Entertainment » Theatre

No Man's Land

by Cassandra Csencsitz
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Nov 27, 2016
Michael Ables, Jean Goto, Brian Demar Jones, and Mariah Freda
Michael Ables, Jean Goto, Brian Demar Jones, and Mariah Freda  

The Anthropologists' "No Man's Land" stakes out new territory. A morality play meets zany variety show; there can be no funnier work about one of our most squirmy topics -- how whites and PoC speak to each other about race -- currently on the New York stage.

The unique device that lets Artistic Director Melissa Moschitto get away with this? Just when the tone borders on preachy, a character stops the action, accuses the ensemble of being downers, and insists they give the audience what they came for. As fast as kids excused for recess, the cast starts clowning around, and we laugh all the harder for the timely relief.

This boldly self-aware approach works, allowing the "Anthros" to dig without seeming ponderous. And it frees them to play in a childlike manner that echoes our purer nature, ever-present beneath the ugliness of adult issues. In the end, the productive tension between dialectic and hilarity leaves you high -- in the way of a workout rather than a drink, you've made progress.

Written and directed by Moschitto, "No Man's Land" was created by Mariah Freda, Brian Demar Jones, Michael Ables, and founding company member Jean Goto. It is based on the true story of American Dad, Jeremiah Heaton, who planted a flag in unclaimed African desert to make his six-year-old daughter's dream of becoming a princess come true. From a crowdfunding campaign to Disney buying the rights to 'The Kingdom of North Sudan,' Heaton's audacity and its complex roots are exposed for what they are: the spawn of white privilege and a misguided American Dream.

Evenly performed in the spirit of the "devised investigative ensemble theater" the Anthropologists are known for, each actor lives up to the challenge of this most vulnerable genre. Lights up and with little stagecraft to hide behind, they must give the impression of improv, frequently breaking the fourth wall, and make quick leaps between madcap and fuming mad.

They leave it all out there with little doubt that each actor and character feels they have skin in the game of both this production and our current cultural upheaval. (Their shining moment is a magnificent recreation of the YouTube show "Retired Disney Princesses," which is belly-laugh funny until you reflect on its being real.)

Four idealists in search of an issue -- and a plotline -- the players step in and out of character, each proposing different ways to rescue the story when it invariably falters, "invariably" because it never could add up. That a random middle-aged white Virginian male earnestly has this idea and then has the audacity to act on it speaks more to unearned swagger and a colonial mindset than blinding fatherly love.

In the charming manner of Shakespeare's Rude Mechanicals, the characters are hapless yet hopeful dramatists. They advance their thinking, if not their storytelling, in hard-won exchanges over the minority experience, white guilt, and how hard it is to talk about. Another expansive device, this alternate-endings approach gave us the ability to see how we comment on and spin our myths; like anything, there are many ways to view Jeremiah and his intentions.

Analogically speaking, "No Man's Land" nabs a tiny scrap of unclaimed independent desert land between angry whitelash and the PC-obsessed, a more neutral class that we should likely water and grow. Almost fully rehearsed before The Election, by its opening weekend our new political reality seemed to plant an exclamation point after every word.

In a fitting denouement, Moschitto spoke after the show about the theater's involvement with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), which their opening night benefitted, and Breaking White Silence, an artists action group developed by Artists Interrupting Racism. She challenged the audience to leave with Action Cards, that we may go home and do more than reflect, that we may get #WOKE.

Mine read, "Name Your Privilege" and asked that the next time I get credit for something, I consider if my success might be owed to white privilege: getting out of a parking ticket, for example. If so, while taking the compliment, I should acknowledge the advantage my race might have conferred.

I had my first chance to "awaken" today, as I talked a policeman into letting me pass Trump Tower on the pretense that I was going to Tiffany's (I was headed to my office). I would not have reconsidered my "feat" if not for The Anthropologists, who with this play and their related efforts live up to their slogan "where art meets action" and commitment to creating theater while "creating a tidal wave of social good."

"No Man's Land" runs through December 18 at Theatre Lab, 357 West 36th St., 3rd Floor, in New York City. For information or tickets, visit http://www.theaterlabnyc.com/events/no-mans-land.

Cassandra Csencsitz is a New York-based arts and beauty writer. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Kalamazoo College and Master of Arts from St. John's College's Great Books Program. Cassandra met her husband in Greece on the University of Detroit Mercy's Classical Theatre Program and they are now the bemused parents of two. Cassandra is the Communications Director for Trish McEvoy Beauty.


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