This review begins in the middle. I am in love (I think) I’ve come upon what seems to me one of the most piercing, ambitious and poetically expansive new plays of this globally conscious century—but it’s difficult to share the depth of my emotional and intellectual excitement. Most of the literary agents, producers, critics, and media types in attendance at the March marathon weekend of the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., are too hyped up about the other five plays—more straight-up, traditional works—on the festival menu. Maybe the play that has me in thrall, this self-critical narrative being spun by Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the break/s, is too autobiographical, too self-reflective. Maybe it’s too foreign and exotic, the whole culture and content of global hip-hop in which this electric play is difficultly rooted. Perhaps the formal tropes of hip-hop theatre have become too ubiquitous—hence, too familiar—to still be considered as pushing the envelope. You know how fast hip-hop moves adhere to become convention: the solo spoken-word-slash-performance-artist-slash-playwright flinging his agile body across the stage, the VJ/DJ on the turntables deftly pulling the record back, the other live musicians maintaining the pace through beatbox and drums.
Looks can be deceiving, though. You can spot the graffiti on the wall and ignore its artistic import. You can read signs on the road and still miss the destination. So I feel on the lam at this year’s Humana Fest at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The play I dig isn’t the one the New York Times sees fit to praise. The show I care most deeply about seduces and entertains but isn’t always willing to spoon-feed spectators or give the non-hip-hop heads an easy break. Everyone else seems to like plays they already recognize, new works they can report on back home as having been pertinent and timely. Some look for the next box-office hit, while others strain to see thematic patterns and trends even when there aren’t any: “The schisms in American society, both macro and micro, were on vivid display,” one critic intoned, struggling vainly to sum up this year’s Humana. Isn’t that the subject and schema of every play that’s ever been wrought since the advent of American drama?
So before I sink my teeth into the break/s, this review starts in the middle—with the middle-class audience that hankers for the kind of spry, polished works they already know, and whose unalloyed interest many of our theatres regularly try to engage. Gina Gionfriddo’s saw-toothed Becky Shaw, for instance—with its unbeatable combination of absorbing plot, moral edge, scathing one-liners and surprising depth—rests confidently in the genre of boulevard comedy-drama. In a different world (one less risk-averse to the talents and salability of women writers), this play would have instantly debuted in the commercial realm—it wouldn’t need the imprimatur of an annual festival or nonprofit outfit. Not unlike Wendy Wasserstein, Theresa Rebeck, Adam Rapp, David Mamet or Neil LaBute, Gionfriddo trades in the psychic catastrophes of recognizably human but often cruelly articulate characters whose relationships become altogether too emotionally close or incestuous. Her premise here springs from a blind date that turns calamitously awry: A newlywed couple, Suzanna and Andrew, attempts to fix up Suzanna’s childhood friend Max with Becky, the gorgeous but desperately lonely title character who works with Andrew at a law firm. Trouble is that Max, an emotionally closed-off money manager (played with withering hauteur by David Wilson Barnes, in the festival’s juiciest performance), is a cold-blooded monster with a jaundiced view of love (“Love is a happy by-product of use,” he says. “It’s a feeling. Like hunger, like cold.”) and an ungallant ego to match, and there are strong hints that Becky, despite the mask afforded by her quirkiness (she arrives on her first date in a bright chartreuse bubble dress) and physical allure (she’s played winningly by Annie Parisse), might be a bundle of unsettled nerves, a too-needy creature best avoided at all costs.
The author of After Ashley (widely considered the hit of the 2004 festival) and a writer for TV’s “Law & Order” (see page 32), Gionfriddo displays in great furls of dialogue her linguistic verve and her instinct for building suspense. It comes as no surprise that Becky Shaw, cracklingly staged by Peter DuBois, has already been picked up by Second Stage Theatre for a January ’09 New Your premiere. In essence, the play’s title character is a sort of tabula rasa onto which all the other characters onto which all the other characters project their vulnerabilities and true natures. Gionfriddo’s acerbic interest lies in the relationship havoc to that issues from her characters’ attempts to honorably deal with class and ethical conundrums—and she’s cunning and articulate enough to firmly affix her ideas in the play’s lacerating repartee and soapy dynamics.
In their respective ways, the two other straightforward comedy-dramas at Humana—Carly Mensch’s All Hail Hurricane Gordo and Lee Blessing’s Great Falls—hold interest as well. Except that Mensch’s Hurricane, about an emotionally stunted young-adult man and his fretful tennis-instructor brother who struggles to take care of him (they were abandoned by their parents), fizzles as either a realistic depiction of social maladjustment (that is never named) or a poignant fable about the bonds of brotherhood. Although Mensch’s story about slackers is nicely realized, her setup—the appearance of a young woman who rents a spare room upsets the brothers’ fragile existence—is pat and predictable. Produced in association with the Cleveland Play House, where it will be staged next season, Hurricane, at least, gives exposure to the 24-year-old Mensch, who has emerged from New York’s Ars Nova company and the Lila Acheson Wallance American Playwrights program at Juilliard, where she is still a fellow. Her play Len, Asleep in Vinyl premieres at Second Stage Uptown this summer.
Great Falls, on the other hand, may not be the most path-breaking creation of the usually topical author of A Walk in the Woods, A Body of Water, Thief River, Going to St. Ives and Two Rooms—but as an exercise in how to write touching, character-driven dramas, it is clearly the work of a master. It’s quite something to witness how much nimble technique, playful cunning and theatrical grace Blessing is able to invest in a narrative (the fallout of a divorce, not on the spouses who had a bad breakup but on the lives of those close to them) that is such familiar territory. Sensitively directed by Lucie Tiberghien, Great Falls features Tom Nelis and Halley Wegryn Gross as a stepfather and his foul-mouthed 18-year-old stepdaughter on a road trip of mutual self-discovery. Blessing drops us into their journey in media res—while the pair is driving from Nebraska deep into the American Northwest—and teases us into thinking that what we are witnessing might be a kidnapping. When it’s clear that no abduction is taking place, he toys further with expectations: Might this hotel bedroom scene be the playing out of a Lolita-style sexual fantasy? Nope, that’s another canard. Gradually, Blessing lets the ambiguity of the situation come into focus: The stepdad is actually a good guy who hopes to repair his relationship with his stepdaughter, a fellow writer. The ultimate effect of Blessing’s slyly discordant plot manipulations is to set hurdles for the audience and de-familiarize the psychic and emotional unraveling of the play’s two characters. Blessing’s approach—he never reveals the characters’ real names; they’re simply referred to in the program as Monkey Man and Bitch—may irritate some audience members, because most dramas aren’t hip to coy perspective shifts. Yet this device theatricalizes, through the subtle use of language, the disjunctions that occur when two people who are at transitional places in their lives are also moving from place to place, both in the geographic sense and the intimately psychological one. By calling attention to its taut constructedness, Great Falls paves the way for Nelis and Gross not just to hash out their characters’ differences but also to draw them closer together. By fixating a bit on the sexuality of the young woman, a wiseass in the Juno mold facing an unplanned pregnancy, the play is able to later unpack a truckload of confessions without edging into cliche or sentimentality. Great Falls wrenches the heart.
Of the other three full-length offerings of this year’s Humana Festival, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, Jennifer Haley’s wild tale of a kill-the-zombies video game that gradually controls the lives of four middle-class suburban families, is the biggest hoot. Pitched like a horror movie, Haley’s play richly exploits the addictive pleasures of multiplayer, online video-gaming—ingeniously, she marries the theme of alienated teens who find refuge for their angry feelings of dispossession in a gruesome PlayStation-like world with the dystopian phantasms of Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley. The more persuasive the medium, she posits (echoing the pervasive fears at the beginning of the television era), the more dangerous it is. In Neighborhood 3, a cast of four—each playing three or four parents and teens, living in a neighborhood of manicured lawns and identical houses—skillfully depicts the split between real and virtual worlds that mirror each other (thanks to a GPS guidance system that can transform a quiet suburban street into a zombie-infested one). As the motley of strange characters becomes open to the illusory environment of gaming, one by one they surrender and slavishly wire themselves into the stimulation machine. The cost isn’t just their humanity but their very lives. Think Nightmare on Xbox Street. A smart, 30-year-old Brown University graduate, Haley has successfully created chillingly deadpan stage language for her play’s bloody game landscape (“Enter stealth mode and proceed to the Final House,” an ominous voice declares). I wouldn’t be surprised if some corporation hires a programmer to adapt Neighborhood 3 into an actual videogame.
This Beautiful City is an honorable and bland disquisition about the state of the Evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, headquarters of Focus on the Family. A documentary in the form of a musical, written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, this two-and-a-half-hour show was performed at the Studio Theatre in D.C. this past June after its Humana premiere. Slated to be seen at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., in the fall and New York City’s Vineyard Theatre in early 2009, the show is based on 10 weeks of research and interviews by a team of actors from the New York-based Civilians. During the course of their talking to dozens of evangelicals, political leaders and other Coloradans of faith about the city and their beliefs in 2006, a sex-and-drug scandal involving evangelical pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church erupted. Haggard was outed as a client of a gay prostitute, and this revelation, which is the central event of Beautiful City‘s first act, prompts a critical reexamination in the second.
Neither as politically incisive as The Laramie Project nor as formally experimental as any of Anna Deavere Smith’s political solo performances, This Beautiful City works hard not to disrespect real voices (splinter groups of fundamentalist Christians, a transgender outcast, nonreligious residents, members of a black Baptist congregation) that form its too-dutiful mosaic. Repetitiously, characters warn us of the dangers of religious fanaticism, extol the virtues and powerful sway of the mega-churches or gleefully comment on the hypocrisy of the fallen Haggard’s anti-gay rhetoric. (There are a few standouts: Stephen Plunkett as a New Life pastor and Marsha Stephanie Blake as a fiery preacher who takes over a black church.) But while the Civilians bend over backward to show that they are genuinely curious about the people within the evangelical community, they don’t evince enough of an enterprising ideological stance to expose how these churches influence national policy. As a work of journalism, This Beautiful City could be commended for its diversity and breadth, yet it doesn’t get deep enough into the material—a firsthand interview of Haggard after he has been forced out, for example, would be a sine qua non of any serious investigative expose. (As a substitute, Haggard’s son Marcus addresses his father’s troubles.) Whatever punch or political urgency This Beautiful City evinces depends on the point of view of its audience members: Witnessed by a crowd of secular liberals, non-evangelical outsiders and urban sophisticates, its characters would be subject to laughter, ridicule or unwanted exposure. And yet, buoyed by Friedman’s folksy-sincere Christian pop songs, the show could easily be perceived by believers as the creation of a company of actors who appreciate the intrinsic value of religious faith, even though they are, in fact, singing a cautionary tale with heavy doses of schadenfreude.
If I were slammed against the wall and forced to define the melody that runs through this year’s Humana Festival, the gospel I would cop to is one of faith, in the broadest sense—faith in family, in marriage, in relationships, in computers, even a supreme being. This song isn’t just about the loss of faith but its riveting power to galvanize. In the break/s, the best of this year’s Humana offerings, Marc Bamuthi Joseph movingly explores his faith in hip-hop. Poetically, he also seeks to come to terms with the many identities that constitute his life: his Haitian roots, his white girlfriend, his son with a Chinese mother. “If jazz is the broom Africans jump over to become Americans, then what is hip-hop?” Joseph asks; this question isn’t an idle one—it’s the central inquiry, at once intimate, philosophical, political and aesthetic, that nags at his own identity as a black American hip-hop artist. As we all know, the genre grew out of Bronx block parties where groups break-danced with an MC rapping lyrics. As one of hip-hop’s foremost practitioners, Joseph has become its ambassador when he travels to places as near as Minneapolis, Florida and Wisconsin, or as far away as Senegal, Haiti, Japan, Bosnia and Cuba. Assuming the form of a mixtape, reminiscent of most breaks on a record (“this story begins in the middle,” he frequently intones), the break/s is an ode to hip-hop but also a document of the artist’s sense of dislocation and disquietude.
In Paris, for example, he is unnerved by the Pompidou Center’s survey of African art, “Africa Re-Mix,” and at a dance festival is made to feel stripped of his affinity to African choreographers. “In Paris, I represent my country in the flesh, the surrogate for Allen Iverson and 50 Cent,” Joseph says. “But what good is a black man in America if stripped of his right to threat? How hip-hop can I be if they let me onto their set?” In an African village, Joseph freaks out momentarily when he is made to perform in the streets without the technological assist of such first-world artifacts as speakers and microphones. In Tokyo, he shares his incredulity at being made to feel invisible at a Japanese hip-hop club. “The real hip-hop is obviously oozing from my pores for all to see, and all ignore me—the only black guy in the room except for the ones we’re all dancing to,” he recalls. “I’m either so racist or self-centered or so oblivious I think that props are due. Head nods. Fists up. Eye contact. None of that.”
With humor, passion and a surprising degree of self-revelation (he admits to a difficulty committing to the woman he loves), the break/s problematizes hip-hop globalization. The play depicts and poeticizes conflicted feelings about how people around the world have adopted and adapted hip-hop as a means of artistic expression. This troubles Joseph because such worldwide assimilation plagues his political perception as a radical black man; something got lost in the translation:
In a dream I am safe above the menace
I don’t know jack about oppression
Mostly I see that shit on tv
Feel it in my skin
Wear it where it winds its way through the
corridors of racist establishments
But I am often the face for the oppression’s disestablishment
Poster boy for the street
Buppy assimilationist me
It comes as no surprise then that in the break/s (electrifyingly staged by Michael John Garces), Joseph never actually break-dances onstage. Instead, Stacey Printz’s brilliant choreography deconstructs this fundamental element of hip-hip into jerky incremental moves. Like a needle skittering across a turntable, Joseph twists and twirls his athletic body, sometimes crisscrossing in diagonal lines, and his imagistic narrative slips in and out of time, traversing geographies and time periods and frequently occurring not at the beginning but somewhere in the middle of the groove. The music, sampled by DJ Excess and beat-boxer Tommy Shepherd, goes beyond encapsulating the history of hip-hop (from Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC to the Geto Boys and Jay-Z); the sound score incites us to free-associate with our own memories of those songs. The visual projections and documentary footage, improvisationally mixed in the moment, represent Joseph’s riposte to Jeff Chang’s 2005 chronicle Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, which inspired the making of the break/s. These multimedia sequences serve to allow other viewpoints, consciousnesses, reflections and hopes to emerge.
In the break/s, Joseph becomes hip-hop’s answer to Odysseus, the lost hero roaming around the world, seeking glory, love, refuge and a sense of an authentic self. Co-commissioned by Minneapolis Walker Art Center and slated to re-appear at Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco and Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York in September, the break/s spins forth a double allegory. It rivets, as something more than a portrait of the divided soul of a black hip-hopper, and nothing less than an urgent state-of hip-hop-America address. Don’t miss it.
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