Revenge of the SITH

I spent much of the month of May writing about the Spirit in the House Festival, and continued my ambivalent struggle with the concept: what possible definition of “spiritual theatre” can be created that isn’t either offensively narrow or ludicrously broad? The problem fascinates me enough that I’ve written about it at some length.

In any case, I saw a bunch of shows that I never got around to reviewing. There’s two, however, that seem to neatly encapsulate my love-hate relationship with the Festival: Jesus at Guantanamo and Dr. King’s Dream. Allow me to emphasize that both were very skilfully-crafted performances, well-written and well-enacted; that I had issues with both; and that I really enjoyed the former.

The latter, not so much. I tend to be skeptical of these attempts to deify political figures, although it’s probably too late to save Dr. King from that fate. I’ll confess that I have something less than an unmixed admiration for his work; while I’m profoundly impressed by his work in the civil rights movement, he was advocate for many causes (reparations, quotas, racial set-asides, affirmative action, economic redistribution, etc.) which to my way of thinking served only to reinforce the bars of the cage. No hint of this exists in the show, or in the popular myth that’s sprung up around his personality. I miss it, not out of any kind of desire to tear down a popular figure, but because if it’s your assertion — and indeed, this seems to be the thesis of the production — if it’s your assertion that one man’s intellect significantly altered the landscape of the nation (and I believe that it did, and for the better), then don’t we have an obligation to make a sincere investigation of that intellect? Otherwise, what possible function does the production serve?

“Jesus at Guantanamo” was easier going for me, just a little bit smarter and a little bit darker. I expressed some concern during the showcases that it would be difficult to sustain such a mannered performance for the length of a show, but he does so by pulling out a wide variety of theatrical tricks: moments of silence, moments of shouting, music and dancing. At one point he tells us a story of torture, couched in comical language; then proceeds to tell us the same story in pictures, by handing them out to the audience, one by one, passing them down.

It’s an effective device, and a good way to bring the audience into direct confrontation with what the play’s about. But it was difficult for me to engage with, because I was being distracted — and irritated — by the audience response of everyone around me, both in this sequence and throughout the show. One of the reasons I suspect that I’m drawn to comedy writing is that laughter is a genuine response; placing your hand under your chin and “hum”-ing, thoughtfully and loudly, is not.

Not to dismiss the possibility that I’m simply jaded. But I find it difficult to credit that anyone who voluntarily purchased a ticket to a show titled “Jesus at Guantanamo” is going to be sincerely shocked or surprised by anything that they saw in those images. My impression was rather that those responses were a (perhaps unconscious, perhaps reflexive) attempt to demonstrate how very properly shocked we were to each other; to vocalize our social responsibility.

I’ve spoken with Matthew Vaky, and I don’t doubt that his intentions as a writer are sincere. Nor do I deny that he’s created a very well-crafted performance around a worthwhile concept. But the jaded part of me looks at both of these shows, and can’t stop myself from wondering: is provoking that response the primary reason that theatre like this exists? If so, it’s unpleasantly self-congratulatory; if not, it’s not accomplishing what it sets out to do.

“Dr. King’s Dream” concludes with what I can only regard to be a catastrophically ill-advised decision. The play is structured around the recollections of Dr. King the night before he gets shot: and throughout the entire production, I found myself thinking “Please don’t end this the way I think you’re going to.” At the end of the play, the actor slaps his hands on his knees and announces that he’s stepping outside. Yes — perfect — the perfect ending. He’ll step off-stage, and leave the rest to happen in our imaginations. The final note of the play will be understated, and far more powerful for it.

But, alas — he steps out to the front of the stage, waves at a few people — a gunshot goes off — the actor clutches his chest and grunts dramatically — and then — and then! — the actor actually steps out of character and addresses the audience, instructing us to remember Dr. King’s dream. As though we couldn’t have arrived at that conclusion ourselves, after an hour of listening to him speak! I’d like to be more charitable to this production, but really, those last few moments constituted a gesture of such astounding contempt for its audience that it’s difficult for me to.

Still, the audience gasped and shook their heads, solemnly and appropriately. So maybe that’s exactly what we deserve.

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