By SUSAN BROILI
Killian Manning/NoForwardingAddress’ premiere of Manning’s “Uncle Sam Wants YOU!!” proved powerful and provocative on Wednesday (Nov. 1) the first of a five-night run at Durham, N.C.’s Living Arts Collective.
The hour-long, dance theater work left me with feelings of hope and despair. I also felt a sense of empowerment because Manning’s work does what art does best, which is to name something. In this case, the naming included not only the divisive, chaotic, current politics under the Trump administration but also our country’s long history of violence by some Americans against Americans they see as not worthy of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In some ways, the diversity of our country was reflected in the diversity of the cast not only in ethnicity but also in varied current pursuits that include a post-doc in bacteria communication. The cast also brought considerable dancing and acting experience to the realization of this work.
These 12 performers received much-deserved applause: George Barrett, Sarah Adams Bean, Christina Conley, J Evarts, Claire Fefer, Jonathan Leinbach, Beyla Munach, Geraud Staton, Nike Stasulli, Becky Straub and Steven James Rodriguez Velez.
Manning structured her work with Red, White and Blue sections to reflect not only the colors of the American flag’s stripes but also the violence, optimism and hope/despair dichotomy of Americans past and present.
The Red section kicks things off the Statue of Liberty arrives in the form of cast member J Evarts, draped with a gown of gauzy, white cloth stripes and carried, in a standing position by two male performers, who set her standing on the seat of a chair.
In this section, we often heard lines from the poem “The New Colossus” inscribed on The Statue of Liberty’s base: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your people yearning to breathe free.”
Later, as a male performer unwrapped the strips of cloth from “Lady Liberty,” we heard two male performers express anger. One alluded to “the 1% grinding us into the dust” in response, perhaps, to current Congressional Republican’s tax cuts proposal that includes breaks to the top 1% of Americans who control 38% of our nation’s wealth. The other man expressed despair about health care: “When I was sick, you tripled my insurance rates,” he said.
Performers gathered the cast-off cloths from The Statue of Liberty and used the cloths to create Middle Eastern-type head wraps and a sling for an “Injured” right arm. One performer, her arms extended behind her, even managed to use the cloth to tie her wrists together, as though hand-cuffed.
The effect underscores that America is not a perfect union with everyone welcomed. Some people are hurt, marginalized and persecuted.
In addition to the Statue of Liberty role, J Evarts also delivered a nuanced performance as Ethel Rosenberg later in this section. The Ethel Rosenberg the audience saw was both nervous and steadfast under the aggressive prosecutor’s constant barrage. Just once, a radiant smile covered her face when the prosecutor (played by Jonathan Leinbach) asked about her two young sons.
Leinbach’s role could have been based on Roy Cohn, who had been one of the prosecutors during the trial of Rosenberg and husband Julius (March 6-April 4, 1951.) The couple had been accused of selling U.S. nuclear secrets to the Russians and were convicted of “conspiracy to comment espionage” and executed on June 19, 1953.
Cohn had served as attorney to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy’s persecution, that became known as the Red Scare, of alleged communists that began in 1952 and led to the persecution and loss of livelihood of many innocent people.
The scene ended with the Ethel Rosenberg character motionless, completely enshrouded in white cloth wrappings, and carried offstage.
Ethel Rosenberg’s guilt or innocence remains controversial to this day.
The upbeat exuberance of the White section provided much-needed relief from the very beginning as one couple hugged and then another couple did the same as we heard Simon and Garfunkel sing lyrics from “America,” that include “I’ve gone to look for ‘America.”
And, J Evarts takes a wild ride in a grocery cart pushed by a male performer.
Everyone waves tiny white flags on sticks.
And, tall Steven James Rodriguez Velez, a native Puerto Rican, uses his height to enhance his explosion of pure joy in the form of a series of fast balletic spins on one foot, the other leg held straight out to one side.
The Blue section turned out to be the saddest as optimistic beliefs in America’s promise was dashed when three exuberant, male performers headed for the wings suddenly contracted their chests and threw their arms back as though they had been shot.
And, poet Lucille Cllifton acknowledged the high price paid for our liberty when she says: “I stand for all those who died for equality.”
As performers hung the long, white strips of cloth back up, we heard a voice say: “Someone told me the gods believe in nothing.”
Then, we’re directed to the backdrop where a red light glows on the 10-foot by 10-foot representation of the American flag with only a red, white and blue stripe. If you didn’t know it was a flag, it would be hard to tell because it was completely covered with white, gauzy cloth.
In an interview, Manning explained that on the red stripe, she wrote the names of 1,274 Americans killed by other Americans, starting with 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered Aug. 28, 1955 in Money, Miss. The list ended with the names of the 50 people killed by a single gunman on June 12, 2016 at a gay club in Orlando, FL. where 53 people were also wounded.
“In America, we are at war with ourselves,” Manning concludes in a program note.
But why enshroud this representation of the American flag? Perhaps to make the point that the violence of Americans against Americans is the elephant in the room: the ignored truth that undercuts the very fabric of our democracy.