Sunday, March 5, 2017

Bliss and Awe: An Approach to Political Theatre

When the dry ice rolled off the stage and floated across my thin child-like arms I was hooked. As theatre artist we create the vessel for awe by using a mixture of words, movement, and rituals to mold a vase. And then we conjure and call forth and allow the empty space to be filled. We have to be careful what we call forth because there is an awesome power we hold in our possession.

It was 1986 and I was sitting in a tiny, dingy black box at Miami Dade Community College. My parents took me out that evening because they wanted to see a show called “Dreamgirls.” I had no expectation of theatre because I had never seen any before. I was a child of TV. When we walked into the tiny community college theatre I was skeptical. What could happen in a space this small and black? This was my first theatre experience and I soon discovered the power of awe. As theatre artists, we have a power that can be used in a constructive or frivolous way: we create rituals to give a sense of awe. Unlike TV or movies, our approach is highly symbolic and representational.

Fast-forward almost 30 years later and I'm in a tiny theatre in the East Village. I'm dramaturg'ing a concert show about the Rwanda genocide. The director decides to invoke some of that representational magic and ritual with the mundane object: the black binders with the scripts. He coaches the male actors to use the binders as machetes and axes to bring down on their hands at key moments. They're simulating the decapitation and horror that spread over 100 days in Rwanda. The sound of limbs being severed sounds like cabbage according to survivors.

CHOP, CHOP, CHOP
CHOP, CHOP, CHOP

The pound their feet on the ground while sharply bringing their binders down into cupped hands. A few days later, we are in this tiny space along with UN delegates from Rwanda, survivors, and American audience members. The chopping begins with the binders. The tension rises in the room as the play progresses. Some of the delegates are leaning forward. Their expression could be mistaken for smiling if it wasn't for the water gathering around the rim of their eyes. One of the Rwandan delegates runs outside and past me.  I follow her. She is coughing, choking, and tears are streaming down her face. She apologizes for her outburst and walks back and forth in the hallway.

CHOP, CHOP, CHOP
CHOP, CHOP....

The female actors conjure the spirit of the maimed and wounded by curling their hands up. An African drummer gently taps the opening beat to The Beatles “Blackbird.” Their lost hand transforms with music into that Blackbird flying in the sky. Dancers come out who now transform that Blackbird back into a personification of what they have lost of themselves. Several audience members are openly weeping as the dancers flitter about, comfort the female actors and dance away. The world returns to their situation, their lost hand, their loss of womanhood. It all happens in a few simple moments. The vessel is created, the ritual is invoked, and the audience is moved, each in their own way. Each person fills the vase with their own experiences of loss, betrayal, and injury. We aren't in Rwanda. We are in a tiny theatre in the East Village with people crowded on top of each other. Cynical New Yorkers, genocide survivors, Rwandan diplomats. We are a village.  We are living an experience of truth through this ritual. For thousands of years humans have gathered around theatre for these rites. We need them now more than ever. 

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