People stand in tense gaps — between danger and safety, history and the present, and between binary identities — in the Guthrie Theater's first solo emerging-artist celebration. The stakes are high for the three artists featured in the festival, which kicked off in the Dowling Studio over the weekend. All take different approaches to their subject matter in their one-hour shows, with varying degrees of success.
Writer/performer Ifrah Mansour's "How to Have Fun in a Civil War," her autobiographical piece about fleeing violence in her homeland of Somalia, is perhaps the most wrenching. Mansour tells the story from the perspective of a cheerful, happy-go-lucky girl caught up in whirlwinds of violence she can't fully comprehend.
That approach gives viewers an opportunity to discover things at the same time the character does or, sometimes, ahead of the naive youngster. We want to protect the optimistic child who's poor but does not know it; who's often in mortal danger but doesn't recognize it. We want to help little Ifrah maintain her bright-eyed innocence and wit, to keep these things in case she survives the bombs and bullets.
Directed efficiently by Lindsey C. Samples, "Civil War" uses a variety of props to tell its story, including a colorful, life-size puppet to symbolize Mansour's mother. This hauntingly silent figure, wheeled around the stage as the family moves in and out of danger, serves as an anchor for little Ifrah, who confides in her mother and asks her to be gentle as she sits to have her hair braided.
"Civil War" fills out the story with a soundscape (designed by Peter Morrow) of excerpted interviews, from family members and other survivors. But the play's most moving part is silent. It's a roll call of casualties scrolled onto a screen and upward to the stars, including the name of one person occupying a big space in Ifrah's heart.
Casualties also figure in "Tears of Moons," Antonio Duke's epic-themed piece that synthesizes African and Greek storytelling techniques to address some of the notorious killings of blacks in America. Well trained and highly charismatic, Duke uses his craft to give this piece light and pathos. Despite its subject matter, "Moons," staged elementally by Ellen Fenster, is not a depressing litany of injustice and death.
Instead, singing "Wade in the Water" as he enters the nearly bare stage, Duke comes to us like Homer or a griot, the West African storytellers who are the keepers of history. Duke's narrator is pressed into service by the events that he, too, is trying to comprehend. He is a reluctant chronicler of tragedy.
The actor weaves seamlessly between storyteller and the characters in his stories, animating the victims we know from the headlines. We see one of the four little girls in Birmingham, Ala., prepare for church, sassing her elders, unaware that these are her last moments before a bomb blows her and her Sunday schoolmates away. We see members of a South Carolina Bible study class extending warmth to a wayward soul the world would come to know as mass murderer Dylann Roof. We hear Amadou Diallo's breathing as the West African immigrant catches 41 bullets from police officers in New York. We see Emmett Till whistling as a way to cope with stuttering, a habit that was used as the excuse for his killing and mutilation in Money, Miss.
Such heavy stuff is rendered artfully in "Moon," which is modeled after "An Iliad," Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's adaptation of Homer's epic. As he moves around the stage, against a backdrop that flushes sea-blue and blood-red, Duke pinpoints the trauma that binds us to a history which refuses to stay in the past — to stay in black and white.
A.P. Looze's "Foray Softly," which rounds out the festival, is a super-cute, low-key paean to the liminal middle. A strong writer but so-so performer, Looze uses audience-interactive bubble-blowing, mushroom foraging and some seemingly free-associative digressions that add up to one conclusion: It's better to be in a nonbinary space where you can be anything you wish.
Playing the role of tour guide, Looze speaks through a bullhorn to take us into a forest for self-exploration. Looze shows us the credits of the film "Titanic" (the two currents that met where the ship went down caused a mirage on the horizon that might have deceived the men on watch). These metaphors help give Looze's playful show an endearing incandescence.
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