Taking the Electric Train for an Emergence-See… / Tomando el tren eléctrico por una Emerger-cia
…to a South Side polyworld is what I did on a crisp November evening (Remember those!?). The following is my account of the journey to see the prodigiously talented Daniel Beaty in his solo performance piece, Emergence-See, at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation.
I was taking the Metra Electric line for the first time. A fellow commuter guided me to the right track explaining, “we’re only a mile from Ogilvie & Union, but it’s a different world.” I thought he was just referring to the sinuous subterranean corridors, but as I boarded my train I realized the differences ran deeper: the train staff included women, the seats did not change direction, and I was the minority.
After arriving at the rickety station, I had three blocks to walk. Block one: under a poorly lit, damp bridge with broken glass to maneuver around. Block two: on the side of a grassy lot with tentacles as high as me and reaching out to the unfrequented path. Block three: across a busy intersection anchored by two gas stations. (The last was actually because I walked right past the performance building, not realizing that was the theater.) I had not had dinner, assuming there would be a restaurant by the theater. There was not, so I grabbed ramen at BP (after the attendant gave me a mocking smile when I asked if they had hot dogs, in my quest for more sustenance). I heard a steady stream of “$2,” “$4,” “$3.” Those were the amounts customers were asking be charged to their gas pump. I let perspective set in as I inhaled the steam from my noodles: the performance price was equal to a dozen trips to the pump for my BP companions that night.
The ETA Creative Arts building clings to hope– from the portrait of Obama, to a photo history of earlier African-American pieces performed there, and the plans for the future building. Exactly when it will be built is undefined but, in the meantime, nights of brilliance provided by the likes of Beaty will transport the lucky few to utopia through performance.
I sit in the intimate theater next to elegant women who don’t need to wear their money. I indulge in overhearing one of on my favorite conversations– Chicagoans describing why life is better here than in New York City. As the lights dim, Beaty takes the stage, accompanied by one chair and a glass of water.
The premise: a slave ship has just been discovered and pulled out from around the depths of the Statue of Liberty. Everyone opines about what it means (“Oprah is calling it a full-circle ‘aha’ moment,” got a good laugh). That’s over two-dozen characters portrayed seamlessly by Beaty: from a homeless man to a West Ghanaian slaveologist, from a news anchor to a mentally ill father of two. Goosebumps form as operatic virtuosity coalesces with Nuyorican Poet’s Café slam poetry, impeccable acting, and astute corporal awareness.
Dignified character portrayals touch the very core from where genuine laughs, tears, sighs, and cheers emanate. The homeless man, recounting how his mother’s pound cake was “like gold inside,” is more humanizing than any poverty campaign. After descovering his wife is murdered, father’s mind takes him to “a place his heart could handle.” The description forgoes the alienating illness aspect for basic empathetic understanding . Descriptions of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and ghettos as modern-day plantations wake us to stop fooling ourselves about how far we have come.
As the audience interacts, the monologue becomes polyphonic. Every time the character of the female host of “Top Poet” (the slam poetry version of America’s Top Model) emerges and expects a response of “What’s UP!?” we are a present audience, transformed and transported, in an event within a performance. Like the riveting poem “Duality Duel” states, “We are here now, we have arrived.” Together, with the universe itself being called into presence, we hear rain on the all too thin roof of the hopeful theater. Then it stops, only to start again when Amazing Grace rings out. You can’t get that in a multi-million dollar venue– EVER. I remember Jill Dolan’s description of how rainfall’s contribution to a performance “brought [us] even closer…a recognition of the presentness of the moment we shared and it’s uniqueness…The show will probably never be played quite that way again.” [Utopia in Performance, 2005.]
Afterwards, Beaty generously answered audience questions. Why New York? The liminal spaces and the metaphor of the statute of liberty with the slave ship. What inspired the piece? A desire to delve into freedom and how to be more free, as well as to explore the psyche of slavery. “My work is unabashedly hopeful because too much of our lives are hopeless.” Where do the characters come from? The fringe of society, for “fighters can be subtle.” Beaty explains his differentiation between archetype and stereotype, relying on the former to create unapologetic characters. An audience member responds: “You’ve written the journey, the journey of everyone.” Beaty humbly accepts the praise and explains, “We are broken, but the truth is we’re here…As an artist, I feel it’s my responsibility to reflect on my world.”
I leave the theater full of hope. Two billboards lie ahead. Hennessy atop The Princess and the Frog. Looks like someone has listened to the emergency: “Disney, put some chocolate in those crayons!” I recall entering a movie theater a few weeks prior and seeing a mother’s face light up with joy as she held her daughter’s hand and turned to her husband to say, “I’ve never seen a black princess.”
As I wait on the platform, listening to the soundscape of heavy machinery and speeding traffic, I remember how on the way the seats had everyone going backwards. Now, we would all be going forward. No, not so. We all rode backwards (an ironic metaphor?). I sat thinking about what a co-worker had said when I told her where I was headed: “Be careful, hay muchos morenos ahí.” (Be careful, there are a lot of morenos there.) Morenos is a term that I had never heard used to describe African-Americans until I moved to Chicago. Generally, the term is the Spanish word used to describe someone who is tan, but not Black. The Spanish word to describe someone who is Black is negro or afroamericano. Perhaps the mutation towards moreno has been imposed out of a fear to sound derogatory in a Spanglishized world where throwing the Spanish word negro into an English phrase could be misinterpreted from its correct Spanish linguistic meaning. Perhaps such has been the case in English for the phasing out of the word ‘niggardly’ which innocently means stingy, but sounds eerily like a racist remark, and not a descriptor of Scrooge. My problem is not the linguistic changes — for those are inevitable — but the disingenuity with which they come about. For, as my friend was trying to sound better, she was actually saying the opposite. I responded, “Yes, and right now an African-American friend headed to Pilsen is being warned that there are a lot of Mexicans there.” She laughed embarrassingly.
I am so caught up in my thoughts, I barely notice a voice calling, “Ma’am, ma’am? Ma’am!” I turn to realize I am the only one left on the train. We have arrived. It is time for me to trek to the next train that takes me home. I have never been downtown on a Monday this late. A perfect time for utopia: the African-American saxophone jazz player I give a dollar to every time I hear him play “Raindrops on Roses” on the Lyric Opera bridge is crossing State street with a friend. At the corner, we get a rare chance to stop together. “I really like the way you play, it makes my day.”
“Words are powerful so put some thought in your lyric and show some respect.” — Emergence-See
Por favor enviar un mensaje si esta interesado en la traducción sobre este artículo describiendo la obra de Daniel Beaty, utopía en el teatro, y las condiciones del sur de Chicago.