers, the Bill O’Reillys, the Roger Aileses, and all those invisible bosses or friends who laud their “latent rapist bravado” towering over subservient females while boasting about their conquests in gyms and lockers rooms, while showering together. Women reduced, vilified, hated, objectified, say little for fear of more abuse or loss of a job and career. Or they are PTSD frozen by the audacity that someone took what wasn’t theirs to take. The #metoo movement is a first step. When the “latent rapists” are in jail and the men and women they would trample over with their violence are in positions of power, this justice will indicate the culture is climbing to the mountaintop.
Whether latent or verbally harass raped or physically abused, rape is violence. There is nothing sexual about it. In the infantile man’s mind, his penis is a weapon to slay and conquer women. Nothing adult or masculine! A man’s sexuality and masculinity are expressed in tenderness, truth and soul giving as the various women point out in their comments about men and relationships. But who is mentoring these traits of grace? Certainly not the president, or Jeffrey Epstein or Bret Kavanaugh or the Republicans and others in positions of power in business, politics and elsewhere who have sexual abuse on their resumes, hidden by AMI’s “Catch and Kill” program. (Read Ronan Farrow’s titular book on this subject.)
From rape, the rainbow of women present choreopoems about abortion, domestic violence, abandonment, devastating relationships and seeking identity through sex and love. And in the sharing of their trials, hurts and losses, especially the loss of self-hood, there is a benefit. Healing comes with love and empowerment to resurrect a new self inspired by the community of women who understand and uplift.
One of the more powerful, humorous and profound presentations references how women give their self-hood and identity to men and or the culture/patriarchy. The audience responded with laughter at what the woman in green meant metaphorically and symbolically with the refrain, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self?” Okwui Okpokwasili as the woman in green is riotous in her portrayal and stance as a woman who has realized that she has been giving all of herself away to one or many who don’t really understand or want her being.
“i want my own things/ how i lived them/ & give me my memories/how I waz when I waz there/ you can’t have ’em or do nothin’ wit em/stealin’ my shit from me/dont make it yrs/makes it stolen”
Okpokwasili’s presentation resonated deeply not only with women but with men. Stealing is an analogy with the robbery of self and what one deems most valuable. In this instance, it also includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being that has been robbed by the culture and those brainwashed into theft. Just Wow!
The most poignant choreopoem concerns soul sickness and fear in men that converts to abuse and torment. The woman in red shares the dramatic events that encompass her children’s deaths at the hands of a former partner. The pain and torment from these experiences are related to the community of women who give a laying on of hands to bring on healing. And by the end of this section and the conclusion of the production, each of the women separately then in unity chant as a chorus whose vibrations go out into the audience, “I found god in myself & I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” At this point the women though they may have considered suicide because of what they have experienced, in the companionship of sistahs have brought themselves and each other to the end of their own rainbows, “fiercely.”
This production is momentous. Shange’s poetry shimmers on the page. The creative team makes the director’s vision equally shine with brilliance. Kudos to Myung Hee Cho (scenic design) Toni-Leslie James (costume design) Jiiyoun Chang (lighting design) Megumi Katayama (sound design) Martha Redbone (original music) Deah Love Harriott (music director) Kristy Norter (music coordinator) Onudeah Nicolarakis (director of American Sign Language).
A caveat, however, is that some of the lyricism and the poetic language is lost in the exuberance of the performers’ actions, some more so than others. Specifically, the words, the expressions in all their glory are not always clear. Sometimes, these were garbled or faded as if on the wind. That is a fabulous conception, however, it doesn’t serve the themes that can resonate and should resonate with the audience, especially the men as they learn about women, a subject they often profess to know little about. Men above all need to know the “what” of women’s experiences.
Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s work is rapped quickly, exuberantly. However, each word is treated with “kid gloves,” to add a simile, like a diamond, or precious ruby. Each word is articulated, pronounced clearly, enunciated. Why aren’t Shange’s words treated like such jewels? Every word is vital to our understanding.
I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the performers rushing over the poetry to make the production come in at a certain time. In my section of the audience, humorous segments were missed. Sitting in the round the audience opposite us laughed. The same occurred when we laughed, the audience on the opposite side were silent. Great, if that is a symbolic/thematic notion. I understand, but don’t agree if that is the intentional direction.
Shange’s poetic phrases and word choices are heady. The performers are there to tell a story, to act and be heard and understood. What Shange is saying we must understand. All of it! Okwui Okpokwasili’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…” was hysterical and deep, and the audience around me laughed and enjoyed that choreopoem because she slowed down, enunciated, paused, articulated; the same occurred with Adrienne C. Moore. And Alexandria Wailes’ signing was excellent and powerful. But some of the other women at times didn’t completely come through to us. That disappointed me because I loved the production’s energy and profound themes. Despite that caveat, it is smashing!
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf runs with no intermission at the Public Theater until 8th December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s apotheosis about a war monger who fires up for battle and yawns with boredom when he must live peaceably in the community brings to mind a ravaged soldier whose PTSD has so overcome him that he prefers living on the edge of death to energize himself to life. If he must choose between bloodshed, battle and calm, give Coriolanus carnage that he delivers, the gorier the better.
What does one do with such a Roman in a time of scarce resources on a planet ravaged by the doomsday scenario of global warming? Make him a politician to organize and straighten out issues in a time of great unrest in the most dire of conditions? Indeed, then watch him self destruct. For politicians must schmooze, flatter, promise, swallow crow, apologize and act with humanity and forbearance. Coriolanus is fit for battle, not for compromise, leader of his own personal autocracy which cannot be countermanded. Politics requires equanimity or the appearance of it. Of this he is incapable.
Shakespeare’s protagonist has a bit of the hero of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 award winning film) without Jeremy Renner’s heartfelt agony and recognition of the mammoth loss of his former self before he signed up for war. Indeed, Coriolanus as portrayed by Jonathan Cake has much of the robotic machine killer with whom one has a devil of a time empathizing, especially as he rants and raves against those not born to a privileged background, from no fault of their own. Cake’s Coriolanus lacks interest, love or concern for others, except his wife (Nneka Okafor) son (Emeka Guindo) and mother (the wonderful Kate Burton). For his patrician friends he shows equal measure and latitude, for example Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere) Cominius (Tom Nelis) and Titus Lartius (Chris Ghaffari) who advise him and fight with him. For his marvelously bellicose foes like Tullus Aufidius (Louis Canelmi) he bestows his complete veneration and worship.
As for the hurting, starving crowds clamoring for grain while the patricians’ storehouses flow with plenty? Let them eat each other in a zombie apocalypse. Coriolanus will none of it. Indeed, at the outset of the production, director Daniel Sullivan has placed a locked up barrel holding water downstage which the plebeians attempt to break into. But only Coriolanus holds the key to the lock and only he has access as he gives water to his son and denies his thirsty underlings. Charity stops first and last with self and family in a time of crisis such as that which confronts this deteriorating Rome, evocatively represented with a Mad Max scenic design by Beowulf Boritt of scattershot, burned out piles of garbage, remnants of the past, rather like Bob Ewell’s (To Kill a Mockingbird) scrummy playland hovel next to a massive town dump.
Because the rabble are deprived, there is civil unrest against the elites which if not quelled will threaten the security of the state, making it vulnerable to Rome’s enemies. However, Coriolanus answers the plebeians’ complaints with epithet and insult (they are curs and scabs) and argues that if he had the opportunity, he would slaughter them and create a mountain with their carcasses.
Some explanation is given for his wrath against the fickle, unreliable lower classes. His is an elitist patrician nature roiled by his aggressive, assertive mother. When he was a child she encouraged him to abusive dominance exemplified when he attacked the most beautiful and delicate of nature’s creatures by chomping off the wings of butterflies. Being so schooled against softness and generosity, he has no tolerance for the lazy, cowardly plebeians whose unmeritorious behaviors deserve no handouts. He states this to their faces in the opening scenes and we divine that his rancor is most grievous when he rails that he has provided the security of Rome while these poor and unfit do nothing to help him, but quailing in fear, flee even the thought of battle.
The situation is certainly egregious with the Volsces who come to attack. To get the corn they need to stem Rome’s hunger and murmurings, Coriolanus like a Titan hero single-handedly in “Incredible Hulk” fashion goes against these foes and delivers the goods without the help of the commons who slow him down. He emerges victorious from Beowulf Boritt’s ramshackle tin gates set, bloody and triumphant, but arrogant to the point of caricature!
Was ever there such a raging hero hewn from the trials of confronting daily doom as the populace struggles against diminishing resources in Sullivan’s fascinating, ominously foreboding vision? Never. And Shakespeare forges from his hyperbolic character the tragic flaw that caves in Coriolanus’ life, legacy and career: his overweening pride, and his fearsomeness in not being shy to express his superiority to those lowlife “deplorables” who hate him.
Coriolanus certainly is reminiscent of other leaders we know whose arrogance and inability to apologize runs before them. However, Coriolanus is intrepid, mighty and uber skilled in battle. In this he is admirable. The current arrogant and boastful who lead are 100% image and 0% substance, bullying, cowardly and shallow like those whom they represent. That both Coriolanus and the resident of the White House are unfit for politics is their only similarity. Coriolanus’ pride is based in fact and follows an important logic that is downright Puritan in a time of destitution. If one doesn’t contribute to the good of the society, then one is not worthy of the grain that others have supplied. Freeloaders are not welcome!
Shakespeare’s tragedy revolves around his protagonist being lured into the political sphere which he hates for he is not social. He is too “in your face” real to grovel in flowery phrases, alluring promises and imaginative disingenuousness to please the masses. He is direct, frank and authentic and cannot apologize or “fake it” to front those he despises.
However, he suppresses his best judgment and accepts a position which is offered to him. The conspiracy against him blows up when the Tribunes who despise him Sicinius (the excellent Jonathan Hadary) and Junius Brutus (the equal of the pair Enid Graham) incite the plebeians to revoke the offer of the position. This is upon condition that Coriolanus does not “bow” to the voice of the people. This untenable situation requires Coriolanus to be humble and compromising; this is an impossibility which results in his banishment by the Tribunes. Coriolanus counters with the statement that he banishes Rome from his presence and stature. With solemnity, he suggests that there is a place for him, away from Rome.
But there is not. Though he joins Rome’s former enemy Tullus Aufidius of the Volsces intending to avenge his disgrace and dishonor of banishment by destroying Rome, it is a rush to judgment. The momentous decision means that he will destroy his mother, wife, son and friends who have not joined the Volsces. In the most insightful and powerful scene in the production (thanks to Kate Burton and Jonathan Cake’s whining “but mother” which reveals his enslavement to her dominance) Voluminia persuades him to betray Aufidius and fight for Rome not Volsces. It is Coriolanus’ act of sacrificial, stoic death. Aufidius will certainly kill him for his betrayal. That Voluminia has raised her son to war so that he can ultimately die to save her is unnatural and wicked for a mother. Doesn’t Voluminia and his family have other options? But their relationship as Cake and Burton portray it is fraught with issues of power dominance and abuse as the brute Coriolanus is reduced to a mewling weakling by his mother. He accedes to her wishes.
The production’s emphasis works at times and at other times is spotty. The rag-tag Costume Design by Kaye Voyce, Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, the Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman (strongest at the conclusion) the Soudd Design by Jessica Paz, the Composer Dan Moses Schreier’s music all convey Sullivan’s vision and themes soundly to resonate for us today. What happens to the haves and have nots when the law of diminishing returns lets loose annihilation because of the willful negligence and stupifying greed of previous generations’ corporate elites? Sullivan’s answering backdrop for the play is acute and frightening.
On the other hand, the empathy that we could feel for the plight of Coriolanus struggling against his own character wobbles perhaps because his character portrayal is one-note, at times cartoonish and lacking in depth. In the scenes with Burton’s Voluminia the depth of Cake’s Coriolanus shines, however. Shakespeare’s characterization reveals a character caught by his own ego between a rock and a hard place. He is betrayed by the Tribunes (his mother’s rant in their faces is largely ineffective) who capitalize on his arrogant weak character, lure him then back him into a humble pie corner from which he implodes.
And when he decides to punish Rome by depriving the society of the one way he has greatly benefited it by delivering death to its door? Once again he is thwarted, this time by his mother. And yet, there is no solace, nor sorrow nor identification at the conclusion that one might feel with Cake’s portrayal of a man who has undone himself. This is a weakness of the production which in all else especially Sullivan’s vision of the future is pointed.
Coriolanus is enjoying its last presentation today, 11 August. Performances have been sold out. However, there may be seats released if you are lucky and able to get to the Delacorte Theater well before curtain time at 8:00 pm.