Monday, November 09, 2009


I had the pleasure of seeing "To Be Straight With You", a piece by the UK based dance theater group DV8. The piece is about homosexual oppression, across the world, but mainly centered in Islamic and fundamentalist Christian countries. It’s true documentary theater; all text came from interviews. It was beautifully done, though I had a couple of moments where I wanted a little more.

The movement was fantastic. One actor did a monologue as a 15 year old muslim boy who was kicked out of his home for being gay. He did the entire thing while jumping rope. The same actor did a monologue of a man explaining his dual life, with a wife and a male lover, while doing intense Bollywood style dance to Shakira –and at one point joined by a man doing the same dance behind him, mirroring him. Not without humor. What blows me away is the acting skill of all the performers while dancing. It is movement, but some of it is just straight out dance. The more static moments of straight theater actually felt a little less effective to me.

It feels odd being critical of this at all, since the subject matter is so serious and pressing. It’s apparent there is a growing Muslim community in the UK, as well as a Jamaican and native Christian community that can be very violent. They address the Buju Banton “murder music”, projecting translations of the lyrics calling for gay men to be burned and killed. Those are heart-stopping. The stories of violence, oppression, and death seem endless, coupled with never-ending hate speech. One segment that sticks with me is a performer speaking the words of an imam talking about reconciling his religion and sexuality and the community difficulties while reacting suddenly from invisible forces bearing down on him and surprising him from all sides. Fear.

The projections used are incredible. There is a spinning globe which a performer uses to highlight different countries and modes of punishment. One man explains his many lives as father, husband, imam, and gay man while walking through borders of a comic book. Two women tell there stories, completely drawn and illustrated but for hands and faces.

The performers are beyond skilled, the movement is wonderful. There were a lot of moments, with the movement itself, where I was astounded they were doing what they were doing.

I would say, as a US viewer, some of the dialects were challenging to understand. And from where we were some of the sound was muddy, but that's probably the hall we were in.

One of the criticisms I have is that the women were underutilized (one astounding sequence had a woman with her arms bent at the elbows, spinning and doing Chaîné turns in an oval shape for about two minutes while speaking the words of a 70-year old rabbi saying “I’m very tired”). The women I was with mentioned it often felt like this in pieces generated by gay men, and I imagine it’s that and just the invisibility in general—in some ways it speaks even more to the oppression.

The other thing I felt was that it was a documentary without a form - I didn’t know what the point or the focus was. It had segments, but no overall form, and was an exploration of issues only by accident, not by shape. There were a lot of issues raised from the breadth of the interviews, but since this touched on so many (violence, rape, misogyny, religion) it almost felt diffuse. You could do an entire show about the murder music in Jamaica and men being stoned to death; on women in Africa and sexual oppression; on the double lives of Muslim men; on the growing Muslim community in the UK and intolerance; on closeted gay men beating other gay men out of self hatred (in one heartbreaking scene a man has gone to prison for 4 ½ years for assault on gay men and only once out of prison can he admit he’s gay). So I know it’s probably an impossibility to focus it, but it felt a little like one awful injustice after another. Yes, people were safer in the UK and had asylum, but there is still the brokenness and disappointment. It’s quite intense. The focus, if there was one, was on religious persecution being the base.

I also wanted more physical connection. The women held hands, the men barely touched. Perhaps they’re known for that and wanted to depart? I don’t know, but I do know it would have added a level to have actual physical intimacy on stage. Not only to affirm gay/lesbian desire/affection/eroticism, but perhaps to point out the audience’s own discomfort (if they had it) to gay/lesbian affection and desire. And for a production that had no problem illustrating violence, it seemed squeamish about desire. Maybe like our culture--violence is fine, sex is to a point, but affection is odd and threatening.

Which leads me to the big question— what is this for and will people see this who need to? At least in LA, in a theater that was nowhere near close to sold out, it felt like preaching to the converted. I hope that when it toured in the UK it was seen in schools. The other thing that might have helped would have been more information on how to help. What to do. One prominent activist is interviewed speaking about how he has been harassed and threatened with death. It’s obvious this is life-threatening. I would have thought there would have been a website or instructions on what action could be taken. Maybe that’s just me, but if we’re just watching it, and doing nothing about it, while clucking our tongues, who does that help?

For me, I realized that the company I work for does business with countries where I would be jailed, imprisoned, or put to death. That was disturbing for me to think about. I need my job. I’m sure much of this is coming about now that we are a global culture. Like it or not, we are all connected. And some of this is finding out maybe you don’t necessarily want to be connected. I haven’t figured it out.

I guess I got gratitude for the freedoms we have here, and knowledge of just how precious they are, and how different it is in the UK right now. We’re protected from a lot, I think. And I was reminded of the power of theatre, and why I fell in love with doing it in the first place.

I hope to hell we can keep our freedoms. If nothing else this reminds me of all we have, and why we fight so hard.

Here’s a trailer for the show:

I couldn’t find sequences online, but I did find Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men a film DV8 did from the late eighties. I guess the whole film is loaded on youbtube. Handy


Derek said...

I had the pleasure to see the show at the National Theatre here in London last year. I found it to be a very moving piece. Though it was definitely preaching to the choir. I hope that one of the UK TV channels would record it for broadcast. As they have done with other DV8 shows such as "Dead Dreams Of Monochrome Men" about the UK Gay serial killer Dennis Nielson.

The night I saw it there where quite a few young people in the audience. So I assume that they might have been there as part of a College/School group. a lot of the research for the show came from work done by the UK LGBT rights organisation Stonewall.

Criticlasm said...

It is pretty amazing, and it made me wish there was some educational tie-in or some way to be actively helpful. It's quite distressing, to say the least.

A beautiful, moving piece of theater, though--I totally agree.

Elizabeth said...

I think you're taking the tiny steps that are actually quite effective. I wouldn't have thought about this show or those issues and now I will. I will probably talk about them and the person to whom I tell will talk about them, too.

So there's that.

Criticlasm said...

Thanks--that's true. It's all about knowing it's happening. We really have a specific media--so many outlets, and so much not considered "news-worthy"