The Spectacle of Suffering in ‘Through the Elevated Line’

 

Set in Chicago, the play centers on the arrival of Razi Gol (Salar Ardebili)  to his sister’s apartment in Uptown, right off of the Lawrence CTA Red Line. Soraya (Catherine Dildilian), Razi’s sister, has been in the United States for more than a decade after leaving her family in Shiraz, Iran to attend school and lives with her white Irish-American husband Chuck (Joshua K. Volkers).  

Razi, destitute, deeply traumatized by state violence in Iran and mourning a tremendous loss, arrives in Chicago just as bewildered and unbalanced as Williams’ Blanche DuBois. He is welcomed into his sister’s life and home, although not by Chuck. While trying to adjust to his new life, Razi is introduced to high-powered white lawyer Sean (Philip Winston) and the two begin a relationship. Tensions rise between Chuck and Razi and Soraya, as questions of cultural superiority and anti-immigrant rhetoric seep into the triangular dynamic. Underlying everything is Razi’s worsening mental health, and the choices he makes as a result.

Through the Elevated Line, a new play by Novid Parsi, explores what it means to be unwelcome in the United States. Parsi performs what the show’s program calls a “conjuring” of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire by replicating the dramatic structure of Williams’ work in the relationships between Soraya, Razi and Chuck.

Through the Elevated Line operates within a framework where trauma, mental illness, queer sexuality and racial otherness are positioned as transgressions. It does not do much in the way of challenging this framework.  Rather, it creates a spectacle of the pain and trauma of a brown gay immigrant man suffering from severe PTSD and depression. Much like Williams’ Blanche Dubois, Razi’s downward spiral forms the basis for the play’s central question and is the catalyst for dramatic action.  The aim of this spectacle seems to be a motivational effort to inspire the audience to question their own political and social positions as they relate to the various identities that Razi inhabits. The play appeals to the humanity of the audience to recognize Razi’s humanity by relying on the spectacular portrayal of Razi’s emotional and physical trauma at the hands of white supremacy and U.S. imperialism.  Salar Ardebili’s portrayal of Razi is masterful and truly heart wrenching, and the play delivers a devastating conclusion that is deeply affecting.

While the play succeeds in demonstrating the brutality of the U.S. immigration system, I am deeply unsettled by the way it does so. The replication of acute racial trauma as an educational project carries the potential to limit the perception of the people it portrays. The representation of the pain and struggle that people of color in the United States endure on a daily basis has always been deeply fraught. I do not mean that Parsi or any playwright should not reflect the reality of the U.S. as it is. I only offer this question: do marginalized and brutalized people have to suffer and die on stage in order to convince audiences of their humanity?

Parsi positions the audience away from the epicenter of Razi’s emotional turmoil, and explores how his pain and the choices he makes from within that pain affect the people around him. As  part of that positioning, the play presents Chuck and Sean as receptacles for the question: “what would I do in their place?”, or perhaps more accurately, “would I do what they are doing?” I would argue to a certain extent that Soraya also invites that question. While Sean and Chuck represent two starkly different versions of patriarchal white-supremacy, Soraya’s presents a complicated narrative. Throughout the play Soraya is presented as an archetypal “good immigrant woman,” one who has succeeded at assimilating into U.S. society, in contrast to her brother, whose transgressions are ultimately punished. While the dynamics between these four characters successfully carries a sort of allegory of U.S. politics with regard to immigration, it also relies on Razi’s pain and anguish and the rejection of it to inspire sympathy, not empathy.  

Through the Elevated Line is an emotionally searing portrayal of the trials of immigration, homophobia, and racism. Its language, particularly the incorporation of the words and spirit of 14th century Sufi mystic and Persian poet Hafez, is genuinely moving and quite beautiful. Director Carin Silkaitis crafted a sharp performance, and guided skilled, talented actors through this difficult piece. Playwright Novid Parsi asks a great many important and salient questions in this work: What makes a good immigrant, and what makes a bad one? How do we respond to mental distress and addiction, especially in the context of people who have survived terrible trauma? What are the limits of our own compassion?  Certainly the play asks these questions, but it does so without challenging the social and cultural narratives that surround and underpin them. Razi is never given a chance to heal, to be understood, and to do it on his own terms. While that may be the reality of someone in his position in this country, I cannot help but wonder how replicating that reality acutely on stage might narrow the chances for empathy if Razi’s life and perspective are not at the center.

Photos by Airan Wright

Through the Elevated Line
by Novid Parsi
Directed by Carin Silkaitas

Silk Road Rising
The Historic Chicago Temple Building
77 W. Washington St. Lower Level

Run: 3/17-4/15
Tues: 7:30 pm, Fridays: 8:00 pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 4:00pm

Tickets: $38 for adults, $20.50 for students @ www.SilkRoadRising.org

Cast:
Salar Ardebili: Razi
Catherine Dildilian: Soraya
Joshua J. Volkers: Chuck
Alison Plott: Beth
Scott Shimizu: Ben
Philip Winston: Sean
Armando Reyes: Paletero, Cesar, ICE agent

Production Team:
Joshua Baggett: Stage Manager
Joe Schermoly: Set Designer
Elsa Hiltner: Costume Designer
Lindsey Lyddan: Lighting Designer
Jeffrey Levin: Sound Designer and Original Music
Abigail Cain: Props Designer
Gaby Labotka: Fight and Intimacy Choreographer
Kate Cuellar: Dramaturg

White Critics: Please Stop Using the N-Word

What is wrong with white critics? I really want to know. Have you all lost your mind?? When critic Katy Walsh took a loss and set a dignified example for why the n-word is hurtful, apologized, and extricated herself from criticism to learn, were you listening?

In the space of a singular calendar year, we have had two white Chicago critics use the n-word in a review. Yesterday Justin Hayford put this sentence in a review of Court Theatre’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and legitimately thought it was a good idea: “At worst, it will leave him with a cracked skull, tormented children, and a wife who’ll come to believe he’s nothing but a n*gger.” (This is censored, the uncensored photo is below.) Now, I don’t know if Hayford wanted to get into a fight when he published this review, but I am a non-violent person and when I first read this sentence I was ready to throw hands. I immediately talked to some artists working on the play to get their thoughts.

TRIGGER WARNING: The original text of Hayford’s review is below. 

Sydney Charles, prominent actress and founding member of the Chicago Theatre Accountability Coalition who plays Matilda “Tillie” Binks in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner says: “I don’t even read reviews. I woke up to screenshots and seeing that language made me feel like it was last summer [with the Pass Over reviews] all over again. And this time, it was a show that I am actually in…a part of…Black people wake up every day wondering if they will see tomorrow and it’s 2018…so why do I feel like this is 1867? Theater is my safe space…and now I’m questioning the truth in that.”

Associate Director Wardell Julius Clark says: “As the associate director on the piece, I find it profoundly hurtful and incredibly upsetting that a white reviewer would choose to use the n-word in any review at all. To add salt to the already gashing wound of pain, the article was edited with quotes around a phrase that is not a line in the play. For the author to call the play unnecessary and then use a racial epithet that harms so many, is above all irony. It feels as if I have been slapped directly in the face, and I am sick to my gut about it.”

Clark’s comments are particularly disturbing because as he deftly points out, this is about a general lack of respect for the subject matter that I would hope a critic who is in support of and in collaboration with their community would exercise.  If you want to quote something with such incendiary language, use quotes the first time, but furthermore ask their public relations representative for the script!

The actual line is: “And she’s the one gonna wake up mad one morning and call you a n*gger.” The Reader has tried to correct this by stating: “Editor’s note: During the play, one of the characters uses a racial slur. We have updated the text to show that the offensive language came directly from the script. We apologize for the confusion.” As you can see, not only is it misquoted, it is a failed paraphrase if it is meant to be so because these are entirely different sentiments: someone who will come to believe he is nothing but a n-word versus someone calling him the n-word in a moment of anger.

Still not sure if it’s a big deal? Let me walk you through the psychological experience of a Black artist reading the n-word in phases:

  1. My eyes scan the page, and go into double vision. Could this possibly be happening?
  2. Look up the writer. Maybe the Reader hired a black author and I had no idea. Nope, he’s white. Of  course. On to phase 3.
  3. My chest tightens, my eyes widen, my fists clench and my heart starts to beat real fast as every time that word has ever been thrown into my vicinity without my consent by a colonizer flashes through my mind.
  4. I legitimately google whether this is a thing we’re doing now, if profanity is usually published unedited. Mind you – I own the very journal I am using to discuss this issue, and yet I still looked it up because this is what gaslighting looks like in 2018. According to the Washington Post, they use “common sense” and the Atlantic has a really handy guide for when to use racial slurs (pretty much never), but the overall answer from the internet is a resounding NOPE. We are not casually using the n-word in publication.
  5. I realize this writer has  just said the n-word because he felt like it, that the line was nowhere in the play. This is an original thought that this young man is nothing but an n-word. So you repeat step 3, potentially with tears, and you begin to write your response.

These are the five stages of rage that I went through while reading this article today. I am being more direct than I usually would be in writing this piece and I understand this article is angry. However, I have spent too much time reasoning for something that should be common sense. As the Atlantic guide says, don’t use a slur that isn’t yours if you’re not re-appropriating or deconstructing it. 

Black artists and their allies have organized through ChiTAC, we have appealed to your better nature, and none of it has worked. So, white critics of Chicago, I ask you. What will it take for you to respect your artists of color? Because continuing down this path guarantees you will lose respect, readership, and ultimately your jobs. I am a journalist. I want you to thrive, I want you to survive. But I cannot allow you to survive by standing on my back.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is running at the Court Theatre through April 15th. Learn more about the show by clicking here.

‘Surely Goodness and Mercy’ Showcases A Young Boy’s Staggering Act of Love

Chisa Hutchinson’s intimate four character drama Surely Goodness and Mercy at Redtwist Theatre takes on the difficult subject of child abuse and makes children its heroes. During a month when we are seeing young people in the news rising up to speak out against violence it’s inspiring to see the story of a young boy who is able to escape the violence in his own home while doing good for others. Continue reading “‘Surely Goodness and Mercy’ Showcases A Young Boy’s Staggering Act of Love”

‘Skeleton Crew’ Revisits the Financial Crisis on a Factory Floor

Skeleton Crew, the final play in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, just finished its run at Northlight Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parson. The play is set during the economic crisis of 2008 in the breakroom of one of the last small autoparts plants standing. This is highly skilled work and the men and women who do it are proud, and proudly union. But their jobs and way of life are hanging by a thread. Faye (Jacqueline Williams) has had a thirty-nine year career doing every manner of job in the factory. She’s also union rep as well as unofficial matriarch. Faye mothers her two young coworkers, Dez (Bernard Gilbert) and Shanita (AnJi White) with a mix of deadpan humor and straight talk. Their unit manager, Reggie (Kelvin Roston Jr.) is torn between trying to save his worker’s jobs and trying to prepare them for the inevitable. When factories are closing unions have little leverage and Faye’s lifelong relationship with Reggie complicates her ability to be the best union rep she can as things get more and more desperate. Continue reading “‘Skeleton Crew’ Revisits the Financial Crisis on a Factory Floor”

‘We’re Gonna Be Okay’ Makes Sense of Crisis

Note: The pronouns of the characters were used for this review, they do not necessarily reflect the pronouns of the artists.

We’re Gonna Be Okay at American Theater Company by Basil Kreimendahl directed by Will Davis perfectly captures what it feels like to be living in the midst of a crisis. In our current political climate, no matter which side of the debate you find yourself on, there is an undeniable sense of panic as we try to hold on to a life that feels like it’s trying to run away from us. America, a land of unlimited possibility, and paralyzing fear. In Will Davis’ production, that fear is palpable, but it is also accompanied by laughter, love, and hope. Continue reading “‘We’re Gonna Be Okay’ Makes Sense of Crisis”

Key Reviews: ‘In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play’

The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program brings students to various productions around Chicago, teaching them about arts criticism as they try their hand at writing reviews. The opinions of the students are their own; we workshop the pieces in seminar every other week, and then they edit their reviews before publication. These reviews from our Fall session are edited by Oliver Sava and Regina Victor

Danielle Chmielewski

The fact that somehow the existence of female sexuality is still up for debate is almost impressive in how narrow-minded it is. Not enough has been sad about the epidemic of “hysteria” in the 1800’s. The fact that a legitimate medical diagnosis was given to women who were experiencing the wide spectrum of basic human emotion and no longer living up to men’s expectations is nearly laughable. And yet, as off the wall as it sounds, it should only come as a shock to someone who hasn’t picked up a newspaper in the past month. Continue reading “Key Reviews: ‘In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play’”

‘Lizzie’ Rocks Out at Firebrand: Key Reviews

The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program brings students to various productions around Chicago, teaching them about arts criticism as they try their hand at writing reviews. The opinions of the students are their own; we workshop the pieces in seminar every other week, and then they edit their reviews before publication. These reviews from our Fall session are edited by Oliver Sava and Regina Victor. 

Danielle Chmielewski

I loved this show. To be absolutely honest I am not sure if I can provide a measured and calculated analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Firebrand’s debut musical because the only thing that really comes to mind is that totally rocked. Continue reading “‘Lizzie’ Rocks Out at Firebrand: Key Reviews”

Aziza Barnes’ ‘BLKS’ Gets Up Close and Personal

This review is written by Logan McCullom, an alumni of The Key: Young Critics Mentorship Program.

Stumbling through the seemingly unending crowds and stairs that make up Steppenwolf’s theatre, I was frazzled and bewildered by how many folks I saw waiting to be seated for the opening night of BLKS. At first glance I found the title to be easy and not very enticing at all, but it was quickly redeemed as I saw the set. Like the title would prove to be, it was comprised of… well… everything. There was no shortage of couches, there were even couches on the walls! Set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer draped long blue curtains on the stage, making distinct isolations that served as different rooms within the same stage. It was messy, chaotic, a perfect representation of life on your own, and I loved it. Continue reading “Aziza Barnes’ ‘BLKS’ Gets Up Close and Personal”

‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard

By Lavina Jadhwani

“Casting should be diverse. Shakespeare is meant for everyone.”

This simple statement, written atop the casting breakdown of Lauren Gunderson’s new play, THE BOOK OF WILL at Northlight Theatre, filled me with so much hope.

I am a woman of color who regularly directs Shakespeare and regularly encounters pushback when trying to convince producers and audiences that the words people often assume were written primarily for white, cis, able-bodied men can be shared by, well, everyone. That’s why I was so moved by Gunderson’s sentiment and so excited by the casting announcements made by the Denver Center and Oregon Shakespeare Festival regarding this play. (The world premiere in Denver included two South Asian actors — my desi heart soared!!) My heart sank, however, when I saw the casting announcement of a local company, Northlight Theatre, which included an all white cast and production team. Nevertheless, I attended the production in hopes of learning something new about this play and the world of William Shakespeare. I wanted to keep an open mind. And honestly — I wanted to support my friends. Continue reading “‘Book of Will’ Fails to Diversify The Bard”

Rhapsody in Blue Eyeliner: Taylor Mac’s ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’

Jerome Joseph Gentes

Author’s note: I attended two different “versions” of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music at The Curran on Sunday September 24 and at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Wednesday September 27. This review compares the two audience experiences of “Chapter IV” and “Abridged Version” respectively.

What makes a piece of theatre a phenomenon? What turns it from instance to event? Driven by conscious and subconscious hope that their art goes the analog equivalent of viral, artists create art everyday from fine to pop, traditional to technological. Artistic organizations do this, as do artist teams. Most of it never becomes an event. Theatre that does may do so incidentally, and in cases like the Broadway productions of ANGELS IN AMERICA, RENT and HAMILTON, deliberately. Continue reading “Rhapsody in Blue Eyeliner: Taylor Mac’s ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’”