By Marcel Williams Foster
It’s been almost one month since I completed the three-week POLITICAL SHENANIGANS Workshop. I recently spoke with one of the actors from the process, who remarked that it’s the kind of show that “everyone should see.” I laughed when he mentioned this because it’s a rather depressing plot about (among several topics) how completely fictitious concepts invented by people with power have extremely real consequences on those who do not have access to power.
I’ll attempt to summarize: it begins with a group of politicians attempting to figure out how to solve the country’s debt. The solution? Invent a race called “Czichs” (the have-nots), with pointed-heads, who are slightly different from the “native” countrypeople, whom the politicians decide to name “Czuchs” (the haves), who have round-heads. The idea was that creating divisions and war among the people would produce an economy and provide a sense of unity for the Czuchs to indeed have, or to have even more! This plan, inevitably, unravels in no one’s favor by the end—but you’re reminded that, right or wrong, the politicians will continue to get paid and that fictitious divisions of people will ensue to ensure the politicians’ wages. In other words, we collectively support a “have” vs. “have-not” system, because we assume we have no other choice (and often we/Brecht’s characters don’t), and the “haves” end up finding the worst of themselves to get ahead and the “have-nots” are somehow unlucky for not acquiring the corrupt opportunity in the first place.
You see? Not exactly a feel-good scenario. However, thinking retrospectively about the process—something in me feels, too, that the process did something to stir up a sense of idealism. And it wasn’t the narrative. It was more the fact that this scenario is all too familiar, and that Brecht and Eisler were writing about it beautifully in 1933-35. Comparisons with contemporary U.S. politics are simple to track: inventions of an enemy to bolster an economy (e.g., the Iraq war), xenophobia (e.g., immigration laws), and rising wages for politicians amidst debt crises (what is happening all the time). But the play featured a surprising, and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime twist—an absolutely personalized adaptation by David Gordon—that contextualized Brecht through Gordon’s lifetime collaborator/wife/muse Valda Setterfield. Valda/Brecht narrated the piece from beginning to end and inserted endless meta-theatrical reminders that it was “merely” a play and that we performers were simply acting out a script. At the “end” of the play, the whole ensemble sang the following lyrics:
Perhaps the night will be as bright as daytime,
Perhaps the moon will stay this full until next Maytime,
Perhaps the rain will far from earth to sky.
Then, suddenly, Valda reminds us that she herself saw Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble back in 1956 and references his now-famous notes to the actors. For me, as an actor on the stage, it was a powerful moment to know that Valda (as Brecht) was directing me and was connected to Brecht’s vision—if only for a fleeting moment in the “bridge” to 1956. And the absurdity of singing the above lyrics, which we all know are totally impossible, made the sense of connecting to Brecht’s directions all the more real. No, we will not see rain (ever) fall from earth to sky—but perhaps we did carry out Brecht’s vision? And even if we didn’t—we can imagine that we did. And if politicians have the authority to invent fictitious enemies to “unify” a country (and they’ve done so myriad times since Brecht and Eisler’s play debuted)—then clearly the imagination has quite a bit of power?
It was an inspiring moment. I seriously shed tears, laughed at myself for doing so with fellow actors, and nodded respectfully to Valda as the lights dimmed. A moment that I realized storytelling and playing actually are important because this is the very thing that people in power are doing—creating stories to advance their own interests. The haves are telling their stories—and the have-nots certainly can share their stories too, if given the chance. And since so many Philadelphia artists are no longer able to access the chance to “have” the funding to tell their stories—being a part of this particular one was sweet (or perhaps bittersweet) and all too real.