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Echoes of Trauma in Two Plays

“Reflecting on it,” says a disembodied voice at the opening of “Zoetrope”—a new play from the theatre company Exquisite Corpse, written by Leah Barker, Emily Krause, and Elinor T Vanderburg and directed by Porcia Lewis and Tess Howsam—“I severely fucked up living through history.” And, well, haven’t we all? The noise of the news comes crashing into our homes, adding the odd, often unwanted undertone of symbolism to our most private domestic dramas. A love story becomes, also, a story about virology. Interpersonal conflicts take place against a backdrop of protest, or uprising, or war. Theatre, like life, is always in transit between the individual and the society in which she lives. In these history-swamped days, the art form, already tasked with double duty, seems to be working quadruple time, and showing the sweat.

“Zoetrope” is about two lovers, Angel (Vanessa Lynah) and Bae (Jules Forsberg-Lary), both referred to in the script with the pronouns “they” and “them.” (For half the productions, Starr Kirkland and Leanna Gardella play Angel and Bae.) It’s the midst of the pandemic, and the couple are on lockdown in their cramped apartment, in which it sometimes seems impossible to stretch without bumping a wall or scraping a raw nerve. The relationship is loving—hence the touching recurrence of the nickname Bae—but also riven with difference. Angel is Black and Bae is white. Angel barely speaks to their parents. Bae’s professor mother is their hero; Bae irks Angel by noting, again and again, that their mom is the “smartest person I know,” and calls her seemingly constantly.

Angel and Bae speak in well-educated millennialese, qualifying their sentences an inch beyond useful meaning, eloquently talking past each other: a pair of flares blazing in the night, unanswered. In several interior monologues—marked, often, by bright strobes that offer a respite from the relative sensory privation of the set’s black-and-white motif—the lovers’ language takes a turn away from the day-to-day chatter. The soliloquies are abstract, poetic, and sodden with longing and fear—more songs than attempts at talk. After Bae leaves the apartment early in lockdown, Angel says:

Insular
Insulated
Inside
Initiated
Terrified
Tired, tried
And tried again
Determined this won’t be my tomb
Who is the phoenix when she is in the womb

There’s a corniness in moments like this, and in moments when the play reënacts traumas that are too familiar and too close to us in time to take symbolic flight: a comic dance involving grocery sanitization and uncertainty about mask hygiene left me cringing, but not necessarily clearer about the inner lives of Angel and Bae.

The real intrigue of “Zoetrope” lies in the specifics of its production. Angel and Bae’s apartment—one room acting as their whole dysfunctional diorama of a home—sits in a small trailer, in an empty lot near Fort Greene Park, in Brooklyn. A handful of audience members take their seats at windows around the trailer, throw a dark curtain over their heads, and look in. The set design self-consciously echoes the effect of a natural-history museum; we watch our two heroes through glass, overhearing them—through a pair of flimsy headphones—in a way that feels almost accidental. The items in their apartment are labelled in big, cartoonish letters. The setup produces a neat metaphor for the problems of private life in tumultuous times—sometimes it’s hard to hear the dialogue over the honking mess behind you, in the street.

The actor, filmmaker, novelist, and playwright Bill Gunn, who died in 1989, lived his artistic life in constant opposition to easy comprehension. In films like his shelved directorial début, “Stop!,” and his masterpiece, the psycho-thriller vampire romance “Ganja & Hess” (1973), he swerved away from en-vogue depictions of clichéd, predictably downbeat Black “realism” and leaned, instead, toward describing a highly intellectual, hip Black bohemia. His characters were forerunners of the Black creative class that would settle in cool urban outposts like Fort Greene in the nineteen-nineties, just before the rents got too high to accommodate young artists looking for community. Gunn’s best approximation of this milieu probably came as an actor: in the indie film “Losing Ground” (1982), by Kathleen Collins, he plays a tempestuous painter named Victor, who, early in the film, toasts himself sardonically as a “genuine Black success.” You can tell he knows how fragilely defined those three words are.

For the Hollywood of the seventies and eighties, the Victors of the world were unrecognizable—and unsellable—types. In “Rhinestone Sharecropping,” Gunn’s novel about his Hollywood experience, his alter ego, Sam Dodd, complains, “I wrote what I felt, which always lacked the sign posts that lead the average man to the ghetto. Critics wrote ‘Mr. Dodd lacks the quality of his people.’ ” Really, though, Gunn was simply more interested in language, and the harrowing secrecy of poetry, than in telling a woeful story that he’d already heard.

Gunn died at the age of fifty-nine, a day before the première of his play “The Forbidden City,” at the Public Theatre, which continues to be the executor of his theatrical estate. “The Forbidden City” has been revived in a keen, lyrical audio production by Lincoln Center Theatre, directed by Seret Scott, Gunn’s co-star in “Losing Ground.”

“The Forbidden City” follows a middle-class family in the summer of 1936, in the days leading up to a stark dissolution. The Hoffenbergs are, to put it lightly, a weird bunch. Nick Hoffenberg, Sr., is a guileless working man, who has opted to “play dumb” in order to tamp down his family’s barely past traumas. His son, Nick, Jr., is a hyper-imaginative boy of sixteen who loves to write and dreams of being an artist, but still, to his mortification, wets the bed. The matriarch, Molly Hoffenberg, is one of Gunn’s most incredible and terrifying creations. She has willed herself into the relative comfort and respectability of the Black middle class, yet is still violently disappointed by both Nicks, and by the precarity of her position. She openly pines for a man with more backbone than her husband and a kid who’s less screwed up than Junior. Despite her residence in a post-Great Migration atmosphere, familiar to theatregoers from the work of August Wilson, she seems cut out of two plays by Eugene O’Neill: she’s a futile pipe-dreamer like the sad sacks in “The Iceman Cometh” and a horror mom like Mary Tyrone from “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” When company comes, she’s dead polite, but she’s got no patience for weakness, or for poetry, when they show up in her family.

Too bad for her, then, that Gunn sets his characters singing, not working. The excellent music by JJJJJerome Ellis and sound design by Frederick Kennedy give the proceedings a slowly encroaching dread; the soundscape is a perfect accompaniment to Gunn’s lush language, which is always threatening to fracture, or to break into expressionistic song. Nick, Jr., talks to photographs and to ghosts, muttering bits of King James: “Consider the lilies, how they grow. Consider the lilies, how they grow.” When a spectral presence arrives, it stands on the boy’s bed “in a carpet of gardenias.”

In what almost seems like a joke about Black expression—its limits and its extremities—everyone keeps reciting passages by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the great poet who straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing a line from the thwarted promises of Reconstruction toward the uncertain snares and looming tragedies of the pre-civil-rights era in which the Hoffenbergs live.

Even Molly, wearily succumbing to verse at a low point, quotes, “The waning wealth that for a moment gleams, then flies forever,” perhaps accidentally skipping past one of Dunbar’s loveliest juxtapositions: “the jilting jade— / The fame.” She rejoins the poet in a devastating sigh, “Dream, ah—dreams.” ♦

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