Body slams and pile drivers
As much as the Minnesota Theater Community claims to be energetic and risk-taking, it is lying to itself: confusing cute and fuzzy feelings for bold, imaginative, and risky. Maybe the work is risk-taking and energetic to a bunch of scrappy white suburbanites and yuppies, but the fact is that for me, an African-American male, walking down the streets is risk-taking. So when I spend a certain amount of money to sit down in the dark for an hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours-sometimes even three, I want my soul to be moved. I want to be rocked. I want a powerful message wrapped up in a powerful story, unleashed on the stage for me to witness.
I think one of the major problems with Minnesota theater is the fact that so much of it is incredibly Minnesotan—as in white as snow, vanilla, dizzyingly flat and cold, pointless and trivial, bleached and freeze dried of any heat, any passion, and any spiritual fire that could possibly wake up somebody’s soul.
When I first moved to Minneapolis, my favorite play, Marisol by Jose Rivera, was being produced by Theatre Pro Rata. They butchered Spanish pronunciations, using stereotypes of Latino accents that they might have picked up from cartoons. They disregarded the fact that the script is racially specific: instead of getting an African-American woman to play the role of the Angel, they dressed a little white girl in a costume from the S/M section of Sex World. I could go on. I went to The Happy Show, in which the most theatrical moment was letting loose a dog into the crowd to be pet, then reading children's stories like their audience were five year olds. Needless to say I was not happy as I left the theater. I watched Pangea World Theatre’s Ady, and somehow, a play that contained so much potent sensuality and heat in the beautiful, sensual, moving words of the script, lacked that same complex sensual fire in the production.
I have also seen some good theater in Minneapolis/ St. Paul. There have been a number of eye-opening productions that should be recognized: Jungle Theatre’s Seafarer, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie, Workhaus Collective’s Music Lovers, Mixed Blood’s Ruined, and No Child. . . at Pillsbury House Theatre. All these plays shared heat and passion and spiritual fire that fueled the work on stage. And, in a state where it’s winter the majority of the year, I would hope that every theater experience would want to bring a little heat to the audiences’ collective soul.
But still, the Bad has certainly out numbered the Good.
Get up. Stand up
Theater should be a spiritual experience. It should drive me to action or, at least, leave an interesting thought imbedded in my subconscious. I think that perhaps our generation has forgotten that theater once upon a time was a religious experience, that it drove people into frenzies, that it caused riots in streets. In some countries, theater is the primary means to stir change and revolution; oftentimes the first to be exiled or assassinated would be the theater artists. The playwright Vaclav Havel led a "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia not with a gun in his hand but with his pen and the stage. Look to Nigeria where artists such as Wole Soyinka had their plays outlawed; he had a death sentence placed upon him by the government—authorities were instructed to "shoot on sight"—because his plays spoke so radically against the regime that they feared that he was capable of leading an uprising. Take a look at Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed. The man was kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and then exiled from Brazil for doing theater that actually spoke to the community— for doing theater that actually stood for something.
"The purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure." –Hamlet, Act 3, scene 2
I feel like in America, and in Minnesota in general, we’ve forgotten that in some places artists die for this same thing we do called theater because it can do what no preacher, politician, or revolutionary can do—enter the soul of people and make them see themselves. Where’s the theater with fire under it?
Body Slam Theater
One of those few moments was Mixed Blood’s Production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, by Kristoffer Diaz. (Kristoffer Diaz is a co-founding member of an emerging playwrights of color collective called the Unit Collective that I helped start, and he is a close friend. However, good theater should be recognized regardless.) Chad Deity is what excites me. At first glance, it’s about professional wrestling. About men in spandex, and pile-drivers, but I dare you to look deeper.
Directed by Thomas W. Jones II, the production had remarkable performances from the entire cast, utilized video and direct address to the audience, loads of flash and excitement. However, what excited me most about Chad Deity is that it was theater with a message. It was smart fiery critique of how American entertainment (read also: theater) treats and misuses artists of color for their own selfish means. It was beautifully hidden between the lines of what some people might only view as a play about professional wrestling.
What comes across from this play is so much previously unspoken anger at being repressed as a artist of color. Unless the Powers That Be decided to give you an opportunity, regardless of your talent—unless a white Artistic Director embraces you as the Next This or The Next That, then you’re ignored and marginalized as an artist.
This was Kristoffer Diaz striking back, saying wake up and pay attention to our voices, 'cause we’re here too. This play was dangerous. It was filled with both love and hate, humor and frustration, at how the machinations of American entertainment culture works. And what was best about it was that it was a beautiful, covert attack calling for a revolution in this industry, American Theater. It pushed me, and it pushed the audience, and that’s what I love about it.
I loved that it brought passion and fire to an otherwise snow white theater town. This play, most of all, proved to me that Minnesota theater isn’t entirely flavorless.