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Hannah Berk

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn), an act of reclamation for indigenous trans people

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

“Our work is ceremony, because, to us, art is ceremony,” writes Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez in her Director’s Note. This is the experience of Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn): the audience is witness to and participant in a ceremony of remembrance and healing. We travel an emotional arc more than an imposed narrative one, moving through sorrow, anger, joy, defiance.

As the stage lights go up, House Manager Kariwase Duprey welcomes us, acknowledges our presence on ancestral Piscataway land, and reads out a list of names: that of every trans womxn known to have been killed in the U.S. and internationally since the last Trans Day of Remembrance in November 2018. Less than five months have passed, and yet as Duprey reads, it seems the list will never end. Such names, if we ever hear of them, are swallowed up by the news cycle in no time flat. This production—this ceremony—rejects that erasure: these women are called in as ancestors, and made present in the play.

Our guide throughout the performance is one womxn, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul (who goes by Xemi), the playwright and sole actor, playing every character with transfixing range. At the center is Alex, a young Two-Spirit from the country known internationally as El Salvador who is on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through Alex, Xemi tells the story of doubled dispossession that many Two-Spirits face: when the spotlight is on trans issues, it usually excludes Indigenous people. When the spotlight is on Indigenous people, it usually excludes trans womxn. Alex jealously watches cis Salvadorans from afar as they access and learn from Indigenous elders, knowing she would not be safe at home; at the same time, she kneels in memorial and mourning of her trans sisters killed in the U.S., knowing her new home is no haven.

If the story Alex has been handed by the binaried, white supremacist world is one of dispossession, this hour-long tour de force is an act of reclamation. After Alex reads off scholarly proclamations about how Náhuat, her ancestral language, is purportedly “dying,” she sits down in defiance to teach herself her tongue. The text available to her, however, cannot be trusted; when it tells her “siwayul,” a compound word meaning “heart of a woman,” refers to a gay man, she questions who the authors empowered to define the word are. We can imagine: they are cis, heteronormative, and embedded in colonial machinery. “It is my living language,” Alex declares, wrapping herself in the word as a trans femme.

As befits a play that deals with the weight of history and the multiplicity of identity, Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn features a range of voices. Behind an array of colorful masks created by Ahanu On, Xemi embodies the ancestors to whom Alex turns for guidance: Siwayul, the Two-Spirit deity; Siwanawal, the skull-masked figure of La Llorona, a folkloric symbol of death, misfortune, and Indigenous oppression; and Nantzin Paula, a poet and musician in the Náhuat language. Xemi’s transformations are completed by simple, effective accessories designed by Angel Garcia.

Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn, now in its third iteration at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop after a 2017 debut at the DC Queer Theatre Festival and a second run last year, is based on Xemi’s first poetry collection, Metzali: Siwayul Shitajkwilu. The play’s language is rich, textured, and intimate. Xemi is an impressive performer, capable of moving seamlessly from Nantzin Paula’s peaceful meditation on communion with the Earth, delivered in a mix of Spanish and Náhuat, to a poem in which Alex, towering above the audience on a pedestal, demands reparations for Two-Spirits directly from the audience.

Xemi’s words disrupt complacency through rage and despair, but also joy and contentment. “The ancestors spoke to me,” Alex cries out early on. “They told me I am beautiful. That I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be.” The play is presented by Nelwat Ishkamewe (meaning Indigenous Root), a Two-Spirit (Native American transgender, intersex, asexual, queer+) collective that Xemi described in a talkback as producing “professional community theater”; she also serves as the group’s Artistic Director. It is rare to see stories centered on the stories of black and brown trans femmes.

What a precious gift to see those stories claim their rightful place in the spotlight, designed and produced at every level by the only people qualified to tell such stories well: the womxn who have lived them.

Silent, spectacular performance from Dublin’s Fishamble

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

It’s a rare gift for a play to present a despairing character with both lightness and the sincerity he deserves. Silent and its subject, Tino, are by turns funny, bleak, and feverish, but always riveting. One minute into this show, as Tino slowly emerges from beneath a blanket on stage in a kind of haunting, playful dance, you’ll know what you’re in for: a keenly observed, carefully crafted, fluidly executed character study brought to life by a spectacular performer.

A solo play, written and performed by Pat Kinevane and directed by Jim Culleton for Dublin-based theater company FishambleSilent is making its DC debut this month at the Atlas Performing Arts Center thanks to Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organization in DC. The play netted a coveted Olivier Award in 2016 and has been staged around the world, but stepping into Atlas’s Lab Theatre II, you’d think it was tailor-made for that space. The all-black theater engulfs the audience in total darkness, and the smartly directed lighting creates a cinematic array of spotlights, alleyway glows, looming shadows, and even disco flashes in one terrifying scene. The small room and low-lying seats allow Kinevane to walk among the audience with ease and strike up conversations as he goes. Tino isn’t soliloquizing; he’s looking us in the eye, telling us a story, and making sure we’re listening.

This direct, down-to-earth communication does nothing to diminish the subject’s flair for the dramatic. Named after Rudolph Valentino by a mother obsessed with silent film, Tino is capable of his namesake’s wild theatrics. Present-day Tino is a homeless man in County Cork, but he inhabits various times, bodies, and personas throughout the show. In one of the play’s running jokes, he dials a mental health line with an absurdist automated menu: “If you have multiple personalities, please press 1, 2, 5, and 6.” Through Tino’s multiplicity—and Kinevane’s genius ability to transform objects, negative space, and himself into absent people—we meet his strict, self-conscious mother, his beloved older brother Pierce, his long-suffering wife Judy, his childhood self, and a cast of fleeting characters.

Tino mostly relays these characters to us in conversational style, but at times he launches into pure performativity. Silentgives us a new take on the play-within-a-play. Over the course of the show, we watch five “films” complete with titles, pre-recorded dialogue booming through the speakers, and Tino acting out every part with dancerly panache. The films center on his brother Pierce’s attempts on his own life. Tino obsesses over Pierce throughout the play, and traces many of his problems—clinical depression, alcoholism—at least in part to his suicide.

It is through this storyline that the theme of silence is most wrenchingly reinforced. Pierce was queer, and harangued for it by other boys and his own mother from a young age. Tino blames himself for never speaking up in his brother’s defense. Even after his death, Pierce’s story remains shrouded in silence; no one at the funeral will say the word suicide, even though, Tino tells us in a fury, “the word was always there, begging to escape, behind the corners of everyone’s downturned mouths!”

Silent film stars made their facial expressions and gestures speak the volumes they could not. Tino uses the medium to turn a story that was muted and swept under the rug in his own life into an epic for all to see.

Pierce and Tino’s relationship is most moving because the play devotes so much time to it. Tino reminisces about what his brother would say in his sleep when the boys bunked in the same childhood room, about finding Pierce’s pornography (Cockatoo Magazine), about how he dressed and who he hung out with. Some other elements of Tino’s story are less convincing. The tale of his wife kicking him out of the house for drunkenness and his distance from his adolescent son feel more like tropes because these moments and figures in his life are never fleshed out. In attempting to present a complete tapestry of Tino’s life, Silent leaves some areas a little threadbare. This never throws off the show’s balancing act, though, because we’re sufficiently invested in Kinevane’s entrancing voice, fitful bursts of madness, and elaborate choreography.

Solas Nua has arranged to make a certain number of tickets available to those experiencing homelessness in DC for every show. Upcoming performances will also feature a series of talkbacks with Kinevane and representatives of local organizations fighting poverty and providing services to DC’s homeless community. These practical conversations on what can be done to alleviate the suffering presented in this play are a crucial follow-up. It’s one thing to walk away from Silent with renewed empathy for marginalized members of our own community, and another to work toward dismantling their marginalization. This production takes experiences we often overlook, and will not let us turn away. Nor will you want to.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Richard III’ explores public’s complicity in tyranny

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

How often have you flung up your hands and decried this moment of “political theater” in the United States? Richard III — showing through Sunday at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall — stands among Shakespeare’s great works of conscience not only in its exposure of power-hungry depravity, but also in demonstrating how the public’s participation is what makes such depravity possible. Fling up your hands no more: You play an essential role in this production.

Director David Muse highlights the play’s “great treatment of complicity,” which makes it an excellent choice for the present day — a point made not only in his production notes but also in “Bookends,” a Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) audience engagement program designed to deepen and democratize the conversation between theater and audience. The pre- and post-show event is held for one performance night of every play the STC stages, beginning with a facilitated dialogue about the historical context of the play and its place in popular imagination, and ending with a cast Q&A.

Samantha Wyre Bellow, senior director of education, and Drew Lichtenberg, literary manager, kicked off the Feb. 13 discussion by emphasizing the vast interpretive possibilities of Shakespeare’s living texts while providing a helpful framework for critically viewing this particular production. Fracturing the lens of centuries past, they encouraged the audience to watch for echoes of our own era in the play — and to be wary of the ways in which, Wyre Bellow argued, “the villain takes us along as accomplices.”

Richard III chronicles the Duke of Gloucester’s murder- and manipulation-paved rise to the crown, and his ultimate demise. A play whose first act sees Richard engineer his brother’s imprisonment and assassination is not about the making of a tyrant so much as the way the world responds to tyranny. We watch as lords ally themselves with the Duke for personal gain, only to lose their heads when their utility expires; attendants do his bidding with blind loyalty, and the public eats up his campaigns of misinformation.

Despite its overt politicism, Richard III is only as cutting as the director’s editorial eye. One of Shakespeare’s early plays — and one of his longest — it is bogged down by references to British history and a parade of minor characters. For the STC’s production, Muse has winnowed away 40 percent of the original text. Though the play remains dense, uneven and occasionally prosaic, Muse’s excerpting helps propel the plot.This serves his overarching goal of clarity, as does his gift to the audience of a dramatis personae projected in lights above the stage as each character enters. 

This production is contemporary, but avoids the limiting trope of tying Richard to any one moment or figurehead. Costume designer Murell Horton’s clean-cut gray suits and neutral gowns feel austere and timeless. Debra Booth’s chilling set places us in an abattoir of gray, rusting walls and industrial machinery, lit by an enormous operating-room light — anywhere’s underbelly.

In this wintry hell, Matthew Rauch plays the title character as an understated devil. His hasty delivery of Richard’s opening soliloquy establishes a steely and expedient villain with whom we won’t be asked to empathize. Though never plumbing beyond a sociopathic interpretation of the character, Rauch swings an impressive arc. His early magnetism comes from quick-tongued repartee and limitless audacity. His confidence grows along with his body count, but his giddiness diminishes as he adjusts to success. When allies dissipate and his downfall nears, he physically disintegrates before our eyes; inconspicuous in earlier acts, the disability he obsesses over crystallizes as a property of his own fear and self-loathing.

Rauch is surrounded by strong performances of underdeveloped characters. Cara Ricketts is a firebrand Lady Anne, whose deeply ambiguous wooing scene suggests that she is not stupidly seduced by Richard, but is making a calculated move to align herself with political power. Derrick Lee Weeden’s Lord Hastings blusters through his misgivings all the way to the chopping block. More cog than character here, Christopher Michael McFarland’s Buckingham has little personality beyond the obedience he mistakenly thinks will buy Richard’s good graces. As the young princes standing in the way of the Duke’s succession, Charlie Niccolini and Logan Matthew Baker play up their boyishness, demonstrating how two royals might place trust in such an unsettling uncle.

Then there’s the ensemble, who stamp their feet and whet their knives to foreshadow bloodshed. No murder takes place in off-stage secrecy as envisioned in Shakespeare’s text. Instead, the ensemble chants, dances, and encircles the bodies. This dramatization often feels heavy-handed, especially when coupled with the too-sinister score. In moderation, though, it could have been a good device to implicate the whole kingdom — and ultimately the rapt audience — in the villainy afoot.

Throughout the show, center stage is occupied by a misogynistic Richard, yet in this production the women wield the greatest power. Although the Duchess of York (Sandra Shipley) and Queen Elizabeth (Robynn Rodriguez) are played one-note, they are the only ones in Richard’s circle to truly defy him. Lizan Mitchell’s Margaret of Anjou reverberates with the presence of an oracle when issuing her prophetic curses — perhaps delivering too much spectacle, though it’s fitting that the conscience of such a play would feel out of place. 

Importantly, women aren’t limited to providing the play’s moral compass; Sofiya Cheyenne is a compelling Mayor of London who decides to play Richard’s pawn to save her own skin. Evelyn Spahr — a young woman — is cast as the Earl of Richmond, who ultimately defeats Richard and restores order to England. The choice to cast women in these traditionally male roles dominated the discussion in the “Bookends” closing Q&A. “I think there is power in a woman holding power at the end of the show,” Cheyenne commented.

The show ends with a resounding inhalation, ostensibly a breath of hope. It should also serve as a suspenseful pause. History has shown us that the toppling of one Richard does nothing to impede the rise of the next. Real tyrants’ magnetism often draws us in until our own hands are covered in the blood they’ve spilled. At its best, this involving production is not a diversion, but a useful wake-up call.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard III opened Feb. 5 and continues through March 10 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets cost $44 to $125.

Next Stop: North Korea. John Feffer’s latest looks inside the world’s most secretive society

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Few foreign lands loom larger in the American imagination than North Korea, despite and because the average outsider knows almost nothing about the country. We’re in the dark by design: the U.S. restricts and currently bans tourist travel, the North Korean Central News Agency emits pure propaganda every day, and our countries’ diplomatic communications are tenuous at best.

Playwright, performer, and foreign policy scholar John Feffer’s new one-man show aims to bring the audience “as close to North Korea as you can get without a visa.” What a tantalizing proposition. It’s also too tall an order for any play devised by one American man, however extensive his expertise may be. Instead of giving me new access and insights into the country, Next Stop: North Korea made me feel the limitations of my understanding more acutely. Not what the playbill advertises, but perhaps the show’s principal achievement.

Feffer made three trips to Pyongyang and surrounding areas when working for the American Friends Service Committee in the late 1990s and 2000s, not long after North Korea’s infamous four-year famine. The plot of the play is framed by his own story: his observations, ethical dilemmas, and frustrated efforts to provide resources to local agriculture collectives and establish a variety of Korean-American exchanges.

Into his personal narrative, he interweaves scenes featuring a cast of locals he encounters along the way. We meet a Juche tower tour guide, a woman who has memorized all of Kate Winslet’s lines in Titanic and speaks impeccable English, but espouses fiercely patriotic rhetoric. There is the minder, a government official who guides Feffer on his tour of North Korea and is assigned to surveil his every move, who performs a peculiarly dissonant rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” as Kim Il Sung’s image is projected behind him. We hear from a driver who has chosen to stay put in North Korea after considering the possibility of opening up a cold noodle shop across the southern border, and a defector who both decries his country’s human rights abuses and feels nostalgic for home.

The most interesting moments in these character vignettes are when they make us question how the performances with which we are presented align with the true feelings of the speakers. The Juche tower guide spews anti-American vitriol and never strays from the strictures of the regime’s party line. However, the Titanic dialogue she chooses to recite to demonstrate her love of the movie suggests we may be overlooking signs of a distress she is afraid to voice: “I feel I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room, screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one even looks up.”

How much of the news we get about North Korea is reality, and how much is a show? What do we fail to understand about the country and its people because its government deliberately conceals information from outsiders–and what do we fail to understand simply because of the depth of the cultural gulf between us? In 2017, Evan Osnos was permitted to visit Pyongyang for New Yorkerstory, one of very few journalists invited for an official tour including interviews with government officials. Reflecting on what it means to report on a carefully constructed tour of an authoritarian country, Osnos wrote, “the experience is less akin to normal foreign correspondence than to theatre criticism…Proving it to be theatre is beside the point; we already know that. It is difficult and important enough just to describe the show with fidelity and detail.”

Feffer’s play gives us detail: He describes the sights, sounds, and textures of the mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body. He contrasts the gritty rice and bony chicken he shares with farmers in the countryside with the spread at a banquet the government requires him to attend. As for fidelity, it’s a fairer standard for journalism than for art. Mostly, Feffer sticks to the facts in depicting his own experiences, occasionally rearranging the timeline of conversations and encounters to suit narrative flow. Some of the other characters, he said in a talk-back following the performance, are modeled closely on individuals he has met or interviewed, while others were more imaginatively constructed.

Feffer has written the characters’ monologues with distinctive voices and performs them with impressively varied energies, from the jittery Juche Tower guide to the rigid minder to the easygoing driver. However, it is important for the audience to remember that the show does not “[introduce us] to four North Koreans,” as Feffer suggests in his preview, but to four characters reconstituted from Feffer’s memory of the limited portion of the North Korean population he was able to meet, individuals who were no doubt performing the versions of themselves that were safest for them to enact in his presence.

This performative layering, this distance, is the natural limitation of an American-made play about North Korea. It’s also fascinating in its own right. As long as we approach Next Stop: North Korea as a spark for more nuanced questions about Korea and the U.S. relationship to the country, not as a key to understanding its people, this is a useful and timely production.

Next Stop: North Korea also features nightly talk-backs with Feffer and different Korea experts. The show I attended included Dr. Immanuel Kim, a professor at George Washington University whose latest book looks at the honest depiction of social issues in North Korean literature.