He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson
New York’s Theater Mitu examines addiction and rehabilitation in ‘Juárez:A Documentary Mythology’ closing Sunday 26 October at LATC’s Encuentro 2014 Festival. Director Rubén Polendo travels back to his hometown along with his troupe and looks back on the drastic changes that have taken place in the last twenty five years. Born into a cultured, artistically inclined family, Polendo’s pre-NAFTA memories are of a city with its share of problems but with a reasonable past and some hope for the future. The controversial trade agreement changed everything. The injection of capital into the veins of the economy gave an ongoing high to a few and brought misery to the rest. Large chunks of land were confiscated from tenant farmers and handed over to corporate interests. Factories overran fields and the poor from other parts of Mexico flocked to get what they could, deplorable conditions notwithstanding. As Juárez grew rapidly, its physical and social infrastructure crumbled under the load, and the criminal element was ready and waiting to take advantage. The drug cartels wreaked their havoc and continue to to do so at a somewhat lower rate. This is being played out all over the world as the Dubais and Shanghais change overnight with little thought given to the human toll.
The team did meticulous research through interviews intending to give voice to the silenced, to tell their stories, and to preserve their memory. This is a recurring theme in theatre from countries facing repression where the art form still matters. We hear the words of great-grandmothers who knew a friendlier border, kidnap victims caught in the crossfire, cynical and clear-eyed journalists, and stalwarts who stick it out despite the carnage in the city they love. And it mostly falls flat.
The small stage is festooned with multiple laptops, work lights, wireless microphones and earpieces, slide projectors, and a screen. Four movements, ‘Context,’ ‘Memory,’ ‘Violence,’ and ‘Change’ are told through a barrage of effects. Four men and two women intone the words of the interviewed in uninflected hipster along with a few bizarre, tuneless songs. Photos and videos, some of stomach-turning cartel savagery, flash by. The accounts of a kidnapped man who survives his abduction and a cartel hit-man telling of his tortures are riveting by exception. It’s less about the citizens of Juárez and more about an artistic process relying heavily on technology which subtracts at every turn. There’s almost no Spanish heard in this story about a Mexican city. When snippets of it do appear, it is an entirely different play. Even without knowing the language, the voices of the affected have undeniable poetry. We’re told that the performers hear the words in their ears (those wireless earpieces) and speak them out for us. So much for the poetry. It gives the unnerving feeling that the structure of the presentation was worked out in advance with the trips just to collect the raw material. The evening closes with a stream of facts about the slow emergence of the city from the depths. Juárez is less violent, more industrial, and a City of the Future implying that this will be repeated elsewhere. We have a lot to learn from those who lived it and here’s to hoping we get that chance someday.
JUÁREZ: A DOCUMENTARY MYTHOLOGY
Conceived and Directed by Rubén Polendo
Encuentro 2014 at the LATC
Final performances: Sunday, 10/26 @ 2:00pm, 7:00pm
Added 7 June 2020: Not a damn thing has changed, has it?
Youtube Topic: Rhaechyl Walker and John ‘Faahz’ Merchant
The facts surrounding Tyisha Miller‘s death at the hands of the Riverside police are still not fully known 16 years after the horrible event. It was late, she was asleep or unresponsive in her locked car as her friend went to get help for a flat tire. Police were aware that she had a gun in her lap when they broke a window to try to help her. They thought she made a threatening move and opened fire, ending her life at age 19. There was outrage and protest, most of which has faded from memory as they have with countless subsequent incidents. The gap between an increasingly militarized police industry and the citizens they’re ostensibly charged with protecting keeps widening.
In Dreamscape, playwright Rickerby Hinds has set himself the task of ensuring that Miller’s death is not forgotten and that something positive may somehow come of it. It’s an absorbing, thought-provoking 70 minute movement and spoken-word duet at the LATC’s Encuentro Festival for two more performances – matinee and evening – on 25 October 2014.
Tyisha Miller becomes Myeisha Mills in the retelling. A sinuous and explosive Rhaechyl Walker portrays Myeisha and several of her family members. It starts at the end with Mills describing a scream that won’t come out – the stupor in which the police found her after a night of clubbing. We then flash back and forth as a young girl grows up both trying to find and then to make something of herself. It’s not a grim life, devoid of hope but her Riverside is far from Mayberry.
Her bullet-riddled future is presented in the rich, resonant one-man chorus of John ‘Faahz’ Merchant. He narrates and beatboxes to an insistent and ominous score alternately playing cop and coroner in flawless counterpoint to Walker. Given his intent (of which more later) Hinds subtly indicts without demonizing. We hear the words of the police report through Merchant and Jack Webb would be proud. A 24 year old cop approaches with his gun pointed down, he believes Mills needs medical help and takes out the window with his baton. Hearing a noise and thinking it a gunshot, he falls backward and the real bullets begin to fly.
Early in the work, Mills wishes she was a white girl. This is not for any lack of pride in her ethnicity but for the benefit-of-the-doubt, the presumption of innocence that comes with that territory – ‘The “Officer, can you help me” kind-a way.’ Salon’s trenchant 1999 piece on the shooting asked whether Miller would have been alive had she been white and wasn’t able to conclusively say that she would. There were some counterexamples. But, facts from the future tell a very different story. Following Chris Rock’s advice guarantees nothing. Even the ever-cynical Onion threw up its hands not once, but twice this year: First after the Zimmerman acquittal and then after Ferguson.
So, it was four policemen versus one young woman, admittedly with a weapon and with at minimum an excess of alcohol in her bloodstream. Merchant recites the cold facts from the coroner’s report. Bullets enter, do their work, and leave. Snaps and rolls used to describe day-to-day life become recoil. We learn how much abuse the human body can take. Nine wounds from bullets entering arms, shoulders, the back, and scalp are ‘non-fatal.’ Bullets ten through twelve go through her head and from that there is no recovery. Most of us, no matter our leanings, acknowledge the difficulties police and emergency personnel daily face. But, does it take four officers and twelve bullets to control a semi-conscious teenager?
The low-ceilinged, almost claustrophobic LATC gallery space fits the show surprisingly well – the walls close in on the audience as they closed in on Miller. Discreet effects complement the action and there’s something quite powerful yet hard to describe in the convergence of hip-hop, dance, and theatre.
‘Dreamscape’ is described as a meditation and a reimagining. Hinds’s curtain speech and talkback repeatedly conveyed his desire for dialogue and conversation. It is not a documentary and one surmises he wants his art to shape instead of reflect. The show has toured nationally and internationally and will likely continue to do so. While some performances have had police and family members of police in attendance, the LATC audience’s sympathies were not in doubt during the show and especially not in the talkback. The question remains how to effect any kind of change through art when the people who need to be reached aren’t there.
It was nice to see the LATC again after many years, tastefully redecorated, with a lobby full of people, and an excellent donation-based coffee bar. Drawing conclusions from a single observation is always dangerous but one can hope that this bodes well for the remainder of this inaugural Encuentro festival and for future editions.
Encuentro 2014 at the LATC Gallery
Saturday, 10/25 @ 2:30pm and 8:30pm
514 South Spring St. Los Angeles, CA 90013
Tickets: 866.811.4111 or by Web at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/28125/1412179367200
London – late 1950s. Henry and Beth Law are expecting their first child. It is unreasonably rainy even for that city and there are hints that Henry has a problem. He eventually abandons his family, leaving his son Gabriel to wonder about his father in due course of time. In Australia, the Yorks of the Coorong lose a young son to the ocean and the parents never recover from the loss. Bovell progressively links these two seemingly unrelated families over three generations and eighty years. It’s an often engrossing mystery kicked off by the adult Gabriel pulling enough from his tight-lipped and frail mother to realize that any answers he may find will come from another continent.
It’s not a simple progression. The play starts in 2039 with an unpromising monologue but slowly improves – each scene shifting back or forward several decades as young Laws and Yorks anticipate and their older versions recapitulate. Bovell adds clues and throws fakes skillfully, ratcheting the tension and unease requiring the audience to assemble a timeline and genealogy from vignettes. He doesn’t tip his hand until he wants everything to coalesce. The audience will be pleased with itself for ‘getting it’ and ‘it’ is genuinely horrifying.
This work is a odd choice for the boundary-pushing City Garage. The language is structured, intentionally repetitive, and occasionally poetic but not heightened at the level of ‘Caged,’ ‘Bald Soprano,’ or ‘Opheliamachine.’ There is a nice puzzle to be solved but there isn’t much abstraction or ambiguity. There isn’t a political message apart from a nod to overfished oceans, the collapse of American hegemony, and climate upheaval. This is the kind of well-made wonder-bread sandwich normally associated with PRT or the CTG.
Perhaps Bovell’s ambitions struck a chord. There is symbolism aplenty – fish, fish-heads, and fish soup figure prominently across all timeframes. There is a heavy rain that destroys without cleansing. Exiled characters at war with their families wander in foreign lands with sands as red as blood. They try in vain to purify themselves, madness is everywhere. The women are prescient to the point of prophesy and yet no one can escape fate. Bovell’s aiming well past the kitchen sink and at the Greeks. Audiences will assuredly be split on whether he succeeds. The cast is up to the script with Courtney Clonch and Ann Bronston standing out as the young and old Beth Law and Scarlett Bermingham as Gabrielle York. A high point of the evening is Clonch’s methodical, brutal cross-examination of husband Henry (George Villas) leading to the departure that ultimately sends Gabriel on his own disastrous quest.
There’s also a nagging question of why ‘Rain’ is a play, at all. It is a fine literary work and would be terrific on the radio. City Garage is also known for movement and stagecraft, most of which seems superfluous here. Anthony Sanazzaro’s video projections of rain, ocean, and sky are nice (does the Southern sky really look like that?) but Charles Duncombe’s sound design is sufficient to frame the events. Director Frederique Michel has her actors move themselves, furniture, and eat pretend fish soup wordlessly for stretches to no clear purpose. Ostensibly a 90-minute one-act, opening night stretched to two-and-a-quarter hours with a chunk of the overrun due to the moving blackouts. The recent Bulgakov/Moliere had similar timing problems. City Garage has certainly earned the right to do a straight-up play with a beginning, middle, and end (although not necessarily in that order). It is unclear what, if anything can be legally trimmed from the script but perhaps the Garage could use a new stopwatch.
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