M. Alvarez 
Member since Oct 7, 2009


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Re: “Notes, Not Chords

Insofar as one must think of art as process as much as product --and recognizing that it is frequently the tension between these two dimensions that opens precisely the door to theater as productive dialogue that can really matter, i.e. count for something other than just entertainment --then, insofar as these things can be true.......I would say that the critique Ms. Forrester makes of the play “She was my brother” MAY not be entirely off-base.
Yes, the play has some moments where one thinks: "uhmm, that dialogue [or that transition] does not seem to be fully cooked." Fine observation. BUT, here's the crucial and cardinal rule of criticism that Ms. Forrester misses and that leads me to not agree with her assessment: not conforming to a conventional narrative/performance arch is not necessarily ONLY a deficit; it can also be interpreted as an opportunity or even better yet, a conscious aesthetic/ethical stance. In her review of the staging done by Borderlands Theater Ms. Forrester assumes that the "gaps" encountered in the text/staging are a failure of good theater craftsmanship; she does not ask herself if perhaps these so called failures, standing in fact as "gaps" in our knowledge of Indians and of the complex politics (with small “p”) of the relationships of love and intimacy between Indians and colonizers/anthropologists, are not in fact, aesthetic devices themselves that playwright Julie Jensen has crafted with exceptional even-handedness. I saw the play and I believe this latter to be the case.
Jensen in fact has navigated the most treacherous waters in writing this play (the waters of academicism and didactic approaches to the HISTORY of anthropology or the POLITICS of gender and sexuality, etc...). She has succeeded in this play not so much because she tells us "everything" we ought to know (as Ms. Forrester suggests she should have done) but in fact her success in this play rests on her ability to find an aesthetics and a narrative structure that omits the impulse to tell us what things (of the heart, of the social intercourse in conditions of differential power) mean. I would argue that the aesthetic and staging choices Jensen and Goldsmith (the director) –not to mention the extraordinary work of the actors--- made in this play are in effect the only approach that would WORK for a play that tackles themes of this magnitude in our social imaginary –in other words, it is an approach that works for the play to function as play, without making those of us in the audience feel that we were attending a lecture at the Smithsonian.
The way Jensen chose to tell the story was, point in fact, to skirt the heavy-handed narrativization that often accompanies tales of Indians and Whites ---a persistent impulse to make these tales between unequal partners caught in the dense waters of desire and repulsion (the generalized attitudes that have characterized Red-White relations for centuries) into “tight narrative” events out of circumstances and emotions that were far more ambiguous, complicated, uncertain, and often, unresolved. Such was the case of the intimate relationship intimated (pun is on purpose) in Jensen’s play by the shadow figure represented by Wilson in the play (the ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing) and the historical persona of We’Wah (evoked by the character Lamana). Cushing was one of the first anthropologists castigated by his peers for “going native.” He was a difficult character who wrestled with loads of baggage of prejudice, imperial attitudes, and scienticism that he brought to Zuni, while at the same time “falling head over heels” in love with the Southwest and its native inhabitants (as many a reader of the Tucson Weekly can surely relate to). He only mentioned We’Wah once in all of his abundant written materials. Yet, the self-censorship of the “love affair” or perhaps psychological transference or perhaps the exotic desire to posses the subject as yet another “artifact” for the Smithsonian speaks more loudly than the written tracts Cushing did produce.
It is precisely in that what is un-spoken (and perhaps also “unspeakable”) that Jensen finds the moral imperative and narrative/artistic device most suitable to re-tell the story (albeit as a white woman playwright in the 21st century could tell it, which is certain to be different from the way a Zuni playwright may approach the subject). She hints at facts, leaves many of them hanging loose in the air….infuses the audience with a sense of complicity and at the same time confusion…..focuses the characters’ development on their emotional lives as these unfold for them, nebulous as that may be ---yes, frequently “spoken for” by the master narrative of social conventions rather than with the benefit of full human agency –indeed, precisely the points that Ms. Forrester finds fault with are the points that make this play moving and poignant, especially for those of us non-Indians here in Tucson that know all too well the complex intertwining of intimacy and distancing that befalls our living in “Indian country.” Borderlands Theater tapped something in our social fabric with this play (a suitable world premiere for this region) that remains deeply misunderstood and rationalized among friends and neighbors.

Posted by M. Alvarez on 10/07/2009 at 9:10 PM

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