Add a quart of Commedia dell’ Arte masks, an epic cup of Brechtian alienation effects, a pint of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics, a dash of Indonesian shadow puppetry, a tablespoon of Eugene Ionesco-esque Theatre of the Absurd, an ounce of African Djembe drumming, a soupcon of slide whistles and slapstick plus a gallon of radical politics, sprinkle liberally with Howard Zinn and Yogi Bear, stir vigorously over a high flame until boiling, and what do you get? A spicy recipe for theatrical gumbo and agitprop that only the Actors’ Gang chefs could whip up and serve -- and boy is this avant-garde troupe cooking with its new production, Break The Whip.
Writer/director Tim Robbins’ new play is a theatrically rendered people’s history of what is now the United States, told from the point of view of the oppressed, of the not-so-wellborn common folk, of the indigenous, enslaved and indentured, instead of from the top down perspective of the hoity-toity high and mighty. Nowadays there’s lots of anxiety among reactionaries that whites may become outnumbered by nonwhites in America, and Robbins’ sizzling story is set in a period when this was indeed the case: Shortly after the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, when Europeans were indeed a minority in a “New World” largely populated by indigenous tribal peoples, along with African slaves imported before the Mayflower. This combustible ethnic combination could be called “when worlds collide.” (Set on the East Coast in the early 17th century, Whip doesn’t get into the Latino demographics of the Southwest – that is another story.)
According to the press notes by Robbins, “I had for many years believed that there was rich material in Mr. Zinn’s landmark book and had dreamed of a theatrical realization of his [people ’s history].” The Gang’s guru and Artistic Director realized that the “biggest challenge in presenting this story was to remain in the realm of theatrical entertainment and not make the mistake of creating a humdrum, precious history.” Ah, the old conundrum: How to mix mass entertainment with educational, political content aimed at raising consciousness and conscience? The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum recently wrassled with this creative dilemma during the summer with its similarly themed, if stylistically different musical people’s history, Carry It On!
Whip’s plot is fairly complex, especially as there are so many characters, and difficult to summarize. Suffice it to say that Whip explores the class divisions between the English settlers, racial clashes between the Africans, Europeans and indigenous people, as well as tribalism among the latter. Quino (Chris Schultz) is an indentured servant who may have a same sex relationship with a lad who perishes during a famine sweeping Jamestown. Quino (which in Russian is spelled “Kino” and means “movie”) is outraged when the grave dug for the stricken boy is, instead, given to an upper class Englishwoman. In the second act Quino’s interracial romance with an African woman, Lumbine (the superb Giselle Jones), upends the racist colony and despite torture, leads to a desperate act of defiance that crowns the play, moving it along to its inexorable conclusion.
So how successful is the show, with its cast of 23 actors (many in multiple roles) in dramatizing history and making it entertaining instead of pedantic? The various special effects deployed by the Gang certainly enliven the production, which takes place on a bare stage, minus curtains or even dressing rooms, as cast members dress and undress on the side in the dark. The costumes designed by Christina Wright, from deer to bears, braves to slaves, highborn Englishmen to indentured servants, are eye catching. Creation myths are cleverly, amusingly depicted via wayang kulit (Indonesian shadow puppets projected on a screen, which the Gang also used to great effect a few years ago in its adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels). Fabrics of cloth denoting rivers are deftly deployed. The appearance of a spectral bear (Pierre Adeli) during Abooksigun’s (Jean-Louis Darville) vision quest is more Yogi Bear than spiritual talisman – although, to be fair, while the clawed creature is cartoonish, he is indeed smarter than the average bear.
The chase scene in the second act, which is when the action picks up and the story really comes alive (the first act has lots of exposition), is extremely cinematically rendered, and one of the most exciting escape sequences seen onstage since Eliza fled slaver Simon Legree and his baying bloodhounds on the ice floes in productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
But the use of masks – a Commedia Dell’ Arte convention -- by the entire ensemble throughout the production is eyebrow raising. These masks worked perfectly in the Gang’s 2003 anti-Iraq War gem Embedded, but then Robbins’ was, in part, depicting public figures, such as war criminals Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, whose faces were well known to audiences. However, in Whip, fictional and obscure characters (by the way, Jamestown’s Pocahontas and John Smith don’t make special appearances here) are portrayed, and the masks deny the thespians much of their innate dramatic power, as spectators can’t see their faces, facial expressions and in many cases, even their eyes.
As with the lack of a proscenium arch, Robbins may be using the masks to achieve Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique in order to create a Lehrstuck (a teaching play) effect, wherein the illusion of theatrical naturalism and reality is shattered so, instead of empathizing with the characters, theatergoers are encouraged to think about them and the story instead. In other words, ticket buyers are prodded to use intellect instead of emotions to process the playwright’s lesson and perspective. If this is the case, one wonders if more is lost or gained in Whip by disguising the actors’ faces and thereby diminishing their expressiveness.
Another point raised by an African American woman who attended the premiere is that, apparently, few if any Native American actors play Paspahegh and Powatan roles. It seems that palefaces in “redface” and “blackface” (or mask, as the case may be) portray tribal and African characters. If so, is this perhaps perpetuating old stereotypes, with members of the dominant majority culture still controlling how minority ethnic groups are depicted? Los Angeles has a relatively large Native American population, and indigenous actresses such as Irene Bedard (who provided Pocahontas’ voice in Disney’s 1995 animated feature and co-starred in 1994 film’s Squanto, as Minnehaha in 1997’s Song of Hiawatha,in 1998’s Smoke Signals and Terrence Malick’s 2005 The New World) and Delanna Studi live within driving distance of the Gang’s Culver City theatre. If a play seeks to comment on injustices that subject peoples have been subjected to, it seems that those presenting the work should make extra efforts to include members of the maligned group in the cast.
On the other hand, you don’t necessarily have to be a chicken to know an egg. It’s a fair point that Marlon Brando, who wasn’t Italian, won a well-deserved Oscar for playing Don Corleone in 1972. At the time, some criticized The Godfather for caricaturing people of Italian ancestry as mobsters, yet Brando sent an indigenous woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, to decline his Academy Award due to Hollywood’s racist portrayal of Native Americans. So the issue of ethnic representation – and misrepresentation – remains extremely complicated and problematic.
An Academy Award winning actor, Robbins has a cinematic sensibility, as well as a theatrical aesthetic, which he overall skillfully combines in Whip. Above all, in this parable about colonial America, Robbins’ well known progressive politics win the day, with a rare depiction of a maroon community of escaped slaves and Natives, plus indentured whites, as the prototype of a “better future” for all Americans. But this elusive “Beloved Community” of equal rights for all is yet to be. Among other profound things, the 29-year-old Actors’ Gang’s do not miss Whip reminds us that same sex marriage is to 21st century America what interracial marriage was to 17th century Jamestown.
Break The Whip plays at the Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232 on Wednesday, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays at 7:00 p.m. through November 13. For more info: (310)838-GANG; www.theactorsgang.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based freelance writer and author of Progressive Hollywood.