Several months ago, when word filtered out that director Elizabeth LeCompte was using actors in blackface and a homemade porno film to create a new piece with her company, the Wooster Group, people in the downtown theater scene wondered if she was determined to have
her theater closed down. When an interview with LeCompte in New York
magazine reported that the piece would involve a restructuring of
Our Town, the Thornton Wilder estate subsequently refused the Wooster Group performing rights to the play. Since
Route 1 & 9 (The Last Act) has opened at the Performing Garage in Soho and
Our Town remains a crucial element, the possibility exists that the Wilder estate could seek and get a court injunction to close the show. On the other hand, the work has received uniformly negative -- and uniformly uncomprehending -- reviews, and without the paying customers that good reviews produce, the company may have no choice but to close the show. And the worriers will have been right.
"Every time, they say to us, 'What are you doing this for?' You're gonna shut the theater down!'" LeCompte said to
me one recent Saturday afternoon over the kitchen table in her Wooster Street loft. "And yeah, we probably are. When we went into this, we knew there was a good chance that it would. But I couldn't be concerned about that, because I knew it was the last piece."
Route 1 & 9 is indeed the last in a series of experimental theater pieces LeCompte has directed and created in collaboration with the Wooster Group (formerly the Performance Group) since 1974. This work was originally conceived as a trilogy comprising
Sakonnet Point, Rumstick Road, and Nayatt
School, imagistic ensemble pieces exploring the interplay of family, art, religion, and madness as seen in the life of actor and personality Spalding Gray, who supplied the autobiographical impulse of the trilogy and appeared to be its unifying factor. When the trilogy was performed together for a two-month run in the winter of 1978-79 as
Three Places in Rhode Island, its imaginative use of film, dance, music, child actors, and non-linear texts confirmed its stature as one of the most impressive and innovative theater events of the '70s. With the addition of
Point Judith, an "epilogue," and now Route 1 &
9, "the last act," suddenly the work demands to be reconsidered as a quintet of related theater pieces taking in the full sweep of life -- cradle to grave -- and embracing the most basic dualities -- male/female, art/reality, black/white. And LeCompte clearly emerges as the organizing intelligence -- the auteur -- behind the whole thing.
But when she spoke of Route 1 & 9 as "the last piece," LeCompte meant something more dire than the last in a series. "It has been extraordinarily hard for us to work these past few years," she said. "We're working in such isolation. There's just not enough community or feedback. And there's not enough understanding of where we're working from to make it a viable commercial concern on the lowest level; I don't mean in terms of fame or lasting reputation, I mean just day-to-day."
A painter and photographer before she teamed up with Spalding Gray at Skidmore College, and later joined Richard Schechner's Performance Group, LeCompte belongs to a shrinking cadre of avant-garde artists who try to anser the dictum, "see the world new." Despite the obfuscation and self-indulgence that sometimes passes as avant-garde, there is an urgency and even a nobility to the task of expanding the barriers of what is known, testing the values of current forms, and keeping the progress of imagination in step with modern technology. LeCompte's closest allies in this, perhaps not surprisingly, are women such as Mabou Mines' JoAnne Akalaitis and performance artist Laurie Anderson who also mix media, drop brand-names, and rummage through our pop-cultural debris with morbid curiosity and apocalyptic sensibility. They don't make plays that tell one story through linear logic. They are collage artists who compose strings of associative images that only exist in performance, not on paper. It's intellectual vaudeville. More reliant on hidden structures than Mabou Mines or Laurie Anderson yet more "accessible" in content than Richard Foreman or Robert Wilson, LeCompte views her pieces as a cross between "happenings and a structured experience."
It's a waste of time to look at Route 1 & 9 as a play. It is a model of the world, a grid of existence -- not idealistic but realistic, even grimly so.
It asks to be seen as an art object with layers and density; it asks to be read from different angles like a diagram of a building. To get a sense of this layeredness, let's just take the most unsettling and controversial element, the use of blackface. The piece opens with a video reconstruction of a ridiculous '50s educational film in which Clifton Fadiman (played by Ron Vawter) analyzes
Our Town in the dullest academic terms. The next section is based on a Pigmeat Markham sketch called "The Party." In contrast to the tight-lipped, bloodless lecturer, the four actors (Vawter, Willem Dafoe, Kate Valk, Peyton) in impeccable blackface build a house, talk on the phone, drink, dance to loud soul music ("Little Bitty Pretty One"), scream, and otherwise carry on. Then a surprisingly sincere soap opera version of
Our Town's last act appears on the video monitors while a subdued but nerve-wrackingly haphazard version of the party continues underneath. The final section, which involves the porno film, is separate from the rest of the piece -- it essentially represents a new direction, a possible way out -- but it is preceded by a macabre dance to a Belafonte record by the four actors now wearing long dresses and vampire teeth with half their makeup scrubbed off. They are ghouls dancing on Wilder's graves, LeCompte's nightmare of life after death.
My first impressions of the blackface routine were complex. For the Wooster Group, OUR TOWN
is New York City, and perhaps they see themselves as earnest white bohemians sitting in Soho intensely analyzing the nature of art and reality while half the population around them are black and third world people who might not give a shit about Mr. Wilder's deliberate craftsmanship. The black and white can also represent a choice between art and life -- in other words,
art-for- art's-sake is such a dead end and doesn't reward you financially, so why not just forget it and just have a good time? Culturally speaking, Wilder's play represents "high art" in all its whiteness and Pigmeat Markham represents "low art," to which black culture is generally consigned. And as stereotypes,
Route 1 & 9's satirical "prancing niggers" reminded me of the Spiderwoman troupe in
The Lysistrata Numbah attacking female stereotypes by parading them in all their lurid, tit-shaking ugliness. Because there was an element of self-criticism in these white imitations of black stereotypes, they were less disturbing to watch than such "commercially viable" stereotypes as
The Jeffersons or the darkies dancing in Sophisticated
Still, the question remains: Is Route 1 & 9 racist? LeCompte accepts the charge on the broadest cultural level. "There's some liberal idea that there are white people in America who could consider themselves not racist," she said. "You may consider yourself not subjectively racist, but objectively if you exist and make money in a culture that is obviously living off a third world people, you must be. In that sense, I'd say yes, this piece is racist. Right down the line." Is that evasive? Perhaps. But the piece clearly implies that cultural stereotypes are to some degree a product of simplistic analysis of art, and LeCompte rejects any such analysis of her own work. She gives "black" a number of symbolic meanings, not all of which are clear in the piece. "I use the color black very literally: if you mix all colors, you get black. I thought of mourning, too, this being the last piece. And I thought of our relationship to those workers that Ronnie and Willem play; something in that building scene with those black men has some feeling to me. I hesitate to say this, but I identify. I identify with the color black as well as the cultural blackness."
The cultural blackness she refers to is the way that contributions of blacks and women are often overlooked in our culture. LeCompte has labored in the theater for years under the shadows of Richard Schechner and Spalding Gray. "I always had illusions that people saw the woman who was making the work. They didn't. They saw Spalding. When Foreman and Kate (Manheim) work, no one assumes that Kate wrote those lines. But the way I set Spalding up, and because he's male and I'm female, I would find people thinking that he conceived of the structure, that he wrote the lines."
The color blackness she relates to chaos, something out of control, a wild and untamed element about which she has conflicting feelings. "If I'm walking down a street alone at night and I see a white man and a black man, I'm more scared of the black man, no question." Yet, philosophically she has a strong attraction to "the possibility of things going totally awry." "It probably has something to do with how you're taught that the universe is orderly when your own experience is that it's chaos."
LeCompte has come a long way from Sakonnet Point, which was like a stroll through Eden, to
Route 1 & 9, which is like a subway ride through Hell. But then it's a long way from the Rhode Island of Spalding's childhood in the '50s to the New Jersey of
Route 1 & 9 today; and between Thornton Wilder's small-town
New England and the Wooster Group's New York, there is an unbreachable abyss. "When we read
Our Town over and over again, for me it was like saying a prayer," LeCompte remembered. "It was calming and soothing. it was everything you knew had no relevance in your life anymore, but it was still beautiful to listen to. it's so sentimental, and I don't know how I feel about sentiment. But I know I love it. I war with myself constantly, going back and forth between irony and sentiment."
After LeCompte finished filming the cemetery scene from Our Town last summer, her father died in a sudden, painful bout with cancer. Two weeks later she became pregnant with her first child. The numbers one and nine suggest a beginning and an end; maybe LeCompte had to complete her ironic vision of how the world is and struggle with the sentiment death summons before she could begin to bring a child into the world. Clifton Fadiman, in his duddy way, is right when he says, "Mr. Wilder wants us to realize life while we live it." And Ms. LeCompte wants nothing less.
The Village Voice, 1981