03 March 2014

Shaliko's 'Strangers,' Part 1

[I’ve written several times before on ROT about Leonardo Shapiro, the experimental theater director I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, and the downtown New York troupe he founded and directed, The Shaliko Company.  (I first met Shapiro in 1986 at the Theatre of Nations international festival in Baltimore when I interviewed him about The Yellow House, Shaliko’s presentation there.)  This time, I’m going to try to describe the last big company-created performance piece Shapiro directed with Shaliko, Strangers, one of the projects he left unfinished when he retired from New York theater in 1993.  That Strangers was left unrealized was one of Shapiro’s greatest regrets just before he died of bladder cancer in 1997, possibly because, despite its immense complexity and apparent impenetrability in its initial form, it represented a potential culmination of all the theories and techniques which Shapiro’d been developing over a lifetime of making theater.

[In the interest of full disclosure, and also because it provided me with a unique perspective, I must explain that Shapiro asked me to work with him as a dramaturg on a planned mounting of Strangers at La MaMa in 1991.  The work didn’t get beyond the discussion stages before it was abandoned for lack of funding, but I gained a familiarity with the text, its structure, and its difficulties.  I also reviewed video tapes of the 1990 workshop performances at the Washington Square Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village and had several detailed conversations with Shapiro about the script and the potential production. (Much later, I also got to look at videos of the earliest workshop presentation at the Yellow Springs Institute, an artists’ colony in Pennsylvania, in 1989.)  Ironically, I’d missed seeing the Washington Square performance live because I was out of New York City during its short run.  That performance was a workshop so there were no reviews, though there was some reportage in the press.]

In 1989, The Shaliko Company of New York began work on its last collaborative production, Strangers, a performance piece assembled from news reports and other documents—all the dialogue was quoted material—of several unrelated incidents.  Leonardo Shapiro, Shaliko’s founder and artistic director, described his vision for Shaliko’s most Artaudian project a year earlier: 

STRANGERS will be built on music, text and images which exemplify some of the contradictions involved in the meetings of Third World and Western cultures within this hemisphere and on the streets of urban America.  It is about homelessness, alienation and the confusion of language/image/value structures in the Babel of cities.

The documentary sources were: 1) a 1987 case of radiation contamination in Goiania, a provincial Brazilian city of over a million inhabitants; 2) the 1979-81 Atlanta child murders; 3) Hedda Nussbaum’s testimony at the 1988 trial of her husband, Joel Steinberg, for the death of his illegally adopted daughter, Lisa; 4) the 1978 Jonestown massacre; 5) 1989’s so-called Central Park wilding incident; 6) people who reported they’d been abducted by aliens, specifically Betty Mitchell, who, with her sister Helen, wrote of her 1957 abduction in We Met the Space People (Saucerian Books, 1959).  (The Central Park jogger material was ultimately eliminated from the script.) 

After gathering the material from various sources, Shapiro and a group of Shaliko actors (Cathy Biro, Du-Yee Chang, Steve Dominguez, Mohammad Ghaffari, Jake-Ann Jones, Robbie McCauley) spent a year sorting through it.  They began meeting weekly in April 1989 at P.S. 122, the East Village performance space, to read through the material as Shapiro, the bricoleur, selected what to keep and use.  (A segment of accounts by victims of torture in the Philippines was discarded, for instance.)  Workshopped over ten days at Pennsylvania’s Yellow Springs Institute, an artists’ colony where the troupe did a residency from 26 July to 8 August 1989, the ensemble developed a preliminary scenario by improvisation as the director edited and shaped the text.  An hour-and-forty-five-minute version of Strangers was first presented there on 5 August, followed by a short run as a work-in-progress, which took six weeks to rehearse, at the Washington Square Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village from 1 through 24 March 1990.  A planned production at the La MaMa Annex (since renamed the Ellen Stewart Theatre) in May 1991 was canceled because Shapiro couldn’t raise the funds and Strangers remained one of Shapiro’s unfinished pieces.

Strangers was a study of “the contradictions involved in the meeting of traditional and technological cultures,” conjuring up the “dark Satanic mills” William Blake cited as symbols of the mechanized society of the Industrial Revolution which bowed to the hegemony of Newtonian science and Lockean reason over native intelligence and spirituality.  The story of Strangers was based on reports of two scrap dealers in Goiania, capital of the Brazilian state of Goias, who found an abandoned nuclear-medicine machine and opened the container of cesium-137 powder.  (In the performance text, the two scavengers were conflated with the family of the scrap-metal dealer, Devair Ferreira, to whom they sold the cesium container.  Except for six-year-old Leide, no names were used in the script, however; the characters were identified only as “Father,” “Brother,” “Mother,” and so on.  For the revision on which I was assisting, Shapiro planned to eliminate all personal names—Steinberg, Betty, Lisa—to universalize the portrayals for the audience.) 

Having no notion of the deadly potential of the mysterious powder (“It’s beautiful,” said the Mother; “What is it?” asked the Child; “I don’t know,” replied the Father—Act 1, scene 2: “They Open the Cylinder”), the Ferreiras spread the radioactive core around their family and neighborhood because everyone thought it had magical powers since it glowed blue in the dark.  Family members began to sicken and were wheeled off to a clinic where they were examined, found to be contaminated, and sent to a hospital.  The exposure eventually left four family members dead (including Leide and her mother, Gabriela), 250 neighbors seriously exposed, and 2400 square yards of their city (305 square miles) evacuated.  Because the Ferreira family had thought the cesium-137 had magical powers, the story was a chance for Shapiro to look at the lure of magic, a subject with which he had a lifelong fascination, as well as the aftermath of the clash between cultures.  Shapiro, however, also saw Strangers as a tale of “family and the loss of family and the destruction of family,” another area of concern to the director.

Having learned of the story of the Brazilian radiation accident from one of his students, Shapiro’s take on it was that the Ferreiras “thought the nuclear energy was a toy, that you could play with it, and that it would do miracles for you.  And instead it killed them.”  In Strangers, each of the Ferreiras had some dream about his or her future: the Mother wanted to sing, the Father wanted to be a doctor, the Sister wanted the glamorous life of a movie star or model—all dreams from the technological Western world, not the traditional one.  Only the little girl, Leide, had dreams that weren’t culled from Western media.  She only wanted to make her toys come alive—though even that may be closer to a Disney image than something from her own culture.  Nonetheless, they all saw the blue stuff as a means of making their dreams happen so, for instance, the Mother rubbed it on her throat and the Father administered its “healing power” to others.  Instead of realizing their dreams for them, though, the Western “magic” killed them.  “[T]hese are all images from the official world,” Shapiro explained, “the media world—whatever you want to call it: you know, the world that’s been created by materialism.”  Like advertising, as Shapiro characterized it, the media had made these images attractive; they’re derived not from life, but from movies and magazines, invented elsewhere (Hollywood, for example, or Madison Avenue) and foisted on ordinary people who absorb them passively. 

Shapiro combined the Goiania tale, told mostly without words, with newspaper headlines from the day of each performance and first-person accounts of events such as Jim Jones’s last sermon at the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana; Hedda Nussbaum’s statements in her husband’s trial for the 1987 murder of Lisa; comments by the mothers of the dead and missing Atlanta children; reports by people claiming to have been kidnapped by UFO’s; and pornographic dialogue from 970-JAIL, a phone-sex recording.  To this bricolage of “public sources,” Shapiro added Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder [songs of the death of children], a cycle of songs inspired by poet Friedrich Rückert’s elegies on the loss of his children set to music of intense sadness evoking enormous grief, and stanzas from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, which “talks about the balance between the angels and people.”

Rilke’s angels were “intermediaries,” Shapiro explained, a direct correlate to the Zuni shalakos who were messengers between the spirit world and our own for whom the director had named his troupe.  Indeed, the poem is, among other things, an acknowledgement of death’s place in human existence—especially the deaths of children: “those who died young” (Act 1, scene 1: “They Find the Cylinder”).  “In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us,” Shapiro had the character of the Mother quote, as if prescient of the dead and missing black children of Atlanta.  “But we, . . . could we exist without them” (Act 3, scene 1)?  The Rilke lines Shapiro used, all from the First Elegy, also relate to other important Shaliko themes and ideas, however.  There is, for example, an implicit denunciation of the technological world in the juxtaposition of the “terrifying” angels’ perfect existence and “our interpreted world,” the one we all actually live in, where we have to be open to everyday experiences.  This resembles the philosophies of William Blake, too, when he condemned the reverence of Newtonian science—a vision of the possibility of perfection—over native experience.  (Blake wielded a strong influence on Shapiro’s art.)  While modern Western society rushes headlong towards an evanescent technological utopia—everything faster, bigger, more efficient with computers, the Internet, cell phones, robots, interactive video games, virtual reality, instant communications, supersonic transportation, bullet trains, global oligopolies—Shapiro seemed to be asking, ‘Are we ultimately disconnecting ourselves from the world of feeling, spirituality, meaning, and self-knowledge?’  Western writer Frank Waters, whom Shapiro admired, admonished Euro-American society for “cut[ting] themselves off from the roots of life” by “establish[ing] a machine-made society so utterly devitalized that it is anticipating the synthetic creation of life within a laboratory test tube.”  When the angels of Rilke’s Elegy ignore us (“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” Shapiro quoted in Act 3, scene 1 of Strangers), we, “the knowing animals,” are forced to fend for ourselves in that “interpreted world.”  Perhaps the angels’ unresponsiveness is a punishment for our lack of spirituality but perhaps, too, if the angels are, say, our paternalistic “aliens”—which we shall see is part of Strangers’ epistemology—it’s a warning to remain related to the world.

Strangers ended with a litany of the dead of Atlanta, Jonestown, and Goiania, and trance songs from various versions of the Native American Ghost Dance.  (It should be noted that Shapiro was very attracted to and influenced by several Native American beliefs and practices, as might be suggested by his choice for the name of his company.  He incorporated many aspects of these cultures in his theater work.)  From this nineteenth-century rite that Plains Indians believed would resurrect their dead ancestors, Shapiro quoted the Comanche verse, “We shall live again, / We shall live again.”  In Shapiro’s view, this ritual was “meant to be the dead’s dream of life.  It’s not meant to be a literal resurrection, but it’s supposed to be about the possibility of resurrection.”  In the play, the cast sings:

The spirit will descend.
The earth will tremble.
Everybody will arise.
Stretch out your hands.

Shapiro substituted “spirit” for “father” in this Kiowa song, but the image is still of the reawakening of dead Indians.  Using the Ghost Dance manifests how much Shapiro was drawn both to Native American lore and the transformative power of performance.  Along with raising dead Indians, the practice was believed to have the power to annihilate by supernatural means the intruding white people—and their insidious technological culture—and return the land to an aboriginal paradise, as expressed in this Kiowa verse Shapiro didn’t use: 

The spirit host is advancing, they say.
They are coming with the buffalo, they say.
They are coming with the (new) earth, they say.
It’s also in keeping with Shapiro’s animus for the establishment: the middle-aged Leonardo Shapiro recalled the eight-year-old Leo Richard Shapiro (his birth name) who “danced, carried a tomahawk to school, scalped the principal, took back the country, drove out the white man, restored the buffalo, and lived happily ever after.”

When the Ghost Dance cult reappeared in the 1890s—an earlier cult had flourished in the 1870s—its potential power so frightened the U.S. government that it was outlawed across the Plains.  Though the original Ghost Dance doctrine as expressed by Wovoka, its prophet, repudiated both war and conflict with whites, many white settlers and missionaries misconstrued the ritual as a war dance.  Further, because the Sioux version of the Ghost Dance was being used to promote violence against whites, the army was dispatched to suppress it.  On 29 December 1890, this white fear and ignorance led the Seventh Cavalry to massacre hundreds of Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  Such a tale would only confirm Shapiro’s perception of the drive by a technologically strong but spiritually deprived society to destroy a simpler, purer, more righteous one.  In his words,

[T]he people who were totally destroyed, whose civilization was destroyed . . . got cornered to the point after however many hundred years where the only technology that they had to fight against this technology of guns and small pox and genocide was this artistic, spiritual [one]—this dance.  And by means of this technology they try to restore the balance.

The disparate, layered narratives of Strangers were hard to bring together coherently.  A key to the connection among them was a passage Shapiro pointed out in Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy, Shiva Naipaul’s 1981 study of the tragedy at Jim Jones’s People’s Temple.  Naipaul compared the treatment of unskilled laborers in a technological society to nuclear waste:

They are redundant.  They are good for nothing.  They do not even evoke fellow feeling.  One can think of them as the human equivalent of the radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants: sterile and potentially lethal. 

. . . .  The junk people, the human waste left behind by American history, are no less negative, no less dangerous a quantity.

If the paternalistic white society can be seen as the parent of the native culture—it  certainly stood in loco parentis with its Bureau of Indian Affairs, reservations, Indian schools, Christian missionaries, and Indian Agents—then actions like the suppression of Native American religions and massacres like Wounded Knee are further examples of our sacrifice of our children, a consistent theme in Shapiro’s work.  To make this appeal more poignantly, Shapiro included this Sioux verse, which he adjusted for the purpose, in the Ghost Dance sequence that preceded the naming of the dead of Atlanta, Goiania, and Jonestown:

Child, come home; Sister, come home.
Mother and Father go about always crying,
Mother and Father go about always crying,
Cousin, come home; Child, come home.

In one way or another, all the characters who suffer in Strangers are, if you will, “strangers”—outsiders, aliens, “others.”  Shapiro, in fact, saw the people of Goiania, the members of the People’s Temple, the children of Atlanta, the UFO believers, and Hedda Nussbaum as the innocents of society: the children, the slaves, the colonized natives, the Indians.  They’re patronized, subjugated, pushed aside, left to languish by the “white man” who controls the technological world.  The “natives” look upon the “colonizers” not just as their masters, he contended, but as their caretakers—their parents, in a sense.  Even those in the technological culture can feel infantilized in the face of technology they don’t understand, viewing advanced science, as Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer and social critic, observed, as a kind of magic outside our control.  The UFO believers, according to Shapiro, considered the aliens their “white men” who’d look after them.  The masters, however, don’t really care what happens to their “children.”  When they’re no longer useful, when they’ve served their purposes, they’re discarded—the detritus of modern society.  “Junk is junk,” said Naipaul.

Shapiro, true to his belief in the transformative nature of art, was somewhat more optimistic than Naipaul.  Hoping that Strangers would move his audience to action, he wanted them to see

that we’re in exactly the same situation as the Indians, . . . that we have destroyed the land, that we are now what they were then, and the only technology that can accomplish this reversal . . . is a spiritual technology, an artistic technology.  I think those are more or less the same thing.

“You never know when you’re going to be able to actually help to change something,” Shapiro stated, declaring that he wanted Strangers “to be a positive piece,” in contradiction to some criticism that it was “depressing.”  He intended the audience to “share in that dream of resurrection” evoked by the Ghost Dance and

go out there, out of the theater, having made some connection that they hadn’t made before—even if they are sort of sobered by the material and not going out singing the tunes.  But they have to, in some way, on some level, be somewhat empowered, either by new knowledge or by new connections or by being inspired by example that they can take some kind of action in their life—on  whatever level.

Shapiro conceived Strangers as a “healing ceremony which contains within it a narrative of destruction and mourning for the family as a vehicle of human culture and civilization.”  This echoes the Navajo healing chants, one of the Indian beliefs to which Shapiro had long been drawn.  (I’ve written about this rite on ROT in “‘My Mind Restore For Me’: Navajo Healing Ceremonies,” 15 May 2013.)  One of Shapiro’s constant theatrical tenets is that theater is a healing art, modeled for him by the Navajo ceremony.  Using a myth, legend, or, as in Strangers, a mythologized event, the chant ceremony combines theater, graphic art, poetry, and music to restore harmony to society. 

Like a ritual, the performance of Strangers was largely presentational, except for the wordless enactment of the Goiania story.  The actors didn’t play characters in the conventional sense but remained present as actors, though, aside from passing lit candles among the spectators during the Ghost Dance, they didn’t address the audience directly.  Since nearly all the material was in the first person, however, the entire piece was Testimony, a technique about which I wrote in “Testimony and Role vs. Character,” posted on ROT on 25 September 2013.  (I’m capitalizing the word in this sense to distinguish this use from the courtroom witness, for example, of characters like Hedda Nussbaum.)  In The Presence of the Actor, Joseph Chaikin, who was a friend, collaborator, and mentor of Shapiro’s, described this technique: “When we as actors are performing, we as persons are also present and the performance is a testimony of ourselves.”  Shapiro wanted the audience to “go into a room where people are going to stand up and talk about their real lives through these sort of forbidden topics . . . .”  “We need to identify with this story,” he insisted, “see that this story is about us as much as it’s about them, and that we are still alive and capable of affecting—somehow—this dream of resurrection—be infected by it.”

[I’ll complete my discussion of Shaliko’s Strangers in Part 2 of this article, to be published in a few days.  The continuation will include some descriptions of the March 1990 workshop production and scenes from the script (as it stood in July 1990).  Please log onto ROT later this week to read the rest of “Shaliko’s Strangers.”]

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