Of all the treasures housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, none hold more fascination for me than the carved sculptures, masks, and ritual objects from Africa and Oceania on display in the Michael Rockefeller Wing. Rockefeller, the son of former vice president and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, was fresh out of Harvard when he made his first anthropological expedition to New Guinea, where he encountered the Asmat people (whom Tobias Schneebaum wrote about in his remarkable book, “Where the Spirits Dwell”) and collected a lot of their fierce, striking artwork. On a second trip in 1961 to collect more objects, Rockefeller’s overloaded canoe capsized at sea; his companion survived, but the 23-year-old Rockefeller disappeared and was presumed to have either drowned, been killed by crocodiles, or captured and sacrificed by natives known to be headhunters and cannibals.
Jeff Cohen’s intriguing play “The Man Who Ate Michael Rockefeller,” closely based on Christopher Stokes’ short story (published in MacSweeney’s Quarterly) and smartly staged by Alfred Preisser, capitalizes on but does not confine itself to these biographical facts. The play in some ways focuses on the meaning of art in a culture where craft, imagination, functionality, and spiritual practice merge in the creation of art objects. The central character, Designing Man, carves figures out of bone and wood as an act of prayer, in imitation of the Master Carver who dominates the Asmat’s creation myth. It is through the eyes of this character and his fellow villagers back in the woods of Irian Jaya that we witness the arrival, soaking wet, of a young white man carrying an expensive camera accompanied by an enterprising tour guide who wants to broker the sale of Designing Man’s work to the rich American. So in another way the play is a comedy about cultural clash where a black man in wildly colored face paint with a bone through his nose is the norm, and the outsider is a white man in khakis.
The plot bounces among Designing Man’s effort to create a fertility totem that will enable him and his wife to conceive a child, Rockefeller’s attempt to commission a bunch of artworks from the Asmat, and Designing Man’s conversation with his best friend Half Moon Terror about whether or not they should just kill the white man and use his skull as an offering for the benefit of the village. But even beyond that – and this is where the playwright’s cool idea meets the director’s mastery – as a present-day theatrical experience the show explores the layer upon layer of masks through which we view one another’s experience. Language is a mask: the Asmat speak a clear English that spirals into heightened poetic diction at times (Rockefeller’s family is said to have billions of “paper charms called dollars,” which another character describes as “a lunacy of surplus”) while Rockefeller’s attempts to speak their language come out as halting baby talk and sometimes uproarious malapropisms. Even the characters they play are concoctions based on a weird dance between contemporary Western black people and storybook depictions of exotic natives. And the theatrical language of the production surrounds the spoken dialogue with silent masked dancers and eruptions of music and movement that seem to have their own life separate from the main narrative. We get a sense of the world being depicted as sometimes explicable, sometimes exploitable, and sometimes just impossibly mysterious.
This is a lot to ask the actors to accomplish, and they do a good job at keeping these various levels flying at once. Some of them are less skilled and more overemphatic than others. Best among them are Daniel Morgan Shelley as Designing Man, Ayesha Ngautah as his wife Breezy, and Tracy Jack as a pregnant woman who engages him to perform pre-natal magic with his “sculpting
tool” (see above). Jack is also credited with the
choreography. The production was originally mounted Off-Off-Broadway on a shoestring and looks like it, but still costumer Kimberly Glennon did an excellent job capturing the spooky otherworldly qualities of Asmat ritual artwork.
CultureVulture.net, March 6, 2011