Democracy in America
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
April 1, 2008
The fine arts are here in their infancy. The commerce and industry which are the source of riches do not at the same time produce good taste.
The young Frenchman who wrote those words in a letter to his father in 1831, Gustave de Beaumont, had arrived in New York City in early May of that year. He was the traveling companion of Alexis de Tocqueville, who would go on to write one of the most influential works of political theory ever produced, Democracy in America, based largely on his experiences of their nine-month sojourn throughout the northeast, Midwest, and Old South. After only five days in New York, Tocqueville and Beaumont had both concluded in letters to their families that Americans were nationalistically arrogant, fanatically religious, innately bourgeois, absurdly early risers, and obsessed with acquiring wealth and succeeding in business. As the inhabitants of their native country might say, "Plus ça change..."
Annie Dorsen, in the new piece that she's conceived and directed, and which is currently in performances at P.S. 122, takes Tocqueville's seminal book as both the inspiration and title of her work. In perhaps an inadvertent attempt to test Beaumont's observation that money and bad taste often go hand in hand, Dorsen created a website where investors in the piece could literally purchase individual elements of the performance, thus dictating its content. So for example, if you'd always fantasized about hearing your name or the name of someone you love (or I guess possibly loathe) chanted from the stage of one of NYC's premiere experimental performance venue by three of downtown's most prominent performers, for ten dollars you could make your dream come true (yes, I'm talking about you, Carleigh Welsh). Dorsen and said prominent performers (Phillipa Kaye, Okwui Okpokwasili, Anthony Torn) then collaborated to create a piece out of the resultant jumble of text, images, props, and instructions for dances.
I was tempted to write "make sense out of the resultant jumble," but as revealed in the director's program note, that's not what these artists set out to do. Rather, as stated, the piece represents an effort to create a "mini-model" of a society in which no hierarchy of values exists (except, I would add, the one created by the marketplace). This was Tocqueville's great fear for what would result from this country's experiment in democratic pluralism and for the first ten minutes, the piece certainly reflects this. And for the first ten minutes, I loathed it. Banal text alternates with goofy stage business. The audience laughs knowingly. Repeat. It all smacked of the kind of smugly ironic downtown theatre that makes me want to stay home and watch Battlestar Galactica. It seemed like it was going to be a very long hour of the same song about the disconnectedness of American culture being sung over and over again. It's a record that's been on heavy rotation in the avant-garde's hydrogen jukebox for the last 40 years.
But then something extraordinary happened. It was around the time that Torn was reciting a piece of text that began "I would rather be ashes than dust" while the women were executing a slow-motion version of Michael Jackson's zombie dance from the "Thriller" video and singing "Soldier Boy." Oh, and then Torn was trying to get a male audience member to take all his clothes off, and Okpokwasili was saying, "When I hear the word 'homeland', I take out my checkbook." And then everyone raised a toast to nightmares—while standing under a poster of the infamous Abu Ghraib hooded-prisoner photo. And suddenly I really WAS in America in 2008, that feeling of giddy dread that seems to have us all in its grip. And the piece didn't seem smug anymore—it was sad and scary and bitterly funny. And, dare I say it, specific. And maybe it's just that those individual elements resonated with me, but I think it's because at that moment, I felt like some artistic consciousness was actually trying to reach out across the cacophonous chasm of our cultural white noise and say something to the audience sitting there. I stopped hating the piece, and it began to affect me on deeply personal levels.
Other events of intense theatrical beauty followed: Kaye doing an inventive fan dance to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" while a precious little girl in a pink dress projected on video behind her recited a modernist poem about loss and the sexualized male gaze, which made me think about how women are trained to turn themselves into objects in our culture; Okpokwasili trying to double-dutch jump rope, which made me think of racism and how none of us really fit into the categories we're placed in; a round of Russian roulette with a teeny, tiny pistol and very, very loud sound effects, which just made me laugh at human absurdity.
You gotta hand it to Dorsen for creating a structural compositional strategy and sticking to it so rigorously, even at the risk of creating a work utterly devoid of deeper content, because the moments that worked I'll never forget. And maybe that's her point: In America, if you hate something, just wait it out cuz it's bound to morph into something else. Or maybe that's the point for me; for you, dear reader, the point will be something entirely different. And THAT's the point. But really, isn't it time for our major artists to start clearly saying things again? Maybe, take a position and state it in their work? Hey look, I'm just exercising my birthright as an American to add to the deluge of ideas by asking the question.