Slave Theater


Last summer, the South Bronx encountered Poland through the hallucinatory medium of an Ubu play.Teatr Polski and a local troupe called Live From the Edge toured Poland together in an old bus–with separate-but-equal Ubus.This summer, they would go for full integration. The plan, at least,was to meet in the Bronx and emerge with one play from their two companies, two countries, and at least two languages. But as they began work on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu enchaîné (Slave Ubu), they found that they also had two freedoms, two slaveries. And maybe two agendas.

The germ of the Ubu idea came loaded with potential for cultural misunderstanding. Several years ago, Teatr Polski’s director, Wieslaw Gorski, was riding a New York subway when a black man approached him, holding his hands out as if handcuffed, telling Gorski something like, “You’re the white man and I’m still in chains.” Gorski wanted to say, “I’m from Poland and I’m enslaved too,” but he decided that such a statement “wouldn’t reach out.” Actually, he was speechless. He noticed that he was the only white man on the train. Then, another black man made what Gorski called a “solidarity manifesto with me.” This second man was saying, “We are brothers and sisters.”

This incident inspired Gorski to dream of doing Slave Ubu with an all-black cast. The 52-year-old had been directing the proto-modernist classic Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) in Poland for years. That had been his “freedom-fighter text”–this play in which the monstrous Pa Ubu murders his way to the throne of Poland and then ravages the country. In all the Jarry plays, Ubu is a gross nihilistic dolt, opposing not just conformity but common sense and decency. I was surprised the authorities allowed him to present it at all. “I could only play matinees,” Gorski noted. “I could only play a small room, could never take it to any festival. And never out of the city.”

Now, Gorski says, Slave Ubu is the play that speaks to the situation in Poland. The absurd plot has Pa and Ma Ubu gaining freedom by aspiring to become galley slaves. Gorski thinks that Poles are like the black man on the subway–“He was in a free country, but he felt the chains on him. He couldn’t get rid of them.”

American artist Carey Clark, who’d done some sets for Teatr Polski, suggested that Gorski work with a black director, and she introduced him to Steven Sapp. The 32-year-old Sapp was intrigued by the concept of the play, but when he read it, Slave Ubu didn’t exactly speak to him. The text seemed archaic, even faintly offensive. So, while retaining its characters and antic irreverence, Sapp wrote his own Ubu. In place of the scene where an eager-to-serve Ubu applies shoe polish to someone’s bare feet, Sapp had Ubu applying blackface. His Ma and Pa Ubu sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while scratching themselves ferociously. And he had an actor (himself) dragged from the audience and lynched. “We wanted to show them what black America is,” said Sapp, “in their face.”

Last year, the two directors didn’t even try to meld their two versions.Audiences saw, for example, Polish Ubu applying shoe polish, then American Ubu applying blackface. If the meld doesn’t take this summer either, they can always do last year’s show when the play opens at The Point, at 940 Garrison Avenue in the South Bronx, on August 21.

The conflict seemed to be about a willingness to take risks. The Americans weren’t just more willing to take them, but more inclined to think that that is the whole point.

“If you’re going to collaborate, you have to get into some stuff,” said Sapp. “I don’t know if they’re capable of doing that.” Sapp recalled that during the very first rehearsal, the Polish actors talked about the impossibility of doing their “own thing” as actors in Poland. It was career suicide. They would lose the total state support they enjoyed as members of a repertory company in the town of Bydgoszcz.

“You have companies just made of cowards,” Gorski agreed. “Cowards is the wrong accusation, but–people who don’t want to be on the blacklist. It corrupted our companies.” And since the fall of Communism, nothing in the theater infrastructure has changed. “We honestly want to try to do differently,” Gorski said, “but because of being within the system, we are afraid. Shit scared.”

Americans will take risks because they have a sense of possibility, and The Point itself illustrates that. Sapp, with Paul Lipson, Mildred Ruiz, and Maria Torres, had been working down the street at a traditional South Bronx social service organization where they felt “disenchanted and bored.” Every day, they passed the abandoned bagel factory at the other end of the block. Finally they decided to stop griping and act on their ambitious plan to take it over. The artist Roy Lichtenstein quietly gave them a deposit for the place. And if they didn’t know where all the next dollars might come from, they decided they’d get them somewhere. They quit their jobs and spent a year working on the rehab.

“We were a joke in the neighborhood,” Sapp recalls. Now they’re an institution, open for three years and officially classified as “a community development cultural and economic revitalization organization.” The Point could well be the prototype for nonprofit arts organizations of the future, because it survives on entrepreneurship. All around the two-story arcade are small spaces rented out to local businesses–for example, a hiphop clothing store, a record store specializing in area DJs, and an office for the Tats Cru, graffitists who’ve parlayed their skills with a subway car into full-time signage work. “We try to teach the people, the kids, that they are the agents of change,” said Sapp. “That if anything’s going to happen in your community, it’s going to happen because of you, not because somebody else came in here.”

The actors had been working at The Point for a week when I walked into an end-of-rehearsal discussion. One of the American performers, Brian Anderson, was suggesting that Teatr Polski deviate from the text to include something of the reality of Poland. Gorski, who was also serving as interpreter, insisted that the play as written was about their reality. “In Polish tradition, through the years of oppression when a censor came to the dress rehearsal, we used a lot of irony.” Also, what the Americans wanted from them smacked of socialist realism, the style they were forced to use under Communism, and therefore despised.

The Polish actors weren’t talking much. True, they speak little or no English, but they didn’t seem to be asking Gorski to relay their sentiments to the American cast. Later the director complained to me that the Polish cast is too obedient, that this is part of the problem. Under Communism, the great Polish theatrical innovator Jerzy Grotowski’s method–with its emphasis on consciousness and its kinship with the Living Theatre–was not taught. “To teach young people to express themselves would have been dangerous to the system,” Gorski explained. “So the actors don’t know how to open up. They don’t know how to speak because in the past, the director was the master. They were slaves.”

Two days later, the casts had gone back to rehearsing separately. Gorski told me that the Poles would be the structure and the Americans would be the structure breakers. “I said to Steve, if you see us enslaved within some kind of structure, we are. So, bring in your freedom. What is your freedom of expression?”

Sapp expressed a bit of frustration. “If these people leave here and don’t feel that they’ve creatively traveled anywhere, then it’s been a failure.” He thought the struggle to bring the play into being said more about freedom and slavery than Ubu ever had.