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May '06

Club Raw Review

Crossing all kinds of boundaries
Club Raw
Guillermo Gomex-Pena / Centre for Performance Research
The Castle Theatre, Aberystwyth
July 26, 2003
Throughout his career in performance art, Mexican-American theatre artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena has explored the experience of border-crossing, the cultural and symbolic space of the border zone. In his recent sojourn in Aberystwyth, sponsored by the Centre for Performance Research, he continued this thematic restless journey, taking CPR workshop participants and some lucky Aberystwyth theatregoers along for the ride. The project’s sadly under-advertised one-off culminating performance, titled Club Raw, was nothing short of amazing, in every connotation of that word.

The objective of Gomez-Pena’s workshop, in which this piece was created, was “to develop new models of relationship between artist and community; mentor and apprentice, which are neither colonial nor condescending, establish a temporary utopian space for aesthetic freedom and cross-cultural dialogue and to seek a new aesthetic that truly reflects the spirit and tribulations of our times.” The final product demonstrates a triumph in these aims.

After trying hard to find an orderly and logical way of explaining what I saw, I’ve given up. Instead I offer a soup of impressions, what flashed by at certain isolated moments. I’ll try to write about the event without “colonialism or condescension,” but I may fail, I warn you, because most of my impressions concerned colonialism and the tension-fraught politics of spectatorship.

The event begins not when we cross the boundary from anteroom into theatre, but as we wait to do so, excited and unsure of what to expect. We are encouraged to change money for the currency used in the theatre-space, a unit called gramba. £1 is equal to 100,000,000 gramba, which, it turns out, is the cost of a shot of tequila, or twice that of noodles at a café for tourists. We don’t find out what the cost of living in gramba is for the locals. The visible part of the economy and the public space is totally dominated by tourism.

The money-changer and emcee, a woman in a silver-embroidered sombrero and a mustache, opens the doors and we cross over. The citizens of this place stand like mannequins or waxworks, almost immobile, on a catwalk and in tableaux around it, arranged like the stations of the cross or of a railway system.

There is the dancing woman of western ‘Orientalist’ fantasy, in pink tulle, beaded headdress, mouth covered by veil, electric keyboard slung across her hips on a spirally telephone lead. There is the man in the headscarf, silver leggings, black leather jacket, with an icon on his chest, one of the photos of the dead, bloated, shaved, and retouched face of one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. Some faces are hidden behind animal masks—a rabbit, Godzilla, and, on a woman with a suicide bomb device strapped to her body, a monkey mask and a horse’s tale. We cannot see their real faces, a point further emphasised when they strip off their tops or trousers. A priest holds an open bible. He has been eating its pages: his mouth is stuffed with paper, and a knife, blade end in.

The visitors walk round the immobilised figures and look at them. They look back. Then they start moving. Noodles and club music and alcohol and sunny orange fruit juice and erotic spectacle are flung at the visitors to this world.

Everything is familiar and unfamiliar. The would-be suicide bomber wears an ammo belt. The bullets are mini tampons. The dynamite’s wicks are sparklers. She lights them and shimmies in a controlled frenzy. People watch. They come closer. A woman with a mustache like Charlie Chaplin, a bowler hat, men’s cutaway jacket, cane, and codpiece ropes tourists onto the catwalk and asks them to dance with her. A gambler circulates, and a spectre of surveillance, whose waist is circled by a belt of silver keys and who stares through binoculars from the top of a ladder. We hear pre-recorded singing. “Suicide” Suicide!” a falsetto voice shrieks. “I want to be a legend, so suicide’s for me!” And other voices, other phrases: “Illegal aliens moving across the border!” “Yes, I know how to READ!” “The security of America!” “Communism, Communism!” “And how you say you love me, and just to show me that you do, why don’t you buy me a villa, mothafucka.” “1984… There is NO OTHER WAY.”

The imagery and the momentary chaos and subversion of spectator-actor roles, of gender roles, of various other hegemonies recalled Carnival. In its performance style (or exuberant dispensation with various canonised styles) it reminded me of the National Youth Theatre’s magnificent, entropic interpretation of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck directed by Firenza Guidi in 2002. Also Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place” (1988), an essay/short story/manifesto about the vestigial colonialism that is tourism in Antigua.

A muzzled woman (or is it a man?) prepares noodles from the inside of a cage, at the command of a café proprietress who gazes beatifically at her customers while glaring at the imprisoned employee. Actors and spectators (forgive me for calling them that)—the costumed and the plainclothes, the locals and the tourists, watch one of the latter group nonchalantly eating his noodles at the end of a metal table upon which lies the gaudily half-dressed body of a woman in a rabbit mask. Under the table, the deathly white-plastered girls clambers around, still looking vaguely traumatized. The noodle-eater looks up at the body on the table, then down again at the tips of his chopsticks.

Why are they doing this?

Because they need to survive, because people have come, from somewhere out there beyond the border, to watch. This is the essential nature of theatre: people go about their own business, exposing glimpses of their lives, to entertain the audience, consumers, tourists to the theatre-world, who don’t have to live here, who can find beauty in tragedy because they experience only the catharsis, not the catastrophe, and because they don’t have to think about how the characters live when there’s nobody watching.

I am not saying that this imagery wasn’t beautiful. Some of it was. That made the predicament worse, in a way. Is it okay to appreciate the spectacle, knowing what it means, and what sort of system supports it, and intensely cognisant of my own collusion with those systems, which stretch back across the border into the anteroom where the money is changed, into the cultures that create the exoticising fantasies and project them back into this room or theatre or country?

And what do you do about it, other than make yourself aware, make looking constructive instead of condescending, and make yourself aware of yourself—of the way your mind and body operate… because you are a performer too… in reality there is no such thing as a mere spectator and the proscenium arch is a fallacy…

Gomez-Pena once worked with Brazilian popular theatre pioneer, activist, and legislator Augusto Boal, author of Theatre of the Oppressed. “The ruling classes strive to take permanent hold of the theater and utilize it as a tool for domination,” Boal wrote in that book. “But the theatre can also be a weapon for liberation. For that, it is necessary to create appropriate theatrical forms.” On this rationale, Boal began his pursuit of aesthetic innovation for political reform. Throughout his work, he insists that people cannot resign themselves to mere spectatorship, in theatre or government, and neither theatre artists nor government must impose purely spectatorial roles on their constituents. He practised his theory in performance techniques such as ‘forum theatre,’ in which spectators are encouraged to make plot-changing ‘interventions’ in improvised plays, and ‘newspaper theatre,’ with its stories ripped from the headlines–or from the rarely-read columns of the inside back page. Boal demands that we do something and not simply watch the world go by. Gomez-Pena and the cast of Raw make the same demand, in unforgettable, haunting, and eerily attractive imagery. In so doing, they make an intriguing proposition about borders.

When you cross borders, your surroundings change.
Like the best performance art, they can also change you.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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