Provenance and Aftermath

This weekend Culturebot saw two shows that explored foreign lands – The Foundry Theater’s The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue and NYTW’s Aftermath, a documentary theater piece exploring the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq through transcribed interviews with Iraqis.  Each in their own way is about the perils of forced gentrification – or the assertion of power on a native populace for the betterment of the invader, though ostensibly for the betterment of the population itself.

There’s a moment in the NYTW production of AFTERMATH where an Iraqi doctor named Yassar is telling his story and he says:

“The doctors at the hospital, we watch Bush, on television. He says, ‘We will fight the sons of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden in Iraq.’ The invitation. Beautiful invitation coming. ‘We will fight you in Iraq.’ The doctors, off of the educated people, we say, ‘How he can say ?’ And so Al Qaeda came…”

And in this moment, I think, rests the power of the whole work.  I mean, all the individual stories are moving and tragic, but this small moment really opens it up. Because the tragedy of the situation is that the Bush administration lied and turned an entire country into a battleground. He didn’t start the war to oust Saddam, there were no WMD, there was no previous connection to terrorism – but he needed a place to fight that wasn’t America and that seemed easy. All these lives destroyed for lies.

AFTERMATH is a surprisingly measured work of documentary theater. Clocking in at about an hour and a half, it moves quickly through its paces. I might almost say it is predictable – it is certainly efficient. And the stories are, though original, somewhat expected. We know about this subject matter, we’ve heard these kinds of stories before. But the cumulative effect of the show is still powerful. The staging is clean and simple and the bilingual cast does a great job. Even though the terrain seems familiar it is still moving. And, like the doctor’s speech, there are a few moments of really startling clarity and revelation.

Provenance is an entirely different experience. A bus tour through the South Bronx, the borough itself is personified in a poetic monologue that is played on headsets worn by the audience as they are driven around the borough. Mixing travelogue and monologue, the borough reveals itself  through graffiti, history, memory and music. The ride really does feel like a magical mystery tour, albeit bittersweet. Thee Bronx is like the great forgotten borough, a once-beautiful and bucolic place transformed over the years – and by Robert Moses – into a rough and tumble, impoverished, very industrial working class enclave. The bus tour brings you into the real Bronx and the imagined Bronx simultaneously, pulling the lives of the people and the life of the borough together into a truly transporting dreamlike story. Provenance‘s criticisms of encroaching gentrification are no less sharp for being subtle and one is left with a newfound affection for this teeming borough, a premature nostalgia for what will, almost certainly, fade when the economy comes back and development starts anew.

Taken together with Open House, Provenance proves to be yet another success for the Foundry; an exciting, surprising and satisfying re-imagining of the city around us.

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