Theater archives

Headin’ South


Can the horrors of slavery be made cliché? Pushed one too many times through the pasta mill of art, I’m afraid so—as demonstrated by Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a virtuous but shopworn play about the legacy of the “peculiar institution.”

The two-hour piece, created by Kamal Sinclair Steele and Universal Arts, begins with a “discussion” among performers seated in the audience. The 10 actors—black, white, and somewhere in between—bat around their experiences and opinions of race. Meant to sound like a natural exchange, the dialogue feels cringingly forced. The troupe then moves to the stage and begins their show. The play’s first section means to explain racial axiology—how black and white value systems differ because of deep historical experience. The second section consists of a loose collection of episodes telling the story of slavery in America, acted out against a backdrop of archival slide projections. Along the way, the company attempts to illustrate “post traumatic slave syndrome”—a theory proposed by Portland State University’s Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary. A parallel to post-traumatic stress syndrome, it argues that contemporary African American psychology is hopelessly linked to the wounds of slavery.

The Universal Arts ensemble, all talented performers, has a palpable commitment to the material. And parts of that material are quite strong: A scene where a slave mother watches her raped daughter endure what appears to be a forced miscarriage is deeply upsetting. There’s clearly no arguing with the atrocity of slavery, or the emotional whack of seeing its miseries acted out onstage. But slavery is hardly news, and successfully addressing it through theater at this point in time demands a fresh aesthetic.

That ain’t happening here. The troupe, directed by Robbie McCauley, includes several fine performers (Felami Burgess and Donald E. Jones II, especially), but we’ve seen this history and this earnest, barefoot acting crew many times before. (A more modern theatrical take on racism was recently seen in Clarinda Mac Low and James Hannaham’s The Division of Memory at P.S. 122. A slippery, multimedia rumination on Dr. Ernest Everett Just, a black pioneering cell researcher, the piece offered just the sort of contempo approach the subject begs for.)

Steele’s play attempts thematic innovation by exploring DeGruy-Leary’s theory. “Post traumatic slave syndrome,” though, sounds like only a repackaged version of the usual analyses of race pathology (at least as boiled down here). More problematic is the reductiveness of much of the script’s thinking, which too often rests on crude racial generalizations. Especially glaring: a simplistic argument that the conflicting value systems of blacks and whites evolved from each group’s deep-historical relation to food production. White northern Europeans are competitive, dominating types obsessed with counting because they had only a three-month growing season. Africans/blacks are more relaxed about life because of the abundant food in their hospitable clime. Since their ancestors lived in a more nurturing agricultural environment, modern blacks aren’t so attuned to the clock—that’s an inherited white uptightness. Read backwards, the piece could be seen as a warning to white employers not to hire black folks, because it’s not in black people’s nature to show up for work on time.

God bless Canada. First it gave the world the manifold joys of Hockey Night in Canada. Now it’s presented us with En Français, Comme en Anglais, It’s Easy to Criticize, a captivating performance piece by Jacob Wren and PME, mounted at P.S. 122. Toronto-Quebec kissing cousins of ERS and Collapsable Giraffe, but more somber and purposeful, the five-member group has created a collage that’s part dance, part social critique, part heady fucking around.

Four tables supporting stereo equipment anchor the dimly lit stage. Lacking a conventional plot, the piece comprises a sequence of moments that appear random but have their own internal logic. Performers Martin Bélanger and Tracy Wright discuss theorist Gilles Deleuze on one side of the stage; on the other, two women (Julie Andrée T. and Sylvie Lachance) dance together silently. Bélanger disappears, but later speaks in French over a walkie-talkie illuminated by a spotlight. Wren runs repeatedly between the front and back of the stage, delivering a monologue on how the World Trade Center attack has confused his piece’s critique of bourgeois comfort. The ensemble stops for a group discussion of the work. Wright confronts Wren, complaining that the last thing the world needs is another boy genius. The group breaks into dance, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes gently coordinated. Andrée T. has a particularly compelling presence—her sullenness only makes her movement more fascinating.

Alternately hypnotic and amusing, En Français—like much postmodern work—interrogates the idea of the performance itself. But it never fails to be that performance, and a damn good one. “The real avant-garde is to be found in doing nothing,” Wren observes, despairing of the action-driven, media-saturated world. He and his ensemble have happily ignored their own counsel.