The Art of Bowing by Nathan Alan Davis presented by Haven Chicago is an experimental must-see and galvanizing production for anyone uncertain about their role in the performing arts, whether patron or performer. Directed by Haven’s Artistic Director Ian Damont Martin, The Art of Bowing honors and eviscerates the theatre in equal measure, and left me thinking about my role as an artist, critic, and patron in theatre’s survival.
There are exactly nine people waiting for the show to begin in the bare black box theatre at The Den. The Bookspan, and Haven’s productions in general, have very decadent sets. In this room there is darkness and a dim exposed brick wall. Deliberate choices. There is, I must admit, the creeping anxiety that you’re about to see your cousin’s college play. When will these actors emerge already?
The fourth wall is not much of a concern however, as the play begins in the house. I won’t spoil how, as I fell for this conceit hook, line, and sinker, and found it a crucial part of my buy-in for the show.
We are immersed in darkness, save for a ghostlight.
David Goodloe begins the show, at first an unnamed stranger framed in the misty light. We will later come to know him as Akwasi. Akwasi informs us that theatre, the art form, has died. He doesn’t know where we are going but will find a way to lead us there. One of the first things humans do when they encounter a new being, object, or experience is name it. Akwasi decides we must both be called something, anything besides the actor and audience. He names himself The Resurrector. We are affectionately designated, “my people.”
Suddenly, an actor named Enoch (Beck Nolan) intrudes on the space. It’s funny, the opening is such a breath of fresh air, that I am slightly disappointed to see him. This is dispelled by Nolan’s portrayal of an earnest need for a purpose, and the tenderness with which Enoch relates to theatre as we knew it. The ghost light is the first light Enoch has seen in all of the darkness, and his gratitude is palpable. I wonder if other audience members are feeling at sea in the dark, and by contrast warmed by the presence of the familiar actor. As both performers exit the space, another enters in the silence, believing herself to be completely alone.
Bryanna Colon, playing Farah, gives a touching, grounded, monologue about how if theatre has died, it will live on in her memories. It is at this moment I realize this play is all about what people will do if there is truly a vacuum of culture, and a chance to start over. It asks what are our opinions on the act of creation when we are alone and unbothered. It asks if we will return to our traditional customs, or if we will really take the chance to do something new. Will we pretend to start anew only to reinvest in structures that look like the ones we just dismantled?
These three very different people decide that the best way out is through – they decide to put on a play in order to figure out where we got off track, and how the theatre died.
Theatre begins to fill the space.
Authentic, old school, black box theatre.
The kind of theatre where you can hear the buzz of the lights running, yet you’re immersed in an intimate story.
Gradually, the theatre as a form starts to become a fourth character in the piece. Costumes, set pieces, sound and lights erupt as needed, conjuring stage hands to deliver them. The more our troupe of storytellers commits to the narrative, the more the theatre gives back in entertainment value. It’s a very simple yet satisfying concept, and the set design by Sydney Lynne is scaled so that these traditional moments of stage magic are entrancing, such as a prop appearing from the ceiling.
What enhances the experience is director Ian Damont Martin’s dedication to the playwrights’ intention. I left the play feeling like this was an invitation to makers, rather than a eulogy to the theatre.
There is a sublayer to this play, a sort of Double Consciousness, that has haunted me as I’ve written about the piece this week. There is a Black actor, the one who led the charge for the revisioning of the theatre, the resurrection of a new art form. He finds himself continually boxed into stereotypes, his talents under-utilised, despite being the only person who thought the entire endeavor had any value at all. Nathan Alan Davis does a great job showing this pigeonholing while keeping the character fully in scene. Goodloe keeps Akwasi’s agency firmly in hand, and Martin’s direction cares for performers and audiences even when the play makes extremely difficult turns into ownership, incarceration, and slavery.
It is a marvel to me that this script seems to have first seen the light of day in 2014. It feels written entirely for the moment. This is an accessible script for any theatre, but particularly those with a smaller venue or budget. Specifically because it relies on the muscularity of the actors.
The performance is muscular, and vulnerable, but not strained, which is a particular joy of mine in the theatre. You can see how hard the actors are working, the mechanics of their technique, and the stakes of your attention which must be paid and must be kept. Without the audience’s rapt attention and the actors’ striving to meet them, the show falls apart. This glorious effort alone is enough to engage in a work for two hours without interruption.
I am tired of coddled plays. Perhaps this is romantic, and a sign of the times, but I honestly have no idea why theatre is so expensive to make right now. I do not mean the value of labor. Anyone who has worked with me as a producer knows that is one of the budget lines I care the most about. What I’m referring to is this idea that plays are aesthetically expensive, trying so hard to really make you feel like you are somewhere. They are not trying to invoke the feeling of being somewhere, but they are really trying to take you there.
Isn’t theatre an art form of feeling and invocation? If I wanted to be in a garden, or on a corner on the Southside, or a great replica of my ideal best friend’s bedroom or my ideal partner’s living room… I’d just go there. I’m in the world all the time. I don’t want to go back for two hours against my will. I come to the theatre tangle with my soul by watching other people perform athletic feats of mystical knowing. When I see a hyperrealistic set I spend most of my time hoping they’ll do something theatrical. Sets like these are so expensive and well-manicured that they almost outpace the performers, challenging them to rise to the environment rather than the audience. I hunger for environments that serve the actor’s connection to the audience.
Whether you agree with me or not, the play provoked all of these thoughts in me, and that is powerful.
As the play ends, there is applause that seems to go on forever, nine pairs of hands fill the space like it was a full house. The actors are gone, so it is time for us to go, right? Nobody is moving. At first, there is silence. Then, murmurs of how great the show was. A crew member popped their head out to start cleaning and promptly hid when they realized we were just there in the house lights. One person rises to leave, but now chatter is picking up about the show. This is a performance of its own, seeing if the patrons would leave. Ten minutes pass, as they joke about starting their own impromptu talkback, before I finally pack up my things and go read the dramaturgy display in the lobby. They remain in the theatre for another ten minutes after that.
We had been through a ritual together.
Resources are tight, but Haven reminds us innovation is abundant. Haven Chicago has been transforming into an experimental development center for innovative performance, theatre, and media arts throughout artistic director Ian Damont Martin’s tenure. While Haven has always lived up to its name, The Art of Bowing clearly defines Haven as a space where our ideas of form, future, and creative community can flourish.
Acting Company: David Goodloe (Akwasi), Beck Nolan (Enoch), Bryanna Colon (Farah).
Production Company: Sydney Lynne (Scenic Design), Lily Walls (Costume Design), Vianey Salazar (Lighting Design), Michael Huey (Sound Design), Michael Corrie (Props), Julia Farrell Diefenbach (Dramaturgy), Hunter Cole (Technical Director), Kyle Anderson (Master Electrician) Mark Berry (Assistant Production Manager) Amy Rappa (Stage Manager), Katie Nowak (Assistant SM) Catherine Miller (Casting) and Skylar Grieco (Production Manager), Michael Brosilow (Photography).