U.S. of Scapegoat
Americans can't seem to agree on much these days, but all must allow that these are tense, restless times. War, terrorism, a divided electorate, and a widespread debate about the nation's purpose are everyday subjects on television, in newspapers, and at the local java joint, yet few contemporary plays and films explore these issues. You'd think playwrights and screenwriters would pounce on such stories, but precious few have. One who is not afraid to take on politics is Naomi Wallace, a Kentucky-born writer who has found more recognition in Britain, where she lives much of the time, than in her native land. Wallace begins her plays with ideas, and she certainly has quite a lot of them, as evidenced by In the Heart of America, now in production at the Sol Theatre Project in Fort Lauderdale. Wallace's ambitious critique of America as the Great Imperialist Satan doesn't make for particularly effective theater, and her ideas, while articulate and poetic, aren't very coherent. Still it's refreshing to encounter a writer with this kind of passionate intensity.
Though the story skips around in time and place, the basic narrative centers on a Palestinian-American woman, Fairouz, who is trying to locate her missing brother, Remzi, an American soldier who volunteered to fight in the Gulf War of 1990. Based in Saudi Arabia, Remzi meets and falls in love with Craver, a white-trash Kentucky man. The new lovers encounter a strange veteran officer, Boxler, who is haunted by an even stranger ghost, Lu Ming, the spirit of a Vietnamese woman. Lu Ming insists that Boxler is possessed by the soul of Lt. William Calley, who murdered her young daughter at the infamous massacre of My Lai during the Vietnam War.
The play's portentous, pretentious title pretty much gives you an idea of where Wallace is headed: Her play is meant to be a massive indictment of American perfidy, which Wallace blames for war atrocities, imperialist warmongering, homophobia, racism, and the plight of the Palestinians. All of this might make for some exciting, slash-and-burn-style theater, but the play is so muddled dramatically, its overall impact is more numbing than startling. Wallace, a poet as well as a playwright, has a pointed, effective way with words, but she mistakes dialogue for drama. Her commitment is to her ideas, and, like many ideologues, she loses sight of the theatrical medium. This stuff has to be interesting and suspenseful or an audience isn't going to listen very closely. What impact the play has is largely due to several ghastly depictions of wartime atrocities, all of which are the fault of Americans. This in turn is presented as conclusive evidence that war is hell and America is to blame for everything. As the only remaining superpower and a country with a recent string of questionable foreign wars, it's understandable why America would be the target of outrage, but even a brief review of history suggests that Americans do not have exclusive rights to deplorable behavior.
The Sol production manages to compensate in some measure for Wallace's lack of dramatic intensity. As is his usual style, Robert Hooker's direction features detailed scene work, often bringing physicality and humor to dry, didactic scenes. There is one brief moment of nudity -- Craver drops his pants. But the gay romance is handled discreetly -- too discreetly -- as the lovers don't even get a kiss in until the second act, and at any suggestion of impending sexual activity, the couple hustles quickly offstage. For a play with precious little oomph, this shyness seems ill-advised. More significant, Hooker hasn't found a strong theatrical concept to give shape and focus to Wallace's wild, hallucinogenic narrative. As a result, while the individual scenes click, the play as a whole seems to lurch from sequence to sequence without much momentum or clarity.
The actors are a game lot, with muscular Todd Bruno and sweet-faced Sebastian Montoya bringing charm to Craver and Remzi, respectively, while Sol stalwart Jim Gibbons brings his gravelly voice and sly humor to the role of Boxler. The women fare less well, but they have less to work with -- their humorless roles are mere mouthpieces for Wallace's ideas. The production could definitely have done without the Vietnamese character done in "stage Asian" style: a blond, Caucasian actress with a bad dark wig, dark brown makeup, and generic martial arts moves, a distracting caricature that merely serves as unintentional ironic emphasis to Wallace's point about inherent American racism.
While both play and production have their drawbacks, there can be no faulting Wallace and the Sol for taking a shot at this kind of material. There simply is no excuse for the failure of many writers and theater companies to grapple with the issues of our day. Challenging the public to think and rethink their political, ethical, and social views is not merely an opportunity for theater artists; it is a basic obligation in a free and open society.
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