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Viewpoints, John Henry, and Heat Oh My!

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Anne Bogart is an iconoclast, who with Tina Landau, revolutionized how contemporary theatre is practiced and perceived. Last evening I saw her latest work, Steel Hammer. The piece concerns John Henry. It is a collaboration between FOUR playwrights: Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor. There was canned music performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval. It was all made in conjunction with the SITI Company.

Ok all credits out of the way. You get that Ms. Bogart is a famous force in the theatre, and that the SITI company is also a force to be reckoned with in the performing arts world. You also see from the credits that there were a LOT of chefs in this kitchen. All I can say say is…it showed.

First let me say I have used the Viewpoints techniques in teaching acting. In simple terms, the system explores movement and gesture to explore staging relationships. That is a huge simplification, however to fully explain viewpoints would take more space than I have, and there is a book on it. Read the Viewpoints book.  Also a pretty good jumping off point is the Wikipedia entry. I know I know, but there is sound info here for once. Viewpoints Wikipedia. All of this is to say, I value the system, have seen it work wonders with freeing the minds and bodies of actors, and think it useful. However in the use of telling a narrative tale in the traditional form of a well made play,                     

I am unsure of its appropriate application in the case of Hammer. Despite the reputation, the Humana Festival, and Actors Theatre of Louisville itself are all about the well made play for the most part, especially under the previous artistic director Marc Masterson. Their average middle age to old white Louisville patron demands it be so. Les Waters seems to be taking things into a new direction in some ways, with inviting SITI to make this piece. It must be mentioned that Long Days Journey into Night was Les Waters first show at the helm at ATL. It certainly doesnt have a “happy ending” of the well made play, but that is the exception. Noises off and Our Town were in the season for Petes sake…


Anyway back to Steel Hammer. The whole piece felt incongruous to me, maybe that was the point… Now I think a lot of this had to do with the framing of the work. It is presented in the festival of PLAYS. It was not presented as a work in progress, or a tone poem, or a performance art piece/theatrical experience. I think presenting the work in a different light may have cued the audience in on expecting a work that felt disjointed on purpose. I have seen SITI company work before. Tony Speciale a SITI collaborator and former student of Anne Bogart, directed Romeo and Juliet for ATL recently. I also saw Score, a one man play on Leonard Bernstein, that was a SITI piece at ATL years ago. I have nothing but praise for those two productions. Both of those pieces had more unity of action, and used the Viewpoints work to move the narrative in an exciting, challenging way, that re-contextualized Shakespeare AND Leonard Bernstein. Space, story, time, emotion, movement, shape, tempo, duration, kinesthetic response,  repetition, gesture, architecture, spatial relationship, topography, pitch, volume and timbre, (all of the Overlie, Bogart and Landau Viewpoints) were used to push the story forward and stretch it in surprising ways that served the audience well in understanding the text, yet challenging us. I also have seen many performance art pieces in burnt out buildings in several metropolitan cities. So I am NO stranger to contemporary performance art. Knowing the Viewpoints work, I could see the actors going into soft focus walking in the slow Suzuki manner, looking like zombies at times, hugging walls and sliding down them to express the architecture of the space, and running in circles around the stage like one of the Viewpoints exercises. It was all very paint by number, “watch us have an open session” or, “here is how we do viewpoints”. I just didn’t see or feel as an audience member how watching the cast run in a circle in silence for 5 minutes had anything to do with the John Henry scene that had just past. All of the choreography was detached from the scenes, there weren’t any relationships that I could see from the majority of the mini dance concert that inexplicably appeared 15 minutes into the piece… there was one piece of physical vocabulary that was repeated at the end of the play that was a theme, that related to the physical struggle of John Henry. The rest seemed to have no meaning, or relation to anything else.

Once I watched this video of Anne explaining her piece. Anne Bogart  

I was able to reset my expectations I had going in. I wish I had watched that before I saw the piece, but I try to go in to shows without any marketing affecting my reception. In this case it would have helped. Once I try to think of this John Henry piece as an evening of artistic ideas strung together by a theme of John Henry, expressed through dance, text, movement, song, and silence…then I can appreciate it a bit more. It is still problematic in terms of cohesion or the segments even commenting on each other, but ditching the play idea is a great start.

As you can see I am torn on what to think of this work. I was intrigued by the expression of depicting John Henry as just a man and not a hero. Especially since he is the only person of color we have in the cannon of American mythos in the likes of Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed etc. So a scene where John is in jail and his girl Polly says she will make up stuff about him to make him seem honorable, did not sit well with me. I suppose that was a point. Although with the Mountaintop and now this play, I am OVER the need to try to bring down the few black heroes that the mainstream white supremacist culture has embraced. The fact these works, both Mountaintop, and Steel Hammer were written by people of color is distressing. On the other hand, it is not difficult to understand the pressure on artists of color when they receive acclaim, and financial gain from bringing down black heroes to keep producing that kind of self-deprecating, black demeaning work.

The intersections of race, culture, americana, myth, power, sexuality and a whole lot of mess, are brought up in Steel Hammer. Perhaps the conversation this piece forced me to have with my theatre companion, proves the work worthy of praise in other ways.

Oh and yes the Victor Jory Theatre was INSANELY hot for some reason. It felt like Bikram yoga in that room.




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