Over the weekend, I attended two of the more talked-about pieces of the season: Aftermath by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen at New York Theatre Workshop and The Provenance of Beauty by Claudia Rankine through the Foundry Theatre. The two have much in common: both are based on interviews and documentary material, are outright political, and, for better or worse, make a strong plea for the white liberal guilt of the audiences. This brings to the fore some very basic and difficult questions concerning political theatre, and the never-ending complex explicit in its performance: what, exactly, does political theatre do?
This last divide is the most significant and well thought-out, as the audience’s guide through the stories is a translator, Shahid, played with touching honesty by Fajer Al-Kaisi, and he represents the conflicts being “between worlds.” His obsession with computer games (American, of course) taught him his first English lessons (“Thanks, Leisure Suit Larry!” he quips, and I think I was the only one in the audience to laugh), and his position between the Americans and the Iraqis, even in times of peace, are fraught with misunderstanding, animosity, and violence. It seems all miscommunication can be traced back to miscommunication, and the translator becomes a pariah, reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s wordplay on traduttore-traditore, or “translator-traitor.”
And while the Shahid is a wonderful device and metaphor for Aftermath, it’s a sad reminder that we place so much emphasis on the problems between languages, when the body count in Iraq has become such a desensitized phenomenon, relegated to afterthoughts in the news these days.
Closer to home, The Provenance of Beauty examines the history and contemporary issues of gentrification of the South Bronx, via a bus-tour-performance. Going all the way back to the Dutch colonists, but focusing on the past half century, when the Bronx received its reputation as the least desirable real estate in the five boroughs.
The tour is informative and, at times, personal and beautiful, as the tour is narrated by three natives, through radio headphones worn by audience members. And this is the production’s greatest feat: Geoff Abbas, Kell Condon, and Casey Llewellyn have done a magnificent job rigging a run-of-the-mill charter bus into a live video and sound feed theatre space. The intimacy fostered by the headphones make the tour a very individual experience, despite the pseudo-public nature of the environment.
Provenance, however, instead on focusing on the enlightenment of the Bronx experience, the beauty of the aesthetics and history, set up an unfortunate antagonism with gentrification of “SoBro”; I’ve glossed the complications of the process in the past (my NY Times debut!), and a poetic polemic does very little to expose greater issues of the economic divide, cultural nostalgia, and social inequalities that contribute to an ever-changing landscape.
For starters, the performance starts out from and returns the audience to a location in Manhattan, surely a device to ensure the audience comes in the first place, and, perhaps more audaciously, assumes at a number of junctures that each passenger is from Manhattan, bordering on name-calling.
Mostly however, the text holds the audience to a fallacial struggle between “you and me,” which Walter Benn Michaels sums up well in The Trouble with Diversity:
They’re nostalgic, in other words, not exactly for racism but for the distinctive social practices (what Cornell West calls the ‘cultural armor’) that resistance to racism helped create. On the one hand, Jim Crow impoverished and disempowered an entire community; on the other, it solidified that community’s identity as a community.
So as the bus passes by Baretto Point Park, our tour guide characterizes it pre-urban-renewal as
This was always our park, we chose it because it had been thrown away. Memory upon memory was built in this place as darkness descended and a neighborhood asserted itself where one would least look to find it.
The soft-focus lens disappears however, after Giuliani renovates the shoreline; only then are the fertilizer factory and raw sewage treatment plant that flank and poison the water there are mentioned, even though they existed long before, back in the day. It’s a common and misguided double standard in the discourse on gentrification.
I’m not going to be presumptuous enough to attempt to answer the question I set out at the opening. That would be insane, and I’d love to hear the thoughts of you, brilliant OJ readers, and start a dialogue. Instead, I will say that both these performances are powerful and moving at many points, and well worth attending and beginning a conversation about very important political issues of the times. The assumption of antagonism, though, seems to fall flat, upon deaf ears, though, and bearing witness, raising awareness seems a much more productive and hopeful goal.