Sybil Kempson’s Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, in a world premiere run at the Abrons Arts Center through May 17, is the first production by her new theater company. Kempson, following in the footsteps of Young Jean Lee, another meteoric graduate of Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College playwriting program, is forming 7 Daughters of Eve Thtr. & Perf. Co. Let Us is one product of Kempson’s two-year-long residency at Abrons, one of many honors she has received as her career has soared.
Kempson’s company debut quickly follows I Understand Everything Better, her very recent collaborative work with David Neumann, also at the Abrons Center. The set-up for both shows was similar: an onstage band that interacts with the other performers, low-tech effects, and irony mixed with a dose of sincerity. Neumann is a captivating performer who held together a rambling assemblage of dance, song and direct address, loosely tied to the death of his father and Hurricane Sandy. I Understand Everything Better succeeded in creating a fragile beauty.
Let Us draws on an improbable range of sources. As the title suggests, one is James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book-length photographic and journalistic study of rural poverty in the American South during the Great Depression. Another source is Susan Sontag’s collection of essays On Photography. Also in the mix are painter Odilon Redon’s journals, The NEW American Machinists’ Handbook, ancient Assyrian seals in The Morgan Library, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, and a few others.
The action and characters principally derive from Agee and Evans’ book: a journalist and a photographer meet and document a family of sharecroppers. The other textual sources make cameo-like appearances. For example, one of the characters recites factual matter about machinery, presumably derived from the Machinists’ Handbook. Another character proclaims ecstatic visions that sound like elementary descriptions of the Assyrian seals, such as, “Worshipper Led By a Goddess Toward an Enthroned God.”
The creative team, huge cast, and onstage musicians are abundantly talented, which gives an inkling of the kind of resources that Kempson has available to her as she creates her company. Suzanne Bocanegra, a visual artist and performer in her own right, designed the sets and costumes. Amanda Villalobos, playing a stage dynamo of irrepressible energy, steals the show repeatedly. Downtown stalwarts Tanya Selvaratnam, Becca Blackwell, Gavin Price, and others complete the cast of ten. Neumann is the choreographer.
Despite all this talent and the optimism created by her recent collaboration with Neumann, Let Us is unfortunately leaden. In the first act, the actors do expository monologues, sing a song, or perform a random bit of dialogue in numbing succession. An exception to the general flatness of the first act is Eleanor Hutchins’ evocative recitations about the actions of the Assyrian gods as depicted on the Morgan Library seals, which, though distant from the 1930s, suggest an association between the visionary evangelical Christianity of the rural South and ancient paganism. The other pleasure is Robert M. Johanson’s performance; his drawling, insinuating voice is as strong as his banjo- and guitar-playing as a member of the band. Later, he has terrific fun with faux French pronunciation of certain words, possibly alluding to the pretentiousness of photography criticism.
The second act starts off with great energy and layering of the textual sources, as Selvaratnam appears as Sontag, offering her philosophical critique of photography as a medium. Addressing the Evans-like character, she says of his pictures, “You might almost say that they are beyond criticism. Well, until I come along, anyway.” Some of the excitement created by this intertextuality carries forward, but the staging soon immobilizes most of the cast and the show in general. The actors stand in holes cut in a blue tarp for a long stretch. At the end, Tavish Miller interrupts in a fanciful costume as a Mesopotamian mixed-species creature, and the production gains interest again, usefully exploiting the range of sources Kempson has drawn on. This act also segues gracefully into depicting the possible descendants of Agee and Walkers’ original subjects, as they inhabit the contemporary South.
Kempson directed, in addition to writing the text and performing briefly as Sontag at the very end. Jody McAuliffe and Eryk Aughenbaugh are credited as dramaturgs. Naturally, Kempson is not expected to make sense or to engage in narrative or character development. Still, there is not enough reward in the individual snippets assembled here. Occasionally there’s a promising line, as when one of the sharecropper characters says of the camera, “I’m looking down the barrel of this thing you’re pointing at me. You’re a human, and I’m a human. But this thing separates us.”
These isolated lines are lost in a sea of jokey slang and pop references (George Hamilton’s tan, Little House on the Prairie, Jacuzzis). Verging on cornpone, the dirt-smeared sharecroppers are too often low comedy, albeit not very funny. Though Kempson, according to the program notes, was also inspired by a later study about how the sharecroppers were misused and misrepresented by Agee and Evans, Let Us also trades in its share of shallow caricature.
Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag continues at the Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 17.