The Revolution will be dramatized.

The revolution will be dramatized

Next door to Barberry on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg is a red door, the kind that usually hides a garage or machine shop populated by illegals working eighteen hour shifts. If once it locked up the hopes of the unfortunate, now it is home to The Assembly’s production of “Home/Sick,” a play the company wrote collectively about the Weather Underground, the Marxist revolutionary group who declared war against the United States in 1970s and early 80s.

The former garage (or sweatshop, or whatever) opened its mysterious door soon thereafter. A nice fellow wearing mirrored sunglasses, a black suit, and an earpiece (obviously one of Hoover’s G-Men) offered me some refreshingly cold and free water. He told me to take a button sporting the slogan “Your Brain Is A Bomb.” I took my seat, wiped the perspiration from my brow, and settled back in my chair, ready to be entertained.

And entertained I was. The cast of “Home/Sick” – Edward Bauer, Ben Beckley, Kate Benson, Anna Abhau Elliot, Luke Harlan, and Emily Perkins – performed their collaborative text in the most collaborative manner: the room crackled with the electricity of real emotion that comes when a group of people work intensely together for nine months to gestate a play-baby. On stage the love that dissolves personality and the resentments that flare into laser like anger were so genuine that I couldn’t help thinking participating in a theater company is very much like participating in a political or religious cult.

“Home/Sick” is an almost perfect theatrical meditation on the paradox of anarchist politics: in order to be free you have to give up every inch of your private identity to the collective. Only the theater can do justice to this paradox because it too requires its members to give up their identity totally if their mission – to create an alternate reality – is going to succeed. The play’s most effective scene has the revolutionaries sit together in a group and critique each other’s performances, as if they were giving notes at a rehearsal. After a tense minute the group turns on David, played by Edward Bauer, saying he has been keeping secrets. They tear his ego to shreds and make him say he deserved it. The scene is so familiar because you’ve seen it anytime you have been in a group that promises salvation – political, religious, or aesthetic.

Maggie Nelson’s book The Art of Cruelty argues that violence is the foundation of the modernist art project, and one does not have to look far to see that the techniques of modernist theater – Brecht’s “alienation effects,” breaking down the fourth wall between the actors and audience – are techniques of violence intended to “shock and awe” audiences. Freedom of expression is the exalted ideal upon which the artist justifies herself, but her method is to tear out the viewers freedom of thought, just as the Weather Underground tore out David’s secret – his love for another member of the collective – and destroyed the privacy required to maintain an independent “self.”

Talk therapy, Marxian style

But David isn’t just an example of a revolutionary who can’t give up his socially constructed, bourgeois false consciousness. When the members of the collective are asked to name their favorite revolutionary, the others pick obvious choices: Che Guevara, Lenin, and Stokely Charmichael. Nervously David names Thomas Paine, and in so doing shows the link between left-wing, communist revolutionaries and right-wing national-anarchists, the sort who these days call themselves “Tea Baggers.” There’s no government like no government, as the old saying goes, and in a utopia without social rules to guide one’s behavior it becomes very difficult to tell which anarchists are into peace and love and which ones are into paranoid xenophobia.

With all due respect to Brecht, drama itself is hierarchical and rigidly structured. Not even the most iconoclastic post-modernist is able to tell a story without a beginning, middle, and end – and Lord knows they’ve tried! All too often they have failed, as audiences, bored by the formlessness of art that refuses to conform, go on with their lives and leave those experiments in artistic revolution in history’s trash can, oddities of interest only to the intellectual historian. “Home/Sick” is a tightly choreographed and scripted performance, and its grinding dramatic logic – that stories must have an arc – produces the expected, but never clichéd, resolution: the revolutionaries either grow up or self-destruct. There is no utopia.

This ending provided my favorite insight of the play: no form of identity politics, either racial, feminist or class based, is as virulent as the identity politics of youth. Once the revolutionaries got old enough to understand that revolution and utopia are merely childish fantasies, they quit. No group is as obsessed with authenticity and purity as the young. They are political romantics, in the fullest sense. They believe in an earlier time, when people were simple and virtuous, and if we could only tear away the social conventions that make us not who we really are, the fakery, and posing and false consciousness, we could rediscover that Eden when all men and women were brothers and sisters. It’s a page straight out of Rousseau. The young find comfort in their confusion thinking that someone still has an uncomplicated, straightforward inner life. For the revolutionaries in “Home/Sick” it is The Black Man (and Woman), or the Russians, or the hardy Cuban peasant. Today the same idea has been modified and repackaged as “Stuff White People Like.” For Tea Partiers the The Founders represent the purest generation. Both sides are wrong for the same reason; only the aspirational identities are different.

Before the performance cast members handed out three-by-five cards to the audience and asked them to finish the sentence “In my ideal America….” At the end of the play they read out what we wrote. It was no surprise that many of the cards said “ there would be a smaller state, slower food, and a return to Nature’s purity.” After all isn’t that the ethos of the white, urban hipster? And didn’t Marx say the bourgeoisie is the revolutionary class?


July 6 – 30

The Collapsable Hole, 146 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn