Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Documentary Onstage

by Mark Weinberg

FIRES IN THE MIRROR, part of Anna Deavere Smith’s “On the Road: A Search for American Character” series, is a profoundly moving and very human exploration of the terrible events that took place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York in 1991. In her introduction to the play, Ms. Smith wrote, “My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places, and in our struggle to be together in our differences.” By juxtaposing the actual words of 26 different characters, the play reminds audience members that while none of us can separate our perception of events from the context of our own lives, we must at least make an attempt to understand each other.

The title of the play might suggest that each of us mirrors the world as we see it, often distorting reality in the process, but the performance of it in a theatre, during which each actor plays multiple characters who often see things very differently, offers a site of and an opportunity for reflection where, as one reviewer put it, “the passions and fires of a specific moment can be examined from a new angle, contemplated, and better understood.” The angles at the intersections of experiences, of lives, and of ideas informs every element of MCT’s production of FIRES, from the set to the assignment of roles.

In this way, looking at an event from multiple points of view, FIRES combines the journalistic technique of interviewing subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance. This style of Documentary Theatre, or Verbatim Theatre, has a long and rich history, extending at least to Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht’s development of Epic Theatre in Germany in the 1920s. Both playwrights used non-realistic theatre techniques to present critiques of dominant ideologies. As in Epic Theatre, the characters in FIRES are not presented as part of a realistic story, speaking as if the events shown to the audience are happening for the first time. Rather, the characters are story tellers, and it is the audience’s task to put the pieces together to make meaning.

Documentary theatre began in the U.S. during the Great Depression. The Federal Theatre Project, originally funded by the U.S. government to employ out-of-work actors and other theatre-makers, developed Newspaper Theatre. During its performances there was no attempt to hide the fact that the actors were representing (not impersonating or living as) the characters. Their performance techniques were meant to comment directly on reality, not to create a fictional place. Information became key, and the audience became the protagonist through what has been called “a rhetoric of fact,” although one could argue that the presentations were designed to present the facts in a certain light. It is not surprising that the government found such presentations subversive and stopped funding the theatre. In Brazil, Augusto Boal’s Newspaper Theatre productions even led to his imprisonment and torture.

When we look at Newspaper Theatre, and at FIRES IN THE MIRROR, it is easy to see the importance of social and political crises to the playwright’s decisions about content and the performance aesthetic. It is not surprising then that Documentary Theatre became significant again in the late 1960s, when the Civil Rights, Feminist, and anti-war movements, spurred on by overt racism, sexism, and the Vietnam War, compelled a new generation of theatre makers to find techniques to comment on social crises and injustice. Often organizing as collectives, groups like the Living Theatre (PARADISE NOW), Bread and Puppet Theatre (using 12 foot tall puppets to represent corporate America), El Teatro Campesino (performing agitprop plays for farmworkers on the back of trucks), and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (performing plays such as FRIJOLES about economic policy in Golden Gate Park) in the U.S., and The Theatre Workshop’s OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! (a musical ostensibly reporting on World War I, but really commenting on contemporary events) in England used highly theatrical presentations of information and opinions to challenge “dominant media and state narratives around economic and social oppression, democracy, equality, and the rule of law.” Simultaneously, author/activists like Daniel Berrigan in THE TRIAL OF THE CANTONSVILLE NINE and Peter Weiss in THE INVESTIGATION used court transcripts to create dramatic accounts of the trial of Catholic anti-war activists and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials respectively, exploring contemporary clashes between power, justice, law, and morality using the actual words of others.

One can see the movement towards “Verbatim Theatre,” developing plays from the real lives, experiences, and words of actual people-as-characters, as having two branches. One branch is autobiographical in which the artist is source, character, and performer. In plays like Tim Miller’s MY QUEER BODY, Spalding Gray’s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, and Holly Hughes recounting of her trial in front of the Supreme Court as one of the NEA Four, the performer’s emotional interpretation of their own experience of reality shapes the narrative and the performance. Closer to home, the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative is creating powerful plays out of their own experiences of oppression to share information and demand change.

The other branch focuses on the interpretation by the performers of the words of other people. Moises Kaufman’s THE LARAMIE PROJECT, which presents the actors as both interviewers and the people they interviewed, is a powerful exploration of homophobia and violence. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play THE EXONERATED, composed of interviews with individuals who have been released from death row, is designed to create empathy with those who have suffered and to raise questions about the death penalty. Still Point Theatre Collective in Chicago is currently developing a piece by interviewing people involved in the illicit drug trade about their lives.

Anna Deavere Smith is one of the most lauded documentary/verbatim playmakers. FIRES IN THE MIRROR and TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES, 1992 (about the Rodney King riots, trial and verdict) have been performed hundreds of times and have set a high bar for this style. Her web page describes her newest endeavor THE PIPELINE PROJECT. Its centerpiece is her play NOTES FROM THE FIELD: “Based on interviews with hundreds of individuals, the play shines a light on the lack of opportunity and resources for young people living in poverty and often suffering with regard to their physical and mental health, and how these circumstances often lead them into the criminal justice system. ‘The Pipeline Project’ also seeks to extend the conversation on these pressing issues beyond the theater into America’s communities through audience discussions, public convenings, and other events.”

Rather than tell us what to think, her plays and projects are an invitation to confront contemporary events and issues of social justice. She honors the individuality of her characters while challenging the societies and cultures in which they live to change. Her plays are emotional calls for empathy, understanding, and action. At the intersection where two directors, two actors, and 26 characters met, MCT’s production of FIRES IN THE MIRROR hopes to stimulate audiences to continue the conversation.

For more information, see http://www.annadeaveresmith.org/