600 Highwaymen’s earlier performance of Manmade Earth in Buffalo (all images courtesy French Institute Alliance Française)

This article is part of a series of pieces covering or inspired by the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival, produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Not once during the 90-minute performance of Manmade Earth did the house lights go down, so the play began with some uncertainty. A young woman approached a canvas alley made of nine sewn-together drop cloths; it flowed between the audience, seated on either side. The teenager wore sneakers and a tracksuit, whose jacket sometimes hiked up to reveal a belly piercing. Was she a performer? An audacious spectator? Taking root and bending her arms in a choreographed stance, she leveled her gaze and made eye contact with successive individuals in the crowd. In the background, a synthesizer played gentle chords. Such tones served as the show’s collective nerve, sometimes dreamy, sometimes tenuous, and often restive.

“Whose place is this?” the teen asked. “Who does it belong to?” She was asking each of us in the audience personally, and by proximity, collectively.

It was an apt question to introduce a succession of queries from seven more teenagers, immigrants from Malaysia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, and elsewhere, participants in a project conducted in Buffalo by the experimental company 600 Highwaymen, and brought to the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn for one weekend as part of French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival. One by one, the performers posed, in both senses of the word: they struck bodily positions as they put forward questions both cosmic and mundane.

600 Highwaymen’s performance of Manmade Earth

“Do you like my socks?” one young man asked, when it was his turn to cruise the canvas. His pants plunged straight to his sneakers offering no glimpse of the socks. “Do you think I am funny?” he asked a man in the audience who guffawed the loudest. “Will you give me a house? Your wallet? Your toothbrush?”

Soon the questions turned to statements. “This is how I look when I am asleep,” a teenager in a hijab said, remaining still, with her eyes open.

“This is how I look without my glasses,” another teen in black jeans attested, as she removed her glasses and then put them back on.

Perpetually visible and called out as observers, the audience functioned by turns as witnesses, as confidants, as a chorus, and by the end, as collaborators in this performance piece concerned with self-consciousness (both the performers’ and ours). The teenagers spoke about their anxieties — some common to all adolescents and some that can be read as specific to refugees and migrants — and made all of us in that audience hyper-aware of ourselves.

The cast revealed and confronted their vulnerabilities in a game of admissions. Linking arms, each actor in turn blurts their terror: “I am afraid of dying!” “I am afraid of getting pregnant!” “I am afraid I’ll get shot!” “I am afraid of graduating!” “I am afraid of growing old!” “I am afraid of dying before my parents!” “I am afraid of debt!” “I am afraid my feet will never stop growing!”

600 Highwaymen’s performance of Manmade Earth

After a brief segment in which the cast used buckets to mix ingredients — one measured water, another poured, another scooped plaster, another stirred — the teens launched into the performance’s centerpiece. They assembled a precarious structure from door-sized pieces of cardboard and step ladders: materials that evoked the pallets of the homeless and the rungs of upward mobility. Any individual’s success is necessarily a collective enterprise, the action urgently seemed to convey, as the performers silently cooperated by holding pieces in place until supports were installed or by bringing the next element. As they labored quietly with waste materials and ingenuity, the group’s half playhouse, half shanty grew up and teetered, and the audience became involved in its fate. When a section collapsed, we groaned. When it was repaired and completed, we applauded.

Toward the play’s end, a bucket of ingredients was returned to the canvas and overturned. A hardened plaster puck clunked out. In it, a stuck paint stirrer slanted like a sundial’s gnomon. This lasting artifact of an ephemeral performance was perhaps a metaphor as well for time-lapse maturation, for what had been transformed. While the plaster’s tender batter thickened and solidified, these teens, often marginalized or invisible to the public eye, had been deeply seen and heard.

In the days since seeing Manmade Earth, I kept returning to the moment when a teen wearing a peach hijab commented on her awareness of self: “This is how I look when I am being looked at.”

But then she overturned her statement. In one gesture, she fulfilled the impulse of the play. “This is what it looks like holding hands with a stranger,” she said, as she reached her hands toward a spectator with an ample torso and kind small face, and he unreservedly, instantaneously reached back.

Manmade Earth ran at The Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn, New York, September 13-15, 2019.

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Julia Shipley

Julia Shipley is a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. Her work has also been featured in Rolling Stone, NPR, and Mother Jones.