Emancipatory Politics: A Romantic Tragedy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 2, 2010
Eric Bland is becoming the voice of his generation. Is it too big a stretch to compare him to John Osborne, whose "Angry Young Man" in Look Back in Anger seemed to crystallize the angst and anxiety of postwar Europe? Bland, both more poetical and more avant-garde in his inclinations than Osborne was, speaks brilliantly about this particular American cultural moment in his remarkable new play Emancipatory Politics, which is currently being presented by Incubator Arts Project under the auspices of Bland's company Old Kent Road Theater. People who are interested in the way the world is now, and the way the theatre of today and tomorrow is going to be, will want to see this show.
Writing about a generation that is increasingly defined by so-called "social media" such as Facebook and Twitter, Bland appropriately gives us a play built around confessional monologues and dialogues, where characters talk about and around and through the things they want and the things that are on their mind; even in pairings that look like conversations, they are mostly talking about themselves and not necessarily hearing their partners at all. An inability to find love or company echoes throughout the piece as frequently as the feeling of impotence in the face of an uncontrollable world. So one of the play's 15 characters, receiving an impromptu massage from another cast member, reflects on how long its been since he was touched by another person; while another talks about a brother who was killed in the war:
My brother? Who died? He's dead. Yeah he died really early on in it. Way back. Like he was in the first thousand. He got to be on that episode of Nightline when they showed the first thousand soldiers killed in Iraq. Those were the days. It was still news. It's been a tough decade, you know. Personally and professionally. For America.
The blend of guileless naivete and seen-it-all cynicism that enables a young man to talk about America having had a tough decade personally and professionally pervades Emancipatory Politics and sums it up rather succinctly. Bland paints a portrait of a generation—the first American generation of its kind, I think—that wants to hope and dream and accomplish as much as all the previous generations did, but finds itself increasingly powerless to actually have what it wants.
The show is sprawling and feels indulgent in places; you get the sense watching it that its creators don't ever want to bring it to a conclusion, mostly because they're having such a joyful time making and doing the piece. There's a kind of narrative throughline in the play, in which most of the characters set off for a sort of mythic "Arizona" where they will found a new political movement, but this ADD generation constantly loses focus on that bigger picture and so does the play as it morphs, cuts, mashes, and smashes up a plethora of cultural, political, and theatrical references; constantly questing, constantly moving; anxious or even fearful of coming to an end.
The play is a showcase for the thoughts and aspirations and concerns of its author and his collaborators, and it's also, significantly, a grand showcase for all of the participants' talents, which are constantly inspiring. Bland is responsible for the text, with direction credited to him and the ensemble. Abernathy Bland is the art designer, creating a literal world for the piece to exist in, in the form of a thrilling and delightful painting that covers the stage and some of the walls. The actors, each of whom demonstrates enormous versatility, skill, and discipline in the course of the two-hour play, are: Becky Byers, Anne Carlisle, Tyler Foltz, Charlie Hewson, Beowulf Jones, Gavin Starr Kendall, Jesse Liebman, Megan McGowan, Iracel Rivero, Heather Lee Rogers, Joey Ryan, Alexis Sottile, Victoria Tate, Hollis Witherspoon, and Morgan Anne Zipf. Zipf also provided the lighting design; the sense of collaboration among these artists is palpable and exciting and stands in stark contradiction to the impotence their characters seem to feel.
In the end, it is just that contrast that Emancipatory Politics leaves us with. There's a segment in the middle of the show that features the company dancing in various styles, pairings, and groupings to Sufjan Stevens's "The Mistress Witch from McClure (Or the Mind that Knows Itself)," and it's at once sweetly joyous and achingly, profoundly sad. Such boundless possibility is on display here! It's enough to make you think...to hope, anyway...that a band of artists could actually change the world.