Defenders of theatre as a form of entertainment in whatever its definition will receive a bit of a workout over the next few months, thanks to two downtown theatre companies across the street from each other.
Wikipedia defines “genocide” as “‘the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group,’ though what constitutes enough of a ‘part’ to qualify as genocide has been subject to much debate by legal scholars.” Tricky, this; although one is tempted to echo Potter Stewart’s brisk definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it,” obviously when courts are involved, somewhat more is necessary.
Maybe that’s true in theatre and drama as well, but setting aside the question of definition for a moment, New Yorkers will have two chances this autumn to see how American playwrights treat the question, and from intriguingly different angles. The season opener at New York Theatre Workshop is Alexander Dinelaris’s play Red Dog Howls, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and now in previews, running through 14 October. According to the Web page for the production, “Red Dog Howls explores the horror of a forgotten genocide, the enduring strength of the human spirit and how the choices we make for our children will — for better or worse — reverberate for generations to come.” The NYTW’s trailer for the production:
Just across the street at La MaMa ETC beginning on 11 November, genocide will be getting a rather different dramaturgical treatment in Erik Ehn’s 17 play cycle Soulographie: Our Genocides, which will run for one week and conclude with a 24-hour marathon of all 17 plays. “Soulographie is a durational performance event looking at 20th century America’s relationships to genocides in the U.S. (the Tulsa Race Riot), East Africa (Rwanda and Uganda), and Central America (Guatemala and El Salvador). The performances aim to create channels of dialogue through art and conversation,” according to the Web page for the production; Ehn talks about the project below:
There is something noteworthy about the marketing for these two productions, both of which are being presented by theatres which pride themselves on presenting challenging work. “As both a laboratory for theatrical exploration and a producer of plays that expand the boundaries of theatrical form and address the critical issues of our times, NYTW has been able to support projects that are aesthetically, thematically, and methodologically diverse,” says the New York Theatre Workshop; “At La MaMa, artists are free to challenge themselves and create work in an uncensored environment,” says La MaMa. One can’t judge a book by its cover, of course, but materials like the above videos present aspects of the work which these theatres think will draw viewers to the productions. Red Dog Howls appears to present the issues it raises in a family-bound melodrama, from a realistic/naturalistic angle (let’s call it the “Arthur Miller Treatment”); Soulographie will approach the question of genocide from a formally more experimental and avant-garde vision (the “Heiner Müller Treatment”).
Both the NYTW and La MaMa present work in a diverse variety of styles (after all, NYTW will also host the experimental Builders Association and La MaMa will welcome uptown traditionalist playwright Neil LaBute later this season as well), but these two widely varying approaches to a common theme should make for some robust discussion this year, and not just about genocide.
Kudos to both projects, by the way, for using the Web as a place to present dramaturgical material for the plays. The NYTW has a package of material about the Armenian genocide and Red Dog Howls here; the Soulographie project has been maintaining an extensive Web site here for some time. You are encouraged to dig in.