“The Other Shore” and “Brooklyn Babylon”: A Post-Human Omnibus Review

The University of Illinois theatre program is doing something new this year, not only organizing its offerings around a concrete theme of free speech and censorship (as opposed to other more abstract themes like “dream,” etc.), but that theme is also in response to local debate. Last week Thursday, UIUC reached a $875,000 settlement with Dr. Steven Salaita over a breach of contract in an attempt to stem academic freedom of speech. Unfortunately, it would seem that university administration is not invested in engaging with the actual constitutional issue at hand, but merely wants to move forward it getting censures lifted and being removed from the American Academy of University Professors (AAUP) Censure List. (The Center for Constitutional Rights has an excellent summary of events and factsheet on the case.) In an email from interim chancellor Dr. Barbara Wilson last week, primary motives were to bring “some closure” and “to focus out collective energy on bring the campus back together…for our future.” Its recurrent rhetoric about the administration’s desire to “move past this” rather than systemically grapple with the implications for and with out students. It has certainly been a missed teaching moment for our students. This is in part why this theatre season is particularly important as an example of art being exigent—giving us the intellectual time and aesthetic space to meditate on a problem.

Ensemble players work in tandem in Illinois Theatre’s “The Other Shore.”

The Other Shore, like last month’s 1984, attempts to cultivate the experience of living through thought oppression. Written by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, the play, originally banned by the Chinese government in 1986, consists of an ensemble of actors assisting the one who yearns for freedom. Its dialogue consists primarily of meta-speak, nonsense and none-sense, evacuating language as a system for meaningful communication. In this respect the play is formally an interesting comment of the hyperbole and lack of value placed on fact in public debate. The stunning and interactive set design by Nicholas James Schwartz is left to do a lot of the heavy lifting, along with the ensemble movement direction by Philip Johnston. Both the set and movement concepts seemed to stress the oppression of the followers on the figure who did not desire to lead—and precisely for that feature is made to and put under threat by larger forces. However, in its abstraction, even in the card game episode, I was left un-stirred by the production overall, although certainly hungry for more ensemble drama like this from the promising undergraduates.

Music and projection work in tandem for “Brooklyn Babylon.”

On the other hand, Brooklyn Babylon, a touring production by big band composer Darcy James Argue and animator Danijel Zezelj, startled me to the core. Told only through a series of projects and the original score performed live by the eighteen-piece big band, Secret Society, the performance is a moving example of storytelling without the body or speech. In post-apocalyptic Brooklyn, the mayor and city elites break construction on the tallest tower ever built. Looking like something out of Tolkein’s imagination, it is to be topped with a quaint carousel. Struggling with the notion of a joy to be reserved for a select few in this period of community rebuilding, the architect attaches mini dirigibles to the carousel so that it might escape on opening day. It lands on a nearby empty beach, which becomes a new Coney Island that brings the survivors together. The several movements are interjected with the quick raising of the scrim to reveal Zezelj in the process of painting this new Brooklyn cityscape. In the last movement, we watch for several minutes as he then paints over the piece with black, reinforcing the ephemerality of art—particularly painting and music, forms which we assign/assume some permanence today—and its connection with the ephemerality of the performance event as well as the tenuous of our communities and their easy subjection to oligarchical forces. If you can catch them on tour, you should, as this production is a crystalline example of what a dynamic collaborative project can look like and do.

Both of these productions link censorship to infrastructural, State-driven forces and activate a post-human lens—a state being beyond human—in order to meditate upon restricted or hierarchized speech. And while it certainly isn’t theatre or arts responsibility to become a utility against social ills, they do provide an event in which our brains are given opportunities to meditate and negotiate issues beyond the quotidian but by which we are intimately affected. Both productions remove from their meaning-making toolkits speech as an effective and precise means of communication. They further remove from their narrative framework worlds we would recognize and parameters of the present. In so doing, bother offer a performance event during which we are playgoers are enticed to consider the extent and way in which we are unknowingly censored and, as the Salaita case reveals, are unwittingly made to allow the censoring of others.