Friday, May 31, 2013
Art performance in former Dallas drug house is DFW’s most fearless this year
No one else in Dallas is taking these risks.
WEST DALLAS It's a former drug house in West Dallas -- at least that's what the flyers claim. Paint chips and discarded plywood litter the broken sidewalk that leads from the empty back parking lot through knee-high weeds to the house where local performance art collective Dead White Zombies' newest site-specific installation takes place. It's arguably the most important "entertainment" that the Dallas arts community will see all year.
I knew Dead White Zombies -- headed by UT Dallas professor Thomas Riccio -- would produce an intriguing, immersive experience; there was no doubt that its new production, mysteriously titled T.N.B., would be shocking enough or just plain odd enough to warrant a $15 admission ticket. Knowing now what T.N.B. offers, I would have paid significantly more.
Written, directed, cast, and produced by Riccio and brought to life by a host of immensely talented actors, T.N.B. is frightening, sickening, humorous, unnerving, disturbing, and astonishing. There is no way to prepare for it, except by perhaps brushing up on your Cornel West, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Malcom X, and blackploitation films. Read a critical review of Django Unchained while you're at it, since this production was written by an ostensibly non-African American writer. And, be prepared to confront the ghosts of your upbringing, whether they manifest more obviously in the form of White Guilt or still-stinging, if tacit, colonial oppression. No one is getting off the hook here.
Without revealing too much, T.N.B. is graphic. We repeat: T.N.B. is graphic. There are "f" words and "n" words. There is simulated violence of the most chilling description. And, actors will look you in the eyes after committing atrocities and rhetorically ask your approval.
Is it acceptable for artistic performances to use racially charged epithets? Is it forgivable, in a world where newsfeeds are constantly filled with reports of senseless shootings, for actors to brandish prop guns literally in the faces of -- and sometimes pointed at -- otherwise unassuming viewers? Of course these tactics are meant to disturb -- and it's clear that Riccio doesn't cheat with them simply for a cheap thrill. In fact, in later scenes, characters explicitly discuss the cultural implications, motivations, and immense power of the "n" word and the term "ho." In the end, Riccio's lesson is one of ritualistic healing, against all odds, and against miring self-destruction.
But, despite the work's high-minded message, compelling arguments stand against artistic portrayals of racial violence -- both physical and verbal. Should such be avoided at the risk of inadvertent glamorization or at the accusation of gratuitous emotional pornography? Who suffers collateral damage? What are the consequences and who bears the responsibility? I don't know. I am not entirely comfortable condoning the usage of misogyny and racism, even recognizing that both are used in an artistic context as tools to authentically depict a meaningful story. But, without T.N.B.'s aggressive push, neither would I have frankly and honestly asked myself those -- and so many more -- significant questions.
The action of T.N.B. takes place in a dilapidated house with a circular interior path -- making use of this set up, characters jump from room to room, often coming perilously close to onlookers. Whenever action moves into a different room, viewers are welcome to follow and stand in a corner or to watch through a series of projections on screens and walls, which capture the action via security cameras. The point is voyeurism. Ever wish you were in the same room as the characters of Requiem for a Dream or Dead Presidents? Imagine if those screenplays were spliced with an African American Studies lecture and doused with clever, poetic turns of phrase. While the writing for the other Dead White Zombies production I saw -- last summer's Flesh World -- was cerebral and academic, T.N.B. attains all of the former's intellectual bite while creating a slightly less abstract and more accessible narrative. You will care about these characters. And, sometimes that empathy will rock your moral core.
Shoring up the superb writing, each actor's performance is, across the board, phenomenal. It is a disservice to any of the performers to discuss one performance over any other, though Rhianna Mack's emotional acrobatics left my jaw dropped. (It should be noted that I am not a theater critic: This statement is made simply from my lay person's appreciation for art house cinema.) Each actor fully commits, even with the added obstacle of staying in character while occasionally zig-zagging around extremely nervous viewers. At one point, I could feel my heart thudding against my balled fists, and glancing around the room, I noticed other viewers' clenched jaws and tightly crossed arms. Afterward, at least three immediately lit cigarettes.
While it is an understatement to say that Dallas supports a fine theater community with a number of immensely polished and established productions, to my knowledge, no other company is experimenting with the kind of intellectually stirring and socially urgent content matter that Dead White Zombies so brazenly tackles. It is, arguably, the most significant artistic contribution to the Dallas community because of its experimentation, radicalism, and fearlessness.
Dead White Zombies' T.N.B. is a labor of love, and one of the collective's biggest challenges has been advertising its existence. The production runs through June 22 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and tickets are available online.
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