by SOPHIE KERMAN
Political theater has a fine line to walk between didacticism, partisanship, and voyeurism into trauma. This is something that co-creators Michael Opperman and Nathan Tylutki were deeply aware of when constructing Red, White, [Black & Blue]: Uncharged at Guantánamo, a performance piece about the detainees currently remaining uncharged at Guantánamo.
The term “performance piece” (my description, not the authors’) might give you pause, as might the first few minutes of the show. When Tylutki, dressed in all black, walks out from backstage and stares down the audience, you might very well think that this is “that kind of show.”
But give it a few more minutes: Opperman and Tylutki know exactly what they are doing, and if you pay attention, so will you. With the help of a strong theoretical foothold, Red, White, [Black & Blue] uses rhetorical and theatrical devices to avoid all the major pitfalls that you might expect from a one-man show about contemporary politics. Using historical documents, it is informative without preaching, while its portrayal of actual prisoners is more abstract. I have become accustomed to seeing personal monologues as a device to gain the audience’s sympathy for political causes, but Red, White…‘s refusal to speak for the Guantánamo detainees is both refreshing and powerful, illustrating both the way prisoners have been silenced and the inappropriateness of using another human’s pain as a theatrical device.
One of the strongest choices Opperman and Tylutki have made in their development of the show is in their willingness to make the audience uncomfortable. This begins right away, with Reid Kruger‘s abrasive (and absolutely fitting) sound design. Right away, we are made to feel under threat by the sound around us (although not so threatened that we start to resent the play). At several points during the show, Tylutki interacts directly with the audience. Faced with his aggression, we are encouraged to consider the power dynamics at stake, as well as our own roles as spectators both to the play in front of us, and to the abuses continuing at Guantánamo. And at the end, Tylutki denies us easy closure by refusing to take a bow for his performance of characters implicated in atrocious human rights violations.
The play is a work in progress, and its primary weak point is not in its writing or overall structure, but in some of Tylutki’s character transitions. He plays several characters – a Guantánamo guard, a politician, a psychiatrist, etc – but does not always make his vocal and physical shifts clear enough to truly distinguish between them. Because of the newness of the show, there were moments that Tylutki seemed to hesitate over his text; I would guess that as he internalizes the script more, he will be able to push his characterizations further.
The show has finished its two-weekend run at the Playwright’s Center, but this is a cause and a production that Opperman and Tylutki hold dear to their hearts, so this won’t be the last incarnation of this play – nor should it be. Red, White, [Black & Blue] does not offer solutions, as there may be none to be had, nor does it present easy ways to dilute our discomfort by donating $10 or writing a letter. Rather than providing an easy way out, it implicates its audience by highlighting both our relative ignorance about the subject and our passivity when it comes to abuses committed by our own government. In a post-show talkback, Opperman and Tylutki recommended books and resources so that audiences can continue to educate themselves, in the hope that broader knowledge might eventually lead to change. And here is my testament to the show’s effectiveness: this might be the first time I’ve ever done this after a play, but I am now searching the local libraries for a copy of that book.
Red, White, [Black & Blue], by Michael Opperman & Nathan Tylutki. March 7, 8, 14, 15, 2014 at The Playwrights’ Center, 2301 Franklin Avenue East,Minneapolis, MN 55406. Tickets $15-20, more information at: http://redwhiteblackblue.org/.