I never experienced the old Pittsburgh of soot and burgeoning mills and new immigrants, but there are times this old Pittsburgh reveals itself to me in surprising moments. There are locations in the North Side where the Fringe was held that appear untouched by the new Pittsburgh of expanding universities and hipster scenes. I spent the morning at the St. Mary’s Lyceum, a kind of living relic. It’s bar attached to a wooden floored small gymnasium. Their ad in the Fringe program said, “The purpose of St. Mary’s Lyceum shall be the fraturnal union of Christians, intellectual and moral improvements, our social diversions and loyalty to our country.” You can just imagine the melting post vigor that wrote that text years ago when the organization was founded.
The first show I attended was 5 Hams Fairy Tales performed by the Thoreau, NM Production Company. The show was a series of short comedy sketches skewing classic, familiar fairytales. This show was mostly awkward but at times it hit funny-awkward which was a relief. I’m not sure if the actors really knew what they wanted the show to be. For instance, before a really bad joke or pun was told during the show, one of the actors would warm the audience up for it by saying something along the lines of, “get ready for this stinker (wink, wink)”. That kind of fourth-wall breaking only works if the actors are then fully committed to then executing that bad joke. Instead there was some hesitancy to really push it through. You can’t announce you are about to do something cheesy and then look embarrassed on the execution. That makes the attempt at wit just look like an apology to the audience.
By the concluding sketch, it appeared that the company had finally warmed up to their material. Local comedic actress Christine Marie in particular looked like she was finally having fun when she transformed into a brain-eating Cinderella-zombie. With more buy-in from the actors this show could go places.
The next show I attended was Northsoutheastwest by the Beautiful Cadaver Project at the Allegheny City Historic Gallery. The drawing game exquisite corpse inspired this play whereas six playwrights developed two scenes each based on previously agreed upon characters names and a setting. The playwrights then collaborated in making their divergent scenes into a single play.
I’ll admit that the premise of this was intriguing but I was concerned about the implementation. If the exquisite corpse form failed to actually contribute to the play in some way then I was about to spend the next hour of my life witnessing a gimmick. After watching the show, I’m still on the fence about if this form really worked.
Watching this play was kind of like watching one of those whodunit shows. I found myself completely engaged trying to put the various pieces together. The narrative didn’t appear to always be sequential, so that added another fun challenge. Here’s where the play ended up in gimmick territory though. The show lacked an emotional core. There was never a place in the show where I understood as an audience member why I was supposed to be caring about these characters. Watching a play written by six people, you would expect some ambiguity, but what was supposed to be the pay-off of viewing this kind of production? Another distracting factor was that each scene was separated by the playing of some alt-hit from the 90’s. Were we supposed to gather that this play was therefore set in that era? The music was distracting, and didn’t contribute anything to the production.
Despite what I just wrote above, watching this play was a fun way to spend an afternoon. I just don’t need to do it again.
I finished by Fringe weekend by a catching a showing of the much hyped, If I Die a Legend: A Tale of Orisha, Hoodoo, and #BlackLivesMatter. Do you remember making dioramas in elementary school? Imagine a theater going experience where you step into a diorama and witness the action unfold three feet in front of you. This work had two settings, one was the developing neighborhood outside James Street Pub and the other setting was inside of a commercial loft space. The play began as a tour of the neighborhood as if we the audience were potential investors. The actors used great improv skills pointing and gesturing to “unseemly” neighborhood elements. When we entered the outside of the loft, the show really took off. It was here that various actors that had been a part of the tour group stepped up and established their characters.
The tour guides, upon entering the building with the audience lead the group through the loft property. It was upon entering each new room or portal as they were called that audience was immersed in a short theater piece or performance separate from the main narrative. It was in these portals that various actors gave monologues directly addressing and interacting with the audience. There were moments in this play of heavy grief. There were vignettes detailing the mass forced sterilization of black women in North Carolina in the beginning of this century and other vignettes of mourning featuring depictions of separation, loss and displacement.
The staging of this play as an interactive experience greatly contributed to the impact of the narrative in that it enforced an intimacy between viewer and actor. One of the biggest ways that white supremacist culture continues to flourish in the United States is by the mechanism of white people looking away when confronted with the uncomfortable realities of the oppression of people of color. Racism tells us that the pain and humanity of black people isn’t real. Of note, a study released this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that white medical students “often rated black patients’ pain as lower than that of white patients’ pain and made less appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated.” In this case, the staging of the piece reinforced the message in a way that enforcing a line between audience and stage would not have.
If I Die a Legend concluded with building a shrine to black liberation and the building of community. We chanted and made commitment to work for justice. Exiting the loft and stepping back out into the sun, I felt quiet inside, like I had just witnessed a something truly transformative. I am grateful.