Examining “Hell House”, a Christian Halloween Production, as Deep Play

Every year in October in Cedar Hill, Texas, the Cedar Hill Trinity Church puts together a show to help teach youth about making right decisions and not losing one’s way. Except, this show takes place in the form of a haunted house on Halloween and teaches youth that if they make ‘bad’ decisions, they are sent to hell. Thousands and thousands of people attend Hell House every year. Audiences move through a series of spaces, each hosting an independent scene and story. There are scenes related to drinking, rape, drug dealing, abortion, suicide and homosexuality.

Watching “Hell House”, a 2001 documentary by George Ratliff, I felt disgusted. I tried to remind myself that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but Hell House crosses a line. I have never seen (or at least been actively aware of) the propagation of art to convey religious beliefs. Of course participants are willingly involved in the performance as they come to a specific time and place, and even pay an entrance fee. The scenes Hell House portrays all follow similar story structures (at least as the documentary presents them to be so). Tensions always seem high within a scene, with the demon – a cloaked figure wearing a mask – ever present from the start to the end. There is never a moment of happiness and in the end the consequence is always that the individual the story revolves around, is sent to hell. The scene surrounding the date-rape-drug, is slightly different to the others as it begins with two girls dancing at a rave. One girl is not enjoying the rave and when two guys approach her, they slip her with a drug, which she consumes without much thought. She ends up being raped, and feeling depressed over the experience, she questions why God did not protect her and then proceeds to slit her wrists, committing suicide. The scene pins the girl as the sinner, having not only taken the drug but made the active choice to go to a rave. There is never any punishment or consequence seen against the boys who drugged and raped her. In the documentary, there was a group of adolescents who came up to one of the organizers of Hell House and questioned them on the reason why “the rape girl” was sent to hell. The organizer responded that it was because she gave up her belief in God.

I feel like the motivations and intentions of Hell House are lost during the production. If they intend to help people find their way by having them believe in God, that is perfectly fine however it seems as though the only real lesson is that if something negative happens in one’s life, the consequence is hell. Particularly with the rave scene, total blame is placed on the girl and there is never any acknowledgement of the men. It feels as though Hell House equates victims to sinners. It might even be the case (we would have to see the whole performance and not snippets of scenes from the documentary) that the performance is rooted in gendered roles. In the Bible, it is Eve who is seen as the rebel, having disobeyed God in eating the apple and enticing Adam to do the same. It would seem that the scenes in Hell House target women as sinners. It is the women in the performance who go through abortion, have sex before marriage, consume drugs, etc. In one scene where the father of a household is drunk and abusive, the woman is the sinner because she is cheating on her husband. In the cases where men are the victims, they are portrayed as sinners because they are homosexual and within the beliefs of this particular church, homosexuality is seen as not acceptable.

Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who believed that the actions of an individual affect the community around him. Bentham defines utility as “that property in any object which tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness…. Or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” (Bentham 14-15). Faith and the belief in God therefore in Hell House, are seen as a utility. In Geertz’s article on cockfighting in the island of Bali, he mentions Bentham and the concept of deep play. From a utilitarian standpoint, Bentham describes ‘deep play’ to be when “the stakes are so high that [play] is…. irrational for men to engage in it at all” (Geertz 7). Deep play then is play that is able to transcend; the everyday and the real bleed into the imagined, and vice versa. Hell House is rooted in deep play in that it aims to make an audience member so engaged in the performance that they recommit their faith or convert. Pellegrini comments on how “that deeper structure of religious feeling… can tie together disparate, even contradictory, experiences, bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts” (Pellegrini 918). In deep play therefore, one can be spiritually and physically invested in a performance.

Pellegrini acknowledges that Hell House uses “fear in the service of a higher good” (Pellegrini 932). I do not agree with the content and representation of the scenes in Hell House. As much as the church appears to believe in finding strength within the community, they never once convey that same sense of community in their performance. They never suggest that someone going through a difficult time can turn to their community for guidance. The answer appears to always be to pray to God, or kill oneself and face the flames of hell. Even at the very end of Hell House, one must choose whether they pass through a door believing that they will go to heaven by praying, or stay behind and never know whether they would end up in heaven or hell. However it should be acknowledged that Hell House, for better or worse, does have an impact on people. As the documentary reveals, at the time about 15,000 people recommitted or converted. Deep play is perhaps one of the most powerful forms of play, and it certainly is amazing to see Hell House as a performance transcend beyond a specific time and place.

Works Cited
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. New York: Hafner Pub., 1948. Print.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” 1-11. PDF.
Hell House. Dir. George Ratliff. Perf. Trinity Church Youth Group. 2001. DVD.
Pellegrini, Ann. “”Signaling Through the Flames”: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling.” American Quarterly 59.3 (2007): 911-35. PDF.

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The Vibrancy of Ta’ziyeh

In an earlier post I talked about ta’ziyeh, the Iranian passion play of the Shiite Muslims Every year people gather to watch the ta’ziyeh of the story of The Martyrdom of Hussein. Watch this video to get a sense of what a ta’ziyeh looks like.

One of the things that struck me when watching this video was just how vibrant a ta’ziyeh is. The public space and the costumes of the performers are colorfully decorated. Each actor is easily distinguishable because of the colour of his costumes. Men play the role of women in a ta’ziyeh, and so are dressed in full black. The actors speak into microphones, leaving behind an echo once their line is complete. This exaggerates the performance, but it can also be said to serve as part of the act of remembrance. Ta’ziyeh is ultimately about the important of remembering and honouring Imam Hussein. It is about exploring the notion of justice through the story of Hussein. Chelkowski writes that for the Shiites, “the original promise of Islam to deliver earthly and eternal justice in the world is kept doctrinally alive in the charismatic figure of the Imam” (Chelkowski 182). Representation then, becomes fundamental to the story and also to how the ta’ziyeh is performed. It always has to be made clear that the story that is enacted is in fact a performance, and so there is always a director present on stage to assure the audience that this is just acting. There then becomes this interesting dynamic between reality and acting, what is real and not. If a ta’ziyeh were ‘overplayed’, then this would in fact be considered an insult because it would mean that the actor is assuming to be Imam Hussein rather than serving to represent him. With the director on stage, the colourful costumes, the marking of where the performance is taking place within the public space, and other characteristics, create a sense of fluidity between the imagined and reality. Or, to put it in other terms, between the memory and the act of remembering.

Through the video we can hear the musical side of ta’ziyeh, as well as a rather daring aspect to it because of the presence of the horses (who seemed a little disturbed by the booming sound of the microphones). A ta’ziyeh itself though is a complete sensory experience. It is about how an audience and the performers can be connected physically, spiritually and emotionally. Chelkowski, through diction and imagery, writes of how “the scent of rose water, wildrue, and incense blend with the smoke of tobacco from waterpipes, and sweat from the huddle crowds” (Chelkowski 203). Notice in the video how, in keeping with Islamic traditions, men are seated separately from the women. Men can be seen gathered around the performance, whereas the women view from above in the balconies. In a way this asserts the fact that ta’ziyeh is a man’s play; only men can act in a ta’ziyeh and even play the roles of women. I believe that this does not serve to undermine women, but to protect them and even give them a status a importance as ultimately the story of Imam Hussein is about how he risked his life to save the lives of the women and children in his community.

I so look forward to the day I can experience the magic of a ta’ziyeh in Iran.

Works Cited:
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.

Kronos Quartet and Fusion Music

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about Kronos Quartet. From September 16th to 18th, a group of four musicians graced the stage at the NYUAD Arts Center, giving a unique performance each night. David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello), have been playing music together as the Kronos Quartet for more than forty years. Making their Gulf Debut at NYUAD, the ensemble performed three distinct concerts and even presented the world premiere of some of their new work.

The kind of music that Kronos Quartet plays centers around fusion. I attended their second night’s concert which was titled, “Hold Me, Neighbor”. In this concert, they explored the “music of Turkey, Greece, Ethiopia and Iran, culminating in composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm…, which juxtaposes sounds from the many cultures in her native Serbia.” Their first night (concert titled Good Medicine) featured works from Central Asia and the Middle East, and their last performance (One Earth, One People, One Love), was a musical journey involving multimedia exploring Iran’s carpet-weaving community and the war in Beirut.

When watching Hold Me, Neighbor, I remember trying to figure out which instruments were making which sounds and whether they had any external audio involved in their performance that we couldn’t see. I am not a musically talented person, but I found myself so interested in the way Kronos played their violins and cello. I had never heard those sounds come out of those kinds of instruments, culminating in a unique musical experience. In some weird way it felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of a movie, as I felt like their music was trying to tell a story through the change in pace, the rhythm, the beats, which instrument would lead, and so on. I can’t say though, that I was particularly taken by Kronos. I recall at the beginning of Toshi Reagon’s performance feeling gobsmacked, and at the end feeling like theater is indeed the path I am meant to be on. I can’t really say if I liked Kronos Quartet’s performance, but I do know that I did not not like it (double negative there). Maybe it has to do with the form in which their performance took place. Schechner does define performance as being the whole constellation of events and involving the performers and audience. Even though the space itself meant that the audience and the performance were together and sharing in this musical experience, I did not really feel involved. There is a clear divide between the performers and the audience; they play, we listen. Periodically one member of the group would introduce a piece, but he did not really explain its significance. Their music is so culturally rich and meaningful, draws from history and current issues, and I wish I could have known more about what it was that they were playing. For Hold Me, Neighbor they fused together the Turkish, Greek, Ethiopian and Iranian music, but what is their music really about? What are they trying to tell the audience? And what is it about these four places that allow their music to speak or contradict each other?

Their music reminded me of a podcast that I happened to come across one day when researching for photographic archives that exist in the MENA region. The website of the Freer and Sackler Galleries features a podcast entitled “Iraqi Jazz Fusions: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers”. The music of Amir ElSaffar, and Iraqi-American jazz and classical trumpeter, is a kind of fusion music like that of Kronos, and carries a social and historical meaning behind their compositions as well. For example one of their pieces, “Blood and Ink”, is about “a form of collective expression of aneen (weeping) based on maqam mukhalif, which is said to have originated in the aftermath of the 1258 massacre of Baghdad, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu”. I feel like unlike Kronos, Amir ElSaffar and his ensemble are more personal in their genre of music. Their music specifically fuses Iraqi-Arabic music with contemporary jazz, and this is a result of a journey ElSaffar took to study the music of his own father’s ancestral past, whereas Kronos appropriates music and then plays pieces composed my individuals outside of their own ensemble. Of course there isn’t anything wrong with this, and ultimately Kronos Quartet is a means by which various styles of music can be fused together.

I encourage you to listen to Amir ElSaffar and read more about the meaning behind their music pieces here.

Bibliography:
“Iraqi Jazz Fusions: Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers.” Freer|Sackler: The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art. Web. <http://www.asia.si.edu/podcasts/related/elsaffar/progNotes.asp&gt;.
“UAE Debut: Kronos Quartet.” NYUAD, The Arts Center. New York University Abu Dhabi. Web. <http://www.nyuad-artscenter.org/en_US/events/2015/kronos-quartet/&gt;.

Ta’ziyeh, the mourning play of Iran

Muimulbuka: the conjurer of tears

This is one of the lines that most struck me when reading about ta’ziyeh in Eternal Performance: ta’ziyeh and other Shiite rituals, a book edited by Peter J. Chelkowski. Ta’ziyeh is a genre of theatre performed in Iran that literally means ‘mourning play’. It is the passion play of the Shiite Muslims the most important ta’ziyeh tells the story of The Martyrdom of Hussein. A director of ta’ziyeh would be known as muimulbuka, though now the term ta’ziyeh gerdan is used. Ngũgĩ references Pio Zirimu, an Ugandan linguist and literary theorist, who coined the term “orature”. The term connoted an oral narrative system as it involved “the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression”. Ngũgĩ unpacks this term till it is not only about storytelling from the oral to the aural, but he really explores just how transcendent orature really is.

Centered in a public space outside, Ta’ziyeh is a genre of performance that seeks to remove the walls existent between spectator and performance. In fact, in this genre the actors are non-professional; members of the community participate in the ta’ziyeh. The stage is round, allowing for a sense of community and interaction throughout the whole play. It also creates a sense of acknowledgement, that the people are part of the story and are not simply watching it. Every year the story of Imam Hussein is acted out, and each time people will respond with grief over the tragic ending.

Pitika Ntuli beautifully writes that “[orature] is the conception and reality of a total view of life…. the capsule of feeling, thinking, imagination, taste and hearing” (Ngũgĩ 115). Orature then becomes not only about what is spoken, but about an entire experience in itself. Ta’ziyeh is transcending, appealing to the “physical, spiritual, and emotional links forged between the actors and the audience, as well as among the audience” (Chelkowski 204). Everyone is allowed to watch. Ta’ziyeh is a ritual. Schechner talks in depth about the relationship between theatre and ritual, with the former having been derived from the latter. The power behind ta’ziyeh lies in that it is a genre that is able to momentarily dissolve social class disparity as the ritual engages the audience in the act of remembering a moment in history. For at least the time that it is shown, there is a sense of communal bonding as people are able to engage with the story. The same story is told every year, but this does not mean that the way it is told is static. Ta’ziyeh is constantly changing year after year as “it needs to grow and develop its own adaptive style while remaining true to its origins and traditions” (Chelkowski 90). Ta’ziyeh is ever evolving, whilst never straying away from its intent.

Works Cited:
Chelkowski, Peter J. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. London: Seagull, 2010. Print.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Print.

Colonialism and the Question of Power as seen through Heredia’s “Couple in a Cage”

A cage in a museum.

Museum-goers encircle the cage, staring at it with intense curiosity, amusement or repulsion. Each person reacts differently to the cage, for behind the bars stands a man and a woman wearing what spectators are describing as ‘tribal’ clothing. They are presumably an undiscovered tribe: the Guatinauis. The only thing is that, they are not really from Guatinau because it doesn’t exist, and the cage is not part of some live exhibit but rather it is part of an artistic piece. “Couple in A Cage” was a performance by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco, directed by Paula Heredia. It was about how colonialism represents the colonized, the other, by way of cultural stereotyping and objectification. Diana Taylor writes about how “native bodies can only be seen or heard from the perspective of the ‘discoverer’” (Taylor 162). Within the framework of a performance, “the native is the show; the civilized observer is the privileged spectator” (Taylor 163). Couple in a Cage is ultimately a performance that seeks to reexamine the meaning of power between the colonizers and ‘the other’.

When looking at how colonialism relies on performance to sustain it as a system of domination, costume and set design of the performance has to be discussed. Guillermo and Coco were dressed in a combination of leaves, a Mexican wrestling mask and sunglasses. Couple in a Cage highlights how the other is exoticize-d. Ngũgĩ asserts that often times the invisible is made visible through performance, yet to what extent is this statement really true? If ‘the invisible’ are made visible through the eyes of the suppressor, then they still remain invisible. The viewer is free to judge and define ‘the other’ in a way that elevates the viewer. Couple in a Cage was about examining “the way history and culture are packaged, sold, and consumed within hegemonic structures” (Taylor 164). The performance itself was intentionally exaggerated; the actors wore costumes that would stereotype them as ‘primal’. This included gold bracelets, a feathered headpiece and leopard-print mask worn by Guillermo, and a skirt made from leaves worn by Coco. However there was an interesting juxtaposition in their costumes and props as they wore sunglasses and would interact with a keyboard and radio. One might say that the addition of these accessories and props was to comment on the influence the colonizers have on what is seen as ‘primitive’ cultures. The inclusion of these items subjects ‘the other’ as being under the colonizers. However it could also be seen as a way to bridge the gap between the ‘natives’ (performers) and the audience by making the statement that just because they are different does not mean they are inferior. They use the sunglasses and they operate with a computer and so ergo, they must be ‘just like us’.

The cage itself is both a prop and part of the set. It seeks to create a virtual separation between ‘us’ and ‘the other’ – the performers and the spectators. This is also seen through language. Museum guides, who were also part of the performers, would refer to the couple as “specimens”. They would inform the audience of their ‘primitive’ way of life. The use of a cage with bars dehumanizes the individuals on display. It is interesting to consider the performance could just as easily taken place in an alternative museum style of exhibition, such as behind a glass wall. However the bars not only represent imprisonment and how individuals are dehumanized when the colonizers seek to represent them as spectacles, but it also serves to convey the threads of similarity that run between different cultures. A spectator can pass their hand through the cage and interact with the performers, and the performers in turn can make contact with the spectators. When the spectators would want to take a photograph, it was not uncommon for the performers behind the cage to mess the hair of an audience member.

Louder and louder
I hear the screams of power
The screams of power
All I hear is our
Need for power
Our greed for power

Split.

To make the choices
To hear the silenced voices.

Craving, yearning,
To be heard.

-Harshini J. Karunaratne/Sep 15 2015

Colonization takes advantage of language to convey power. A performance like Couple in a Cage reemphasizes the ideas of ‘us’ and ‘them’; the superior and the inferior; ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’. Language also exists on a visual level through the display of costumes and the construction of the set. Couple in a Cage is not only about pointing out how people can be misrepresented and objectified, but it is also about reversing the power between the colonized and the colonizers, the spectators and the performers. Ultimately the performers are also watching the audience. Though they may be behind a cage, they are not powerless.

Bibliography:

Ginsberg, Elisabeth. “Case Study: The Couple in the Cage.” Beautiful Trouble. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Heredia, Paula. “Documentary-The Couple in the Cage.” Vimeo. N.p., 2014. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
Taylor, Diana. “A Savage Performance: Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco’s “Couple in the Cage”” TDR (1988-) 42.2 (1998): 160-75. JSTOR. Web. 11 Sept. 2015.
Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ Wa. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Print.
Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

 

A Brief Look at Sri Lanka and the UAE through Ngũgĩ’s “Globalectics”

To start writing a commentary on Ngũgĩ’s book, Globalectics, is no easy task because he has such profound ideas that he really gives the reader a lot to think about. Published in 2012, Ngũgĩ’s book is about the theory and politics behind knowledge and knowing (for all you IB folks, this is a TOK moment). In the most basic sense, Ngũgĩ discusses the problems with language and writing that both enters and exits African literature from a colonial point of view. He speaks of how colonialism led to the production but also the distortion of knowledge. Most memorably he comments on how “the colonial process dislocates the traveler’s mind from the place he or she already knows to a foreign starting point…. It is a process of continuous alienation from the base” (39). One therefore is always looking at oneself through the eyes of another. He relates this specifically to African literature, however his arguments can be applied to almost any former colony.

I grew up in Sri Lanka, and the notion of pride or patriotism is a surprisingly difficult concept to discuss. Outside the craziness and extreme pride people feel over the national cricket team, it is very rare that there is a sense of ‘Lankan pride’. I bring this up because so often we’re used to putting down our own country by beginning to say things like, “Oh yeah, the UK was amazing, not like here because….” I even went to a local school for a large portion of my academic life, and there was never an attempt to really emphasize how special Sri Lanka truly is, not even from a historical standpoint. Like seriously, so many amazing people journeyed to Sri Lanka (Pablo Neruda, Che Guevara, Marco Polo) and some even spent a great deal of their lives there (Arthur C. Clarke), but if you point this out to people the most common question in response is “Why?” And I’ll admit I’m guilty of this too, having been extremely surprised that artists like Lionel Wendt and authors like Michael Ondaatje are actually Sri Lanka (emphasis on the ‘actually’). I really think this lack of pride has something to do with our colonial past, but this is a discussion for another day. Point is, I think we’re so often used to seeing ourselves from an outsider’s perspective, and more often than not we hear the negatives rather than the positives.

What’s so interesting and profound about Ngũgĩ’s work is his concept of ‘globalectics’. He tries to define this concept as having been “derived from the shape of the globe…. The mutual containment of hereness and thereness in time and space” (60). In globalectics, there are no power struggles. It is essentially about being connected with one another, “breaking open the prison house of imagination built by theories and outlooks” that limit the view of the world and its inhabitants (61). Ngũgĩ, towards the end of his book particularly, discusses the role of art (dance, performance, etc.) and how it connects to this idea of globalectics. It is so interesting to think about Abu Dhabi (since I live here) in this sense and the kinds of work that is produced because of the population makeup of the United Arab Emirates. Only 10% of the population are local Emiratis, and everyone else really comes from all over the place. So there’s always the question of what does national identity mean within the UAE. The UAE has transformed over such a short time in so many ways, that it is a testament to the idea that identity is not a fixed concept but one that is constantly evolving.

Works Cited:
Wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

Commentary on Richard Schechner’s Work on Defining Drama, Script, Theatre and Performance

When a colleague saw me reading the essay “Drama, Script, Theatre and Performance” by Richard Schechner, I was not surprised when she informed he that he is in fact a professor at my university who teaches the course, “Ritual and Play”. Schechner’s paper was published in The Drama Review in September 1973. In his paper, Schechner discusses how the words named in his title, have distinct definitions though the lines between them are often blurred. He brings forth examples to discuss the differentiation between the terms, relating them through the function of play and rituals that exist in certain cultures and communities (hence why it was not so surprising to learn that he in fact teaches the aforementioned course). He attributes theatre as having originated out of rituals. The difference in prehistoric ritual and contemporary ritual however lies in that “the doing is a manifestation more than a communication” (7). Schechner continues to explain that “’scripts’ in ancient performances are patterns of doing, not modes of thinking” (7).

I was initially confused when reading Schechner’s work. I had never considered that the terms drama, script, theatre and performance, are actually distinct from one another. With the exception of perhaps script, I used these words interchangeably in conversation. Schechner breaks down these words in a way that not only distinguishes them, but also shows how one exists within another. He claims drama to be “the smallest, most intense” of the terms (8). It is a written map, and can be taken from place to place regardless of whom the ‘messenger’ is. With a script however, the basic code of the event, it requires that the messenger be able to know the script and teach it to others. Theatre then becomes the event itself enacted by a specific group of performers, the actual “manifestation or representation of the drama and/or script” (8). Lastly, the performance is what becomes “the whole constellation of events” and involves the performers and the audience (8).

I would call Toshi Reagon’s concert version of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower a performance. Rather than retain the illusion of a wall between the audience and the performers, one where both parties are meant to conform to a certain kind of etiquette, Toshi would talk to the audience casually. She would check in with the audience (often, but not in a way that was disruptive), and guide them through the importance of a particular song, for example. More importantly, she gave the audience a sense of her personality and her story. I was also lucky to have a class where she was our guest for the day. This may sound strange to say, but she felt real. I think so often one is taken a back by the success of a particular person and by the work that defines their career, but both in class and on the night of the show, I felt like she was able to connect with the audience in a way that was personal, and real. The audience in itself is such a major component to the way the stage is set up. The audience influences the stage as Toshi and her band wanted to make sure that the audience was a part of the experience. Singers would also sing outwards to the audience, not just by coming up to front or center stage, but by also trying to make eye contact and singing to the people who were seated beside them. In a performance, the physical space itself where it all takes place is important. Additionally, Toshi and her ensemble wrote the songs sang. They adapted Butler’s novel and turned it into something that can be taken from place to place (like drama), person to person (script), is enacted by they themselves (theatre), and involves the audience (performance). Ultimately, performance is a culmination of all these different elements coming together. Toshi truly found ways for each element and aspect of performance to be enhanced and created an experience that was one to remember for a lifetime.

Works Cited:
Schechner, Richard. “Drama, Script, Theatre, and Performance.” The Drama Review: TDR 17.3 (1973): 5-36. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web.

“Parable of the Sower,” a novel by Octavia E. Butler

A speculative fictional novel, Parable of the Sower was published by Octavia E. Butler in 1993. The novel takes the form of a journal and tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a young girl who creates her own religion, “Earthseed,” in a time of chaos. Set in 2024, there is nothing but absolute social chaos. Lauren lives in a world where no one can trust each other, and one must fend for themselves. When her family dies, she sets on a journey of survival beyond the walls of her community in search of water, food, shelter, and the chance to rebuild a crumbling world – a chance to fulfill Earthseed.

Lauren is an adolescent who has grown to be affected by her internal and external conflicts. One of the most powerful traits of Lauren as a character that show a connection between the internal and external is the fact that she suffers from a condition known as ‘hyper-empathy’. This causes her to feel the emotional and physical pain of others around her. She should be the weakest character in the novel, yet she is portrayed as the strongest and most determined. The one who feels the most pain, is the strongest; she has not let her condition stop her, but instead has learnt to deal with it, primarily because of her father. Earlier in the novel Lauren asks, “if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain?” (115). She continues to remark that she never thought her curse, might actually be used for good. Later on however, concerned more about what pain could do to her when working within a group, she says that “self-defense shouldn’t have to be an agony or a killing or both” (278). She sees her condition as her curse, what that would leave her defenseless and reliant on the people around her.

Butler’s novel reminded me of a lot of different kinds of texts. It reminded me of “The Road” (2009), a post-apocalyptic film of a father and son on the search for civilization. It also reminded me of Hamlet, simply because of the recurring imagery of “maggots”. I was also reminded of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins as the narrative style is quite similar to Butler’s text. Both novels contain strong female characters who must fight to survive, and convey their journeys through an informal tone of voice. However I am most struck by how the song “We Don’t Run” by Bon Jovi relates to the novel. Like Butler’s novel, fire is a recurring symbol in Bon Jovi’s song as he paints a picture of what seems to be a place set in the future where there is thunder, fire and the sky is falling. There is a communal spirit conveyed in the title of the song and lines like “we don’t back down”. I am most interested in the line though, where Bon Jovi sings, “Like a phoenix from the ashes/ welcome to the future it’s a new day”. This to me is especially significant when relating it to Butler’s text because the opening poem of chapter 14 reads:

In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
First
Must
Burn.

The chapter marks the moment when Lauren decides to escape. She soon realizes that her family has been killed. The story shifts at this point in time; it is no longer about how Lauren is affected by her relationship with her father, family and friends, but it becomes about how she defines her own relationships. She begins to define herself; with the only choice being escape, Lauren must find a way to survive, stay safe, and pursue Earthseed.

Works Cited:
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 2000. Print.

Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely turn Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” into a musical journey

            The night of September 3rd was one to remember for a lifetime. NYUAD’s Art Center was hosting its grand opening with none other than Toshi Reagon: singer, composer, musician, and leader of her very own ensemble, “Toshi Reagon & Big Lovely”. They would perform a concert version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Five musicians took their places on a stage, grabbed their instruments and played…. Nothing. Well, let’s just say that silence filled the air for a good few minutes (silence is not necessarily ‘nothing’ if it is an intended part of the performance, and the question of whether it was intended is another argument in itself). When the musicians finally did start playing, the sound of the violin, cello and guitars consumed the space of the blackbox, eliminating the silence with the sudden beginning of the music. After an opening by the band, Toshi Reagon enters, gives a short introduction and then, as if like a calling, cast members who had dispersed themselves along the aisles of the audience seats emerge, some enter from the doors. This is where the magic begins.

            As soon as the twelve individuals, Toshi being the thirteenth, started making their way to the stage, I knew I should have held on to my seat because I was about to be blown away. Their voices in unison, but each voice finding a way to be heard among this collective without overpowering the others, made my jaw drop (of course till I realized I should regain my composure, though this wasn’t likely till some time had passed). I was mesmerized, enchanted and completely taken aback by the sheer dynamic nature, clarity and range of their voices. Toshi and her ensemble took an audience on a journey of survival. The opening song, “What You Gon Do” was the perfect way to present, in the most literal sense, a question to the audience; it gave the opportunity for the audience to imagine and connect, and really ask themselves what they would do with no water, food, and no one to rely on. Yet the show is directed in such a way that it invokes a sense of individuality concerning one’s own needs, and a sense of communalism in the shared experience. From the songs that express basic needs, there is a shift towards human connection with songs like “I Hugged Her Then” and “Embrace Diversity”. I’m not saying the sense of being a singular individual and then being a part of a community are ideas that are separated in Reagon’s performance. They are never separated from each other and this primarily has to do with the form of Reagon’s performance. The ensemble sings together, and supports one another even when there is a solo performance. They don’t just sing with their voices, but they sing with their whole bodies. The semi-circle form the cast was seated in allowed for that sense of unity to be conveyed, but it also felt like the audience was a part of the whole experience. The circle was not closed (hence, semi-circle) and so it allowed the audience to be a part of that completion of the collective; to be a part of a tribe, as Toshi introduces the group to be.

            In Marvin Carlson’s paper discussing theatrical performance and the relationship between an original text and kinds of work that are produced afterwards, he brings forth the concept of supplement. He defines supplement to be “a surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude.” He goes on to say that under the concept of a supplement, the original text and the performances that emerge out of them, neither the text nor the performance are inferior to each other. They are dependent on one another (which makes sense since a performance of a novel, cannot emerge if that novel was never written). More profoundly, it is as though the texts, and their different forms such as the form of a novel and concert, are having a conversation with each other. Butler’s novel passes through moments that the Reagon’s concert delves into, whilst the songs that the ensemble sing emerge out of Lauren’s narrative and the poems she writes on a religion she’s developed, “Earthseed”. Reagon’s ensemble took the key elements of Lauren, the protagonist’s experience, and presented them in a way that really made one stop, think, and listen. The repetition of the lyrics conveyed a sense of not only understanding the chaos around one’s world, but accepting it and embracing it in order to stand together and create something new out of it. Butler’s book, with its imagery and even often times poetic narrative, add detail to the world the novel takes place in that isn’t conveyed by the ensemble. However, this by no means dictates that the concert is inferior to the original text. It in fact enriches Butler’s Parable of the Sower not by tampering with the original text, but in reinterpreting and translating it through a medium that is more communal (a concert) as opposed to personal and singular (a novel).

Works Cited:
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central, 2000. Print.

….and so it begins.

Theatre, I’ve finally found you – but that doesn’t mean I’m done with trying to find you. I’m just at the edge of that front door step waiting to turn the knob on the door, not knowing what lies behind it.

And now you’ve stumbled across this blog. Let’s go crazy.