America is Hard to See, Life Jacket Theater Company, HERE Arts Center

"Careful or You'll Burn Down Everything"

America is Hard to See

Life Jacket Theater Company
HERE Arts Center

Ken Barnett
Joyce Cohen
John Carlin
Amy Gaither Hayes
David Spadora
Gareth Tidball

Production Staff:
Travis Russ (Playwright & Director, Scenic Designer)
Priscilla Holbrook (Music & Lyrics, Music Director)
Solomon Weisbard (Lighting Designer)
Andrea Hood (Costume Designer)
Kristina Vnook (Production Stage Manager)
Anthony Dvarskas (Dramaturgy)

Research Team:
Travis Russ, Anthony Dvarskas, Amelia Parenteau
Priscilla Holbrook

America is Hard to See
Photo courtesy HERE website

February 8, 2018

It barely needs saying that art has been based on observation of the real world for centuries - from Da Vinci's Birds in Flight to Daumier's Third Class Carriage and millions of sketches, paintings, architectural renderings, and 4th grade drawings of classmates' portraits in art class. In a simple sense, we use art to interpret and distill the world around us. Trite, sure I'll give you that, but with a nugget of truth.

We know what to expect of documentary film: its attempt to be "objective" as the editor and director splice together scenes that are anything but. Ava Duvernay's 13th uses historical materials to convey a clear message, though its subjectivity is inescapable. That documentary is never 100% objective is one of its charms. We can follow neatly in Roland Barthes' footsteps as the "author" becomes a "scriptor" (literally), and we know that a line of text (or documentary script, photographic negative, or painting) does not release a single, factual meaning, but instead "is a space of many dimensions." Much like the Author of Barthes' work, History in a documentary is constantly being interpreted here and now. Facts are true, they happened, but millions of interpretations arise with each retelling.

As an audience, we should not be left with the "facts" of history, but rather a new set of questions and interpretations of the hypothetical "real world."

America is Hard to See from Life Jacket Theater Company fulfills its promise to leave the audience with questions. "Not knowing drives us forward," they say, and the audience "should not know the answer at the end." Actors play real people who are already unreliable narrators (we all know how eye-witness testimony is capricious, and how the brain edits memory relentlessly). It reminded me of films like Boyhood and Lady Bird. Life is not tidily composed of beginning, middle, and end. It goes on and on. And on.

Occasionally this experience can be jarring, like a song that stays in 7ths without a major resolution chord. And yet, isn't this truer to real life than a story that ends with happily ever after?

The main question asked in America is Hard to See is about forgiveness. In a small community of convicted pedophiles and sex offenders, can we see through the facts of a prison sentence to the human underneath? Should a 17 year old who slept with his 14 year old girlfriend be judged in the same light as a stepfather who touches his 12 year old daughter? In this play we are left with compassion for both, uncomfortable in our desire to forgive a moral dilemma.

The play cautions us against burning the trash, aka the human beings inside convicted criminals. "Be careful or you'll burn down everything," they say, and throughout the clearly religious tones of forgiveness and redemption (artfully played by Amy Gaither Hayes as Pastor Patty) we are compelled towards forgiveness.

And yet, and yet...

How can you forgive a pedophile? How can you forgive a sexual predator? Can you choose not to?

This challenging play left me without resolution, which is a space I am comfortable inhabiting. The real stories, the voices of real people, the choices of the director and actors and designers - these are all Authors. No: Scriptors. Even the audience. By interpreting we write the text anew, and I hope to see Life Jacket Theater Co continue probing.

Not presenting us with "truth," but with questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *