by SOPHIE KERMAN
Any attempt at writing a play about genocide is immediately plagued by a host of ethical problems. In representing an individual’s testimony on stage, the playwright risks co-opting the voice of the victim or trivializing a traumatic experience in order to gain an emotional response from the audience. And yet taking too much distance from the on-the-ground facts of mass killings opens a production up to criticism for not taking victims’ or survivors’ experiences into account.
At a post-show talk-back for Hidebound, one installment in Erik Ehn‘s 17-part series on genocide called Soulographie, Ehn explained (paraphrasing Giorgio Agamben) that no one is capable of comprehending genocide except the dead. When listening to others’ testimony or viewing a piece of theater, we are “witnesses by proxy,” unable to make more than partial and unsatisfactory approximations of the truth of the situation. According to Ehn, our incomprehension is a necessary and ethical stance towards these unspeakable events; as Ehn said at the talk-back, “it is important to not understand, because understanding is the first step towards forgetting and moving on.”
With our necessarily fragmentary understanding of genocide in mind, Ehn has written Soulographie, a play cycle looking at genocides in which the United States has been implicated, both nationally (the Tulsa Race Riots) and internationally (Africa, Central America). Each one of the seventeen plays is being produced separately at different locations across the country, but they will all be performed in various groupings at La MaMa in New York from November 11-18. The idea, even at the series’ culmination in New York, is that no one can possibly see (or absorb) all seventeen plays. No matter how hard you might try, you can only understand small bits and pieces of the whole.
Hidebound, presented at In the Heart of the Beast, is just one part of both Ehn’s theatrical puzzle and the broader geopolitical one. Focusing on the conquest of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it presents abstract snapshots of the conquistador in various guises. Using puppets (operated by Steven Ackerman, Gustavo Boada, Bart Buch, and D. Blake Love) and narration (Julian McFaul), the 45-minute piece circles around themes of consumption and a vindictive rationale for killing: when European standards fail to graft themselves well onto a new land, the conquistador takes his unhappiness out on the native population.
The production is creatively interpreted by director Alison Heimstead and dramaturg Rachel Jendrzejewski from what was apparently just a 1 1/2-page script. The performers conjure up powerful images of the callous destruction of human and animal life, without imposing or ascribing any specific meanings or ways of understanding onto the play. Much needed connections are also drawn between 16th-century conquests and the more recent impositions of power by the US Army School of the Americas and globalized trade in general. In Ehn’s words, “a people raises a people”: just as the child of an abusive parent might go on to become an abuser, structures of violence are deeply imprinted onto the norms and habits of everyday life.
Philosophically, Hidebound fits well into Ehn’s overall goals for the Soulographie project. Its opening sequence involves flashlights being shined on a series of isolated objects, creating an atmosphere, both anthropological and frustratingly disconnected, that carries on throughout the play. Our desire to draw lines of understanding between disparate incidents is constantly thwarted: we might try to see Uncle Abe’s Barbeque Shack as an ironic gesture, but as soon as we form some fleeting conclusions, the take-away containers are transformed into something else entirely. Although props and puppets are used and re-used in a variety of ways, it is not always evident whether we are meant to trace a genealogy from one incident to another.
The frustrated desire to understand is both an essential part of Ehn’s project and a potential problem for some viewers. Without Ehn to be present for a talk-back at every performance, I worry that the production will be too fragmentary for some (though not all) audiences to appreciate for what it is. For those who are unfamiliar with Ehn’s project or with other writing on genocide, Hidebound crosses the thin line between incomprehensibility and illegibility. In order for these audiences to recognize and support the important ethical project of Soulographie, there needs to be a moment where spectators realize that they are not supposed to understand. Our instinct to create meaning is so strong, however, that it may prevent that important moment of recognition from ever occurring. Even if genocide itself is (and should be) beyond our grasp, I wish that Hidebound‘s theatrical agenda was less elusive.
Hidebound by Erik Ehn at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 East Lake St., Minneapolis, 55407. October 18-28, 2012. Tickets $10-12 or pay what you can at www.hobt.org. (More information about the Soulographie cycle at http://www.soulographie.org/.)