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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Statements...." by Athol Fugard - A broken land just a step away

Athol Fugard's semi-opaque poem/play, "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act" currently showing at Theater Schmeater, is a dark journey into a broken land. Co-directors Emily Marie Harvey and Jordan-Michael Whidbey have chosen one of Fugard's three "Statement" plays for production in Seattle, and as their program notes suggest, they intend it as a challenge to the audience.

Despite some weaknesses in the production, it is a challenge worth accepting. Though the play was created and is set in the time of Apartheid in South Africa, with harsh miscegenation laws that forbade relations between races, one need not look far to see this play's relevance to modern America and the Pacific Northwest.

Darien Torbert and Amanda Rae. Photo: Dave Hastings
In the 50-seat theater-in-the round "Schmee," the play begins as lights go dim on a small rectangular playing area barely adorned with a rumpled bedsheet, a few scattered clothes, an empty Coke bottle. The darkness remains. Two shadowy figures enter and sit in an embrace. Barely discernible in the penumbra, a white Woman (called Frida Joubert, played with sensitivity and vulnerability by Amanda Rae) speaks with quiet urgency and appeal to a black Man (Errol Philander, enacted with grace and emotional accessibly by Darien Torbert.) As she paints a picture in words of her sensations at a moment of beauty and bliss, her lover caresses her hair, listening in the lazy afterglow of love-making. "The color seems to pulse...warm sounds, warm smells..." A vision of Eden and the regained innocence of two people in love.

Chris Shea as the Policeman. Photo: Dave Hastings
The Man shares a story from his day: how he helped a small boy building a play house, and coached him to add rooms. "If you're going to dream, give yourself five rooms, man." Each of the two lovers thus begins the series of "statements" that together make up much of the through-line of this unconventionally structured script.

In language both plain and ornate, direct and allusive, the conversation continues, a slow and delicate struggle to overcome the shame and fear of being seen in one's true form, naked, vulnerable and real. The audience, too, is given time to adjust to the perhaps uncomfortable experience of witnessing nakedness and intimacy in close theatrical quarters as the darkness slowly brightens toward a faint dawn.

That dawn never quite comes, though, as the gathering menace of the outside world, embodied in the blunt-speaking Policeman, Det. Sgt. J. du Preez (Chris Shea) surrounds the love pair in a trap of law and prejudice. A nosy neighbor informs on the mixed-race couple, the trap is sprung, and into the glow of their dawning trust pierce harsh-strobing flashbulbs and spotlights. The dream has ended; the nightmare remains. Light, the slow friend of truth, becomes the swift enemy of hope.

In this roughly middle third of the show the audience witnesses in a most visceral way the grindingly inhumane consequences of systemic racism and institutional injustice. The Policeman reads a detailed statement of the facts of the couple's law-breaking. The nakedness of the lovers and their tenderness for each other -- all executed with breath-bating skill by directors and actors -- contrast vividly with cruel ejection from their tiny lost square of Paradise.

The last section of the play consists primarily of a monologue by the Man, a poem and diatribe directed at unseen persons -- perhaps simply the audience in a real sense: those who witness. The lovers are torn asunder. The Man describes his body being taken away piece by piece: "Exhibit A... Exhibit B..." He speaks of God, perhaps to God. He finds his only victory in final separation from the God of white privilege. To be destroyed by the system is to be liberated from its constraints and injustices; to no longer be seen at all.

Amanda Rae as Frida Joubert. Photo: Dave Hastings
That, at least, is one way to interpret or experience it. As in T.S. Eliot or the great French poets, one can wander through the words for a long time, mystified, intrigued, stirred, frustrated, and illuminated. 

This is a challenging work to pull into a state of theatrical unity, and the production does not fully succeed in doing so. Torbert's long solo at the end seems desultory as his movements around the stage and his upward directed gaze lack a clear focus. Similarly, the directors create many moments of truly startling authenticity and tension, yet fail to merge the disparate voices and threads of the play into an entirely coherent take-away.

The sound track, which consists of various moods of period and other music, then harsh effects of capture and oppression, ends the show with an ongoing mechanical offstage sound that suggests a stifling, ill-functioning air circulator. Inhuman and oppressive in effect, it somehow distracts from the already challenging closing monologue
Darien Torbert as Errol Philander. Photo: Dave Hastings
Still, within this somewhat flawed container, the work of the actors and creative team stands out. Chris Shea manages to be a functionary coldly convinced of the justice of his work, a professional who never pauses to question the nature of the system in which he thrives. Rae and Torbert together achieve highly nuanced and touching moments of emotional truth and verisimilitude, no small feat in such a close-up stage environment. And the play itself, for all its opacity and free-associative qualities, is a work of beauty, anger, and inspiration.

Theater Schmeater, located on 3rd Avenue and Blanchard in Belltown, sits squarely outside of Seattle's more fashionable theater neighborhoods: downtown (ACT), the Seattle Center (Rep, Book-It, Seattle Shakes), and Capitol Hill (12th Ave Arts.) Approaching the theater, you will see evidence of America's home-grown class apartheid: homeless, disabled, addicted, poverty-trapped Americans largely invisible or untouchable to the affluent drinkers, diners and condo-dwellers that make Belltown boom.

One of the many virtues of this daring, important, and justifiably angry production is that on leaving the theater, you may find some light shed on those people you pass on the street, and on your own position and responsibility for them. It's easy to wear a button or post a sign that Black Lives Matter. Are you willing to see up close the effects of a system that, for all its fine words, denies that daily in deeds? I suggest you try.

Now through August 12 at

Theater Schmeater
2125 3rd Ave. Seattle

"Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act"
by Athol Fugard
Directed by Emily Marie Harvey and Jordan-Michael Whidbey

Run-time 85 minutes

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