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DETROIT — We need an action. Afloat in the enervating sea of neoliberalism, all creatures of good conscience agree that steps must be taken to turn the tide. And yet … what to do? What possible solutions exist, in the face of overwhelming systems reported on by celebrity-obsessed shock-and-awe media culture? Can we even imagine a better future?
We can, and it is crucial that we do. Experimental theater ensemble Hinterlands has boiled it down for us in their latest piece, a work two years in the making, titled The Radicalization Process. The oft-repeated thesis statement of this interactive theater performance — which just returned from a regional tour and continues its run at the company’s home base, Play House — is as follows: “The only war that matters is the war against the imagination; all other wars are subsumed in it.”
This theatrical odyssey begins, appropriately enough, in the underground of Play House. Hinterlands core player Liza Bielby stands by to introduce the audience, as we trickle in, to an archive of mysterious origin, comprised of objects uncovered when Hinterlands began renovation of the long-abandoned house in 2013. The archive has been meticulously and obsessively organized by Bielby into a series of 22 brown file boxes with cataloged contents including photos, publications, loose documents, and objects such as a wig, a military jacket, and a mason jar full of broken glass labeled “Chicago 1969.” An archive guide highlights the major themes: Vietnam, the draft, Black Power, White radicals, self-determination, the New Left, method acting, Antigone, the new congress, resistance, how to be better, imagination. The audience is encouraged to explore the contents of these boxes and to contribute to a visual mapping of information, with a series of images and words connected with strings, CSI-investigation-style, on a couple of bulletin boards.
Bielby, in her excitement to share her findings with a captive audience, keeps interrupting to highlight certain snippets, now reciting a piece of a Diane di Prima poem, now playing a recording of a performance of the Jean Anoulih adaptation of Antigone, in a monologue dramatically railing against hope, now reading out a transcript from some kind of interrogation whose subject seems to have been party to a radical action involving a plan to bomb an airport. Then Bielby enters a kind of trance state, wandering up a back staircase at the far end of the basement. As she reaches to push aside the ceiling tile that will conceal the suitcase bomb she carries, the entire ceiling gives way, and the audience follows her out to the main floor of Play House to join a performance that we now understand began the moment we entered the basement.
Bielby, now in the role of Jude, a 1970s white radical, enters a Detroit home where she and her fellows, Will (Dave Sanders) and Lou (Richard Newman), are working to construct the suitcase bomb and a manifesto, respectively. Lou is trying to read her a section from Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone, and their dialogue is escalating to an argument when the suitcase bomb goes off, after which the narrative fractures into a series of fast-moving shards. From this point forward, each cast member plays a number of roles. Bielby alternates between Jude, Antigone, and a method-acting teacher, Maria Petrovna (also the name of Konstantin Stanislavski’s wife, referred to in the book Stanislavski in Rehearsal, which appears onstage) — based on Stella Adler and played to hysterical effect. Newman rotates between Lou, an unnamed acting student, and Creon — Antigone’s uncle and the king of Thebes, who forbids the burial of her brother and rebel soldier, on pain of death. Sanders plays Will, an unnamed acting student, an unnamed soldier, and a host of other supporting characters, such as the guard who catches Antigone when she obeys the higher calling of her beliefs and goes out to bury her brother in defiance of Creon’s law, thereby condemning herself to death.
The Greek myth Antigone was first translated into a play by Sophocles around 441 BCE and has been much-adapted since then. In the 20th century it became an emblematic text for radical movements, as the titular character sacrifices herself for her principals against a tyrannical state. One could view The Radicalization Process as the most recent in a long history of theatrical adaptation of Antigone — as, indeed, it is — but that would sell short the incredibly complex structure of this narrative, which not only synthesizes an archive’s worth of information about radical movements, Detroit/Midwestern history, method acting, and American culture, but also puts the three-person Hinterlands team through a physical guantlet that is exhausting to witness. The characters are up on the table, they are parading around the set, they are shaking on the floor in what looks like gran mal seizure. Through incredible command of the stage and the audience’s attention, they manage to seamlessly arrange and clear their own set pieces as they go. Bielby, in her various roles, is the central figure and emotional core of the story — through her, we will come to understand the reasoning behind the decision to perform such a strong act of civil disobedience.
All is not, as the subject matter would suggest, solemn; we are treated to rousing anthems, joyous dancing, and highly sexualized method-acting exercises. But all of it does indeed build an aura of urgency and incredibly high stakes amid the petty power struggles and idealistic fantasizing. Hinterlands is at war, after all, and the performance they turn in is their return-fire in the battle against imagination. “Theater is like a boat,” says Newman at one point “Only so many people can get on board. But rebellion…”
Following the performance’s crescendo, the closing moments focus once more on Bielby, seated and gazing trancelike into a bright light shining in her face. Newman hovers behind and above her as her interrogator, but his tone is increasingly gentle and intimate as they reenact the script first performed by Bielby in the basement. But this time we transcend the radical action and move toward an imagined past and future: it’s 1984 and Jesse Jackson is President, Angela Davis is Secretary of Education, Fred Hampton recalls the unsuccessful attempt made on his life by the FBI in 1969, thousands of revolutionaries and their families gather for the dedication of the Malcolm X Main Branch Public Library in Chicago, and Sun Ra has just been selected to succeed Buckminster Fuller as the country’s Chief Futurist. These and other visions are made tangible in the four-page newspaper handed out after curtain call that doubles as the show’s program.
Hinterlands has put together an absolutely original and radical performance — one that questions the structure and limits of theater as much as it brings to light the politics that have shaped and damaged modern-day society. But really, so what? A disillusioned idealist often overwhelmed by the staggering injustice and entropy of neoliberalist America is perhaps is led to wonder what, in the big picture, is the point of all this imagining?
For the answer, I’ll evoke Bielby as Petrovna. Her advice to her method-acting students: “You have to believe that, though the script has been written, it could change.”