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Flash Review 1, 2-21: Cry, the Ravaged Country
"We must eat our suckers with the wrapper on...": Robyn Orlin's About AIDS Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- If black South Africans were enslaved by whites during Apartheid, today they appear doomed by their own leaders, with president Thabo Mbeki insisting, against all scientific proof to the contrary and in the face of mounting numbers of infected, that AIDS is not caused by the HIV virus. As The New Republic's editor Peter Beinart recently reported from Capetown, Mbeki's current health minister has distributed a document "saying that whites introduced AIDS as a plot to kill blacks." Mbeki's first health minister, Beinart notes, "claimed that South African researchers had found a homegrown cure for the virus." The latest "cure," as reported by Public Radio International, is more sinister, with an increase in the rape of children less than one year old resulting from the myth that having sex with a virgin can get rid of the virus. And a recent conference in Ethiopia concluded that because of AIDS, most Africans cannot expect to reach the age of 48.

In the face of such a fate, and with those who should be moving to solve it offering little more than side-show quack "solutions," is it any wonder that artists, especially those with the stature of SA choreographer Robyn Orlin and Johannesburg's Market Theater Laboratory, should be tempted, Arlene Croce be damned, to step into the breach? Lost in the ensuing controversy over Croce's 1994 'Victim Art' non-review of Bill T. Jones's paleatory "Still/Here" was a question more important than whether Croce had a right to review a concert she hadn't seen: What gives artists the credentials to minister to the sick and dying? I'd be curious to know what Croce would think of Orlin's new "We must eat our suckers with the wrapper on...," a collaboration with 15 performers from Market Theater Laboratory receiving its world premiere this week at the Theatre de la Ville-Sarah Bernardt, and seen last night by me, whose reflections you'll have to settle for.

Notwithstanding Orlin's penchant for clever titles -- most famously, "Daddy, I've seen this piece six times before and I still don't know why they're hurting each other... " -- there's nothing funny about this spare 45-minute evening that uses traditional African singing, feet- and bucket-generated percussion, lyrics straight out of a public service commercial ("It's coming for me, it will come for you," very loosely translated from the French subtitle translation of an African tongue; "What should I care if she sleeps with all the world?" "It is like a chameleon," etc.), toy miniature wheelchairs trundled about for sonic and scenic effect, projected close-ups of lips sucking lolly-pops and other images, and a whole lot of red tempura to give a snapshot of AIDS in South Africa.

More than a snapshot, really: What this is, especially in the plaintive singing and the circle of red that surrounds one of the 15 performers after she spirals, post-orgy, into sickness and all its repercussions, is a cry for help, told through the story of one person which illuminates the broader situation of AIDS in South Africa. At the culmination of a night of sexual revelry, the woman is held aloft, in ecstasy, by the group. They just as quickly retract from her after she collapses and begins to die. Then a man steps forward and, crowing that he is a man of medicine, proceeds to repeatedly, and grandly, inject her with something, which only jolts her. Another actress empties a packet of red tempura in a circle around her. Later she tries to venture into the group, but all flee from her.

I know what you're thinking: I've seen all this before, in AIDS education pieces of at least ten years ago -- and I haven't even mentioned the epilogue in which everyone re-appears with inflated over-sized condoms where their heads should be, all with faces painted on them. Nor the conclusion, when dolls that had been left with audience members, shoes taken from audience members, and the paint are all formed into three AIDS ribbons, a symbol we're hit over the head with because a camera captures the tableau from above and projects it on the upstage screen. Indeed, while I was blown away by this piece last night, veering wildly between the urge to vomit at the first appearance of the "blood," to the urge to cry at the plaintive chanting, to almost exhilaration when red bulbs are lowered from above the stage and the house to close the evening, this morning I woke up thinking that 'suckers' reminded me most of all of an AIDS-prevention piece I'd seen 12 years ago in Anchorage, Alaska, mounted by youth from the Alaskan bush country, which had just begun to acknowledge the virus.

Of course, Orlin's "suckers" is much more artistically accomplished. But is it just a glossy PSA then, which might prove effective for home-grown audiences, but is dated for those of us that have already been there, done that, seen this, stitched that Quilt panel, choreographed that "not about AIDS" dance? Well, as a work of art, the virtuosic singing, corps/body-generated percussion, and innovative use of simple props -- the omnipresent red buckets are variously retainers for actual suckers, sexual organs, stools, and drums -- make this an engaging evening of theater, and of African song-dance-theater. But from the perspective of a Western audience, I think we need to receive this creation as a cry for help from a ravaged country, where none has really been forthcoming from those who should be issuing it, i.e. the political leaders. (To say nothing of the selfish reasons, in our shrinking world, that argue for the rest of the world's engagement in the African AIDS problem). And in the face of the politicians' abdication of real responsibility, Orlin really had no choice -- how could she go on making comedies, however socially relevant, when all around her are dying, when babies are being raped, when her country's political leaders threaten to accomplish by willful blindness the slow genocide that her fellow whites never completely succeeded at in pre-Apartheid South Africa? Similarly, I don't know that Bill T. Jones was so much trying to make a political statement by making a piece with sick people, as just responding to conditions within and outside him, as artists have done forever.

And not in vain: To force international politicians and corporations to finally economically isolate white-ruled South Africa and liberate and enfranchise its black citizens, it took, first, a people's protest movement; and to galvanize that grass-roots, it helped to have the musical anthems calling for Mandela and others to be freed, and eulogizing Biko.

Another song from that era, Brian and Tony Gold's "Can You?" the lyrics comprising a letter from a South African Black to an American friend who's been complaining about things like his neighbor's dog barking, includes this question from the South African: "Can you go out late at night if you want to?" Black South Africans can go out late now, but they are likely to hook up with partners such as the AIDS-infected woman who announces she is going to go out and party, naming the men she will liaison with. When those that should -- the government -- are not telling citizens the likely consequences of such an evening, can artists remain silent? Could you?

"We must eat our suckers with the wrappers on...," which takes it's title from a saying popular in the townships of Johannesburg, continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt through Saturday.


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