The Mystery of Habitus

I don’t know what to say about Habitus, a “living installation” by VECTOR now at Manbites Dog Theater (the event repeats Jan. 15-17) , which described it as “an interactive installation/performance.” According to materials in the theater, it is “an installation around anger and violence.” The same materials gave a laundry list of trigger warnings–but there was nothing there to trigger anything except mild irritation, and a wonder at the slightness of the thing. Leah Wilks, the artistic director of VECTOR, said in an email that the installation is “about exploration of this world and themes and visuals and gathering from audience as well as the performers…also part of our process in developing/exploring this landscape and the questions inherent at the heart of this work” prior to a stage work of the same title to be performed in March as part of the DIDA season.

Intake card from the Habitus experience.

Intake card with unanswerable questions from the Habitus experience.

 

I know Leah Wilks can choreograph and dance; I know her partner in VECTOR Jon Haas can make interesting video. Unfortunately, the video in the installation is not interesting. There is no dance. Upon entry, one is handed a clipboard with papers to fill out and given various directions. After waiting in the lobby, which has been made over into a theater papered with mainstream magazine images, many of violence or its outcomes, and in which rows of chairs sit before a huge screen showing a loop of blown-out video from TV news and sports, you are called up to the Intake Desk and “processed.” From there you move on to a photo station, where you are robed and photographed with another person. I completely failed to grasp the boxing theme here until I saw a photo of other attendees the next day on Facebook. I guess this was supposed to put us in a pugilistic mood, but I missed it.

Inside the theater proper, the space is divided into rooms and corridors in which various scenarios are sketched. There are several people doing odd things, and attempting to engage “the audience.” Dana Marks marches around in a vaguely fascistic uniform, barking orders; Nicola Bullock trails around charmingly in a long backless dress, channeling Billie Holiday and offering “pills” to strangers; another woman works out; yet another tries to escape invisible chains holding her scantly-clad self to a stool. You are given chalk and told to draw around another person, as if he were a body on the ground. There’s a display where you are asked to rate the various items as to their relative violence (I was unsure it this meant the object’s capacity for use with violent intent, or its association with violent acts in the viewer’s mind). One is encouraged to write on the wall in various topic areas. Every thing I could bear to read was a cliche.

It is possible, quite possible, that I have passed over the far edge of the age group for whom this would be interesting. The collaged images and the chalked walls seemed particularly middle-schoolish from my point on the time line. I long ago opted out of life with television and glossy magazines full of fake female beauty. I’ve experienced or observed various kinds of anger and violence firsthand, and the fast-cut mediated version presented here did not inspire the powerful feelings I associate with those experiences. As I began to grasp the set-up, I thought at first that Habitus was a parody of interactive installations, but when I entered the interior, I realized it was completely in earnest.

It is also possible that this installation is merely an early messy stage of art making–one that ordinarily is not publicly shared. Perhaps Wilks, Haas, et al will take this chaos and give it dramatic form in an artwork actually about anger and violence. We will find out March 5, when VECTOR will present the staged work at a location yet to be announced.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. All Aboard!

 

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

Actor, playwright, director: J. Alphonse Nicholson, Howard L. Craft, Joseph Megel, on the set of FREIGHT. Photo: Nick Graetz.

 

StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance premiered Howard L. Craft‘s new play on January 9 in Swain Hall on the UNC campus. Nine days into the new year and I have to tell you that the production is likely at the end of the year to be on the short list of year’s best, such is its momentum. This train carries FREIGHT until January 24. Catch it or kick yourself into next year. You can remember that hyperbolic sentence when the play sends up theatrical reviews in one of its many comic moments: “A Five Star Review!!”

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

One of the incarnations of Abel Green inhabited by J. Alphonse Nicholson. Photo: Nick Graetz.

FREIGHT: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green uses trains to provide transportation for Abel through physical space, but also as a metaphor for travel through time. Playwright Craft, who lives in Durham, has already demonstrated interest in the episodic nature of life, the fluid properties of time, and in heroes and super-heroes, but in this script he commands his ideas and stories with a greatly increased level of sophistication and confidence. Starting with his character’s name–the first man murdered, and by his brother–he makes artistic choices that hit like a blunt instrument or slice like a razor. In FREIGHT, one actor portrays five men named Abel Green who live at different periods over a hundred-year span in the US. Each of these black men tells his dramatic story in a 20-minute segment which glides seamlessly into the next, with echoes from the past sounding in future after future. The script would be fascinating even if it were not loaded with highly quotable lines, and part of what’s fascinating is the way Craft is able to say some very tough things so that even white people can hear them.

“All Negroes are actors by necessity.” So says Abel the Minstrel, who we meet as he hops a freight car circa 1910 to go on to his next gig. We’ll live longer, he says, if we know our lines for whites, but we can do improv with other Negroes. He’s been part of a three-man troupe–another hoofer and a front man who can pass for white–but after a horrific lynching, described in nauseating detail, he finds himself traveling alone. His partner just couldn’t take it any more. But Abel is younger and wants “to have the money not to live like a nigger even I have to play one on stage to get it…I keep dancin’ and smilin’ and they pay me for that.”  Then he quotes Paul Laurence Dunbar: “let the mask hide my eyes.”

This section is the most fully fleshed of the play. It began as Craft’s response to the painting by Rose Piper, Slow Down Freight Train, in the Ackland Art Museum collection. “The Minstrel” was directed by Joseph Megel and acted by J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the Ackland gallery; eventually the minstrel’s tale multiplied into the five incarnations of Abel Green. None of the other sections is lacking–“The Snitch” is particularly strong–but none is quite as thoroughly massaged as “The Minstrel.”

Craft’s writing is finely honed, full of poetry, but J. Alphonse Nicholson breathes life into the still syllables. Nicholson is a natural, which is not to say he is not continually honing his art. Perhaps because he started so young, before his heart had had time to harden and wall itself in, he has an almost uncanny ability to assume the characters he plays. But this performance goes far beyond his previous work. In 99 minutes, he takes on and radiates out the pain of generations and the exquisite philosophic particularity of the individuals who felt it, and every single minute feels true. His memory is prodigious–on opening night I heard one tiny stumble. In addition to being empathically talented, tall, dark and handsome, he can sing, dance and drum. FREIGHT takes on an even greater load of poignancy with this young actor portraying not just the minstrel, but an 80s film actor whose success involves being killed in various ways on-screen by the “white vigilante hero.” I want to say that big, big success is Alphonse Nicholson’s to throw away–but have a few years changed America enough to let him bloom forth? You wouldn’t know it from following the news. Even in the post-performance glow, and now even more, I’m haunted by the idea of this cheerful ambitious young man being torqued or broken by the same cruelties and corruptive associates that account for assorted suicides and other deaths in Craft’s script.

One reason Nicholson has been able to build his skills so rapidly is Joseph Megel, who is as delicate and unflinching in his direction as a neurosurgeon. Megel, the artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH, directed Nicholson his first time out, in 2009, in Howard L. Craft’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders(after nurturing the play at UNC), and later in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot ; also in The Brothers Sizeand in the Activated Art project at the Ackland Museum. So a lot of trust has been built up, over years, among director, actor and playwright. That trust makes this quality of art possible.

Megel and producer Elisabeth Lewis Corley put together a design team who completed the experiential package and transformed the gloomy studio in Swain Hall. Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting is very fine, and Eamonn Farrell’s video and sound are essential to powerful fiction of time travel. Marissa Erickson created communicative costuming that also allows Nicholson to morph from Abel to Abel with speed and grace. Derrick Ivey designed the wonderful set with its arches, spans and sliding train cars. You can buy your ticket here.

*An earlier version of this review had erroneously described Caleb Calypso as Craft’s first full-length play. In fact, Craft had written several plays before that, and his earliest full-length work is The House of George, which received a production in 2002. Several of Craft’s works were produced at NCCU before anyone on the other side of the Durham Freeway paid any attention. A new one-act by Craft will be included in the forthcoming REDBIRD festival at the Carrboro ArtsCenter in March, 2015. The Star regrets the error.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey's fine set.

In the Pullman car, just one of the trains in Derrick Ivey’s fine set.

WRESTLING JERUSALEM AT PRC2, through Jan. 11

WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy Aaron Davidman.

WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy Aaron Davidman.

Aaron Davidman has written and is performing this week at PRC² a very powerful piece of theatre. You might not call Wrestling Jerusalem a “play,” but it is certainly a fine piece of performance art. Although Davidman holds the stage alone, director Michael John Garcés and a team of musicians, a choreographer and multiple designers get big credit for the sensual richness of the simple set-up. The show runs only through Jan. 11 in the small Kenan Theatre at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art. Humans are probably never going to quit fighting, dominating and killing their neighbors and kinfolks (the message of Cain and Abel?), but a work like Wrestling Jerusalem allows for a few hours of hope that we might at least understand each other a little bit, sometimes.

No matter what your thoughts and feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you are likely to find them–and their equal and opposite counter-positions–spoken by one of the 17 characters Davidman portrays. Davidman is a Jew, and had been to Israel before, but in 2006 he was commissioned by Ari Roth, then the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Theatre J, to write a piece exploring different aspects of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli struggles. This was immediately following the premiere of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about the death of a young American apparently trying to act as a human shield for a Palestinian house. She was crushed to death by an Israeli Defense Force bulldozer in 2003, and the play made from her writings not only aroused consciousness of the situation in Gaza, it inflamed passions all around. Many Jewish individuals and organizations regarded the play as wrongfully portraying Israel, and the initial American production was cancelled. (The show ran briefly at Durham’s Manbites Dog in May, 2006, with Dana Marks directed by Jay O’Berski.) Roth, who was present along with Davidman at the PRC² post-show discussion on Jan. 8, wanted more balance and nuance introduced into views of a situation that is tearing apart not only Israelis and Palestinians, but the American Jewish community, and, in my opinion, pretty much all the rest of the conscious world. (Roth was fired in December from Theatre J; very interesting Howlround interview here. He is now artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company of DC. )

Wrestling Jerusalem spins like a top, but the 90-minute performance is balanced. It has a beautiful formal structure, in which Davidman braids together the voices of Palestinians and Jews, along with his own observations of fact and his emotional responses to places and situations as he traveled in Israel and the Palestinian areas researching the work. He begins his three-strand braid with a creation story image, of balls of light swelling and shattering, sending their shards everywhere. It is the work of humans, he says, to collect the shards and re-make wholeness. So off he goes on his journey, looking for shards of light; often he finds darkness. Each story snugs tightly to the next, taking some of its shape from the other. And the braid circles around, the end joining the beginning in an expression not only of the circularity of the problem, but in an image of wholeness.

I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from these remarkably realized characters (“real, hybrid and made-up,” said Davidman), but I did gain an increase in empathy for all sides. That strikes me as a huge thing for a piece of theatre to accomplish.

Aaron Davidman in his WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Aaron Davidman in WRESTLING JERUSALEM. Photo: the artist.

Ocracoke Observer

Community newspaper of Ocracoke, NC

Artist Soapbox

Original audio fiction + a podcast about creative process

David Cecelski

New writing, collected essays, latest discoveries

Piedmont Trails

Genealogy and History in North Carolina and Beyond

Piedmont Laureate

Promoting awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont Region

Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" -- Director's Blog

a countdown to the next performance, March 28-31, 2019

North Carolina Preservation Consortium

Preserving tangible and intangible heritage of enduring value

The Orange County Citizen

• Proudly Serving Orange County North Carolina Since 2018 •

Bamboo Wind

Video Poems, Dance, Sculpture & Photography

mhdekm

A topnotch WordPress.com site

peter harris, tapestryweaver

TAPestry And DESIgn

Backstrap Weaving

My weaving , my indigenous teachers, my inspiration, tutorials and more........

Social Justice For All

Working towards global equity and equality

Not At Home In It

collections/connections

inkled pink

warp, weave, be happy!

Peggy Osterkamp's Weaving Blog

"Weaving should be fun!"

SHUTTLE WORKS STUDIO

Studio Life of a Weaver, Spinner, Dyer

This Day in North Carolina History

The people and places of the Tar Heel state day by day.

Linda Frye Burnham

Writer and poet

%d bloggers like this: