Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Faki Day 5: Naranjazul Theater Company (FR) and Skaraventer Project (IT)

Day 5 concluded the festival with three performances: a physical theatre performance about migration from Aaron Govea (half of Naranjazul Theater Company), a psychological exploration based on the writings of Steve Biko from Skaraventer Project, and a re-working of the Icarus myth by Pisa-based Azulteatro (IT). Unfortunately I missed the latter - the closing performance of the festival, because of a scheduling error that saw me running for the bus an hour earlier than I had planned. My apologies to the artists from Azulteatro - and their work Icarus Studio #2 - Towards Freedom will be the only show from the festival that I did not review.

Mundo Lunaticus

Mexico-born actor and director Aaron Govea relies on personal experience and research for this performance Mundo Lunaticus (from the Latin, meaning 'World Lunatic'), adapted for a solo performance at Faki. It's a series of vignettes about mobility, loosely following the migration of a single character and his (her?) encounters with authority, and the happenings of their inner psychology.

From the beginning, the text presents the identity crisis which comes with displacement from one's homeland. Immediately on entering the stage with a suitcase under each arm, a voiceover of the character asks 'who am I?', splitting the voice of the character into two, and in conversation with itself. This turns into a conversation with the live actor, and then the voiceover transforms into a woman's voice, further confusing expectations of subjectivity, with reassurances such as "I'm a native. I'm indigenous".

The psychological reflection and identity crisis persists throughout. The grey jump-suit of the character gives a prisoner-like feel to the performance, with the voiceover and clowning skills of the performer translating the physical journey into an existential and theatrical one.

A series of physical theatre metaphors about migration follows, with the character running in a circle at a 45 degree angle in a literalisation of 'running in circles', swinging his suitcase as though controlled by it, and climaxing into a visually spectacular self-flagellation. Watching the performer crack the whip on-stage contains a great combination of physical threat and human struggle which seems to mirror the violence and lucidity of the migratory experience.

I don't know the original version of the performance,  but the adaptation seems to have brought the focus into a more inward journey for the performer. This is probably a new development, but it's not entirely unsuccessful. For one, the experience of migration can be extremely lonely and creates various crises of subjectivity - where it can be hard to know what your bare rights actually are, or the separation between yourself and reality. The inevitable confusion arising from encounters with authority are here beautifully represented by a cameo from the Croatian-speaking Tech Assistant, asking him to 'move on' in his native language, which the character pathetically obeys before returning (presumably with nowhere else to go).

The piece shows an attentiveness to research, not claiming to be from the experience of the refugee, for example, and rather attempting a symbolic universality for the human experience of migration. It's partially successful in this, speaking a theatrical language heavily influenced by European theatre whilst attending to the objective of communicating the story of the migrant to its audience. One senses that some completeness was lost in the hasty process of adaptation - nevertheless, the work has probably tossed up more possibilities for the work which didn't previously exist. It would be great to see the complete work, which I understand invovles a second performer. 

Regardless of this, its a welcome addition, albeit indirect, to the theme of 'Blackness' that offers yet another a voice to the variety of approaches at the festival.


Hot-Dog from the Italian-based Skaraventer Project - consisting of Lucia Falco, Marcelo Serafino, and guest Helvetia Tomic - marks the most left-field contribution to Faki 2017. Devised from quotes from South African Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko, who was also part of the call-out for this year's festival, the collaboration takes an abstract approach to interpreting the text into metaphor, via physical theatre and impulse techniques.

The focus is on Steve Biko's much-documented writings about psychological repression. Biko took some concepts from his own medical training into his political writing, speaking of black people in South Africa needing to free themselves from their learned oppression, to change their psychology to emancipate themselves. As Biko himself states, for example:

"As long as Blacks are suffering an inferiority complex - a result of 300 years of deliberate oppression, denigration and derision - they will be useless as co-architects of a normal (non-racist) society" (September 1970).

Skaraventer Project take such writings and twist them into visual metaphors of insanity and psychological repression. Creating a mad-house in the halls of Medika, they perform a kind of ecstatic ritual, backed by baroque vocals and piano, playing with ideas of restraint and release through physicality. A football appears - one of the performers repeatedly exclaims 'everything in its right place'  and 'slavery is in my brain'. The presence of animals is a constant throughout the script, acting as a metaphor for the natural world's enslavement. The performance ends with a snowstorm - a metaphor for beauty, bliss and peace found within the depths of the brain.

Though it's a deliberately zany dramaturgy that defies categorisation, the approach from Skaraventer is problematic. Steve Biko's writing is specifically talking about (and mostly to) black people, and the struggle for emancipation in apartheid South Africa. To re-interpret this as somehow standing for all human oppression, (let alone accompanied by European music which brings associations of colonisation) is to rob Biko of his specificity, and therefore to de-politicise his writing. Biko is not talking about universal human struggles, as say, for example, Brazilian theatre artist Augusto Boal might be. He is talking about very specific Black struggles against a system of white dominance. I don't want to repeat this point but I feel it is worth labouring, that this is a festival with the theme of 'Blackness', and therefore removing the blackness out of positions that are specifically talking about it would seem to be contra to of the purpose of the festival.

I will quickly take some time to defeat some immediate and common arguments here. First, this is probably not conscious from the collaboration - but it is anyway the result. One might also say 'what other choice do they have? They can't approach the subject from a black perspective!'. And this raises some relevant questions about subjectivity which were throughout the festival and indeed form a significant role in identity politics, whose discourses are so prevalent in the United States and which are having significant impact (and in some cases encountering significant resistance and confusion) internationally.

It's a point of much confusion among white people, and in particular white men. When is appropriation ok? Why am I being policed for my language? Why do I feel like I am being attacked? Why can't I talk about things from the perspective of women/black people/minorities?
Why is it not ok to have a white critic writing criticism and running forums at a festival about Blackness?

The key point seems to be not to become so fragile about one's own identity when faced with those who would agitate to change a system that is massively stacked in favour of Whiteness. The reflex is to defend oneself by talking about subjects in which one has authority, and to avoid the hard question being asked in the moment by beginning from a point of defending 'the white'. 'Oh, he didn't mean to say that'. 'Oh, he's not racist' 'What he said was not racist'. This conversation is much less about that white person, and much more about the pain and suffering that the mentality causes its target. He didn't mean to say it? Ok - so, learn why it was racist and change. He's not racist? Someone who says racist things is, by definition, racist. If you stop saying racist things, thinking racist thoughts, and behaving in a racist way, you are not longer racist. It wasn't racist? If you meet someone who is gracious enough (and able to speak freely) to educate you on this - they will simply tell when something is racist. It's a good idea to believe people when they say this.

As this is a festival with the theme of blackness, I am reluctant to address racism, which is in a sense the opposite of blackness, being a very negative thing. However, I also don't deny the presence of racism at Faki Festival, nor in my own positions. If we don't address these questions, no change occurs, and a system that maintains itself through violence against others continues and we get political outcomes like the 2016 United States election. Therefore, the questions should be asked in a concrete, critical manner.

It's tempting to see race struggles as a thing of the past (post-racial society, or whatever). Recent political events in the Anglosphere, not to mention the various nation states of the EU, should  be enough evidence that precisely the opposite is true - there is a violent system that is not decreasing, but increasing, its levels of oppression towards People of Colour and communities. Refusing to lazily leech from the violent ideology just because it happens to offer you power is, therefore, imperative.

Image Credit: Ivan Marenić


  1. ciao richard! io credo che il tuo punto di vista sia corretto per quanto riguarda la razionalità del tema ma, chi si occupa di tradurre in arte (?) deve avere la possibilità di influenzare il tema dal suo punto di vista, sviscerando in questo modo, un altra verità del tema che non può essere unico ed incontrovertibile, esattamente come lo è la vita.

  2. Yes, it is a political problem (also for my participation in the festival as a critic). Art is accessible to everyone - but in another way, only to some people who have the most power. To try to understand this point, and also to continue to make (better?) art, is difficult - but maybe this is the point where empathy is learned.