Those Before Us
Written by Stephen Carrey-Chan, Jesse Carrey, Kimberly Dodson, Alex Spieth, and Katya Stepanov
Directed by Jesse Carrey
Presented by Rebis at Nolan Park, Governors Island, NYC
August 1-11, 2019
Typically, audiences are asked to turn their cell phones off at the beginning of a performance. That is very much not the case with Rebis's Those Before Us. Rebis, which celebrated its one-year anniversary on August 11, takes as its mission, according to its website, to "create interactive, immersive, story-driven content which integrates the audience into the heart of the narrative." With the free production Those Before Us, Rebis plunges audience members into a network of historical narratives wrapped in a science-fiction conceit and allows them to find their own paths through the experience.
Designed for public spaces, Those Before Us was staged outdoors in Nolan Park on New York City's Governors Island. Audiences are asked to arrive equipped with a fully charged smartphone (and, for Android users, a QR scanner app) and to either bring headphones or reserve one of a limited number of Bose AR glasses (basically, wearable blue-tooth speakers that interface with your phone via the Bose Connect app). Upon checking in, audience members scan a QR code leading to a short "onboarding" audio file and are given a small map (which also includes a QR code linking to the show's program). The map details the starting and ending points of the show, as well as four color-coded circuits and a few other points of interest. At each point on the map, there are corresponding QR codes mounted on a tree that link to further audio files, and each of the color-coded and numbered points on the map contributes a narrative set in a specific year: 1637 (voiced by Jesse Carrey), 1878 (voiced by Grace Rao), 1917 (voiced by Ashton Muniz), and 1964 (Zach Fifer). In addition, selections from Native American music and songs by Loretta Lynn, Morton Harvey, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, and others are incorporated into these narratives at various points. There is also a live dancer associated with each narrative path, and a dash of color on these primarily white-clad dancers—Daan Bootsma (1637), Mallory Galarza (1878), Ashton Muniz (1917), and Kerime Konur (1964)—helps you to follow the dancer along a particular narrative thread (the dancers also helpfully incorporate touching the next significant tree into their performances). Of course, one doesn't have to follow any kind of linear path, either overall (on the day that we attended, it didn't take very long for the large group that began the show all together to fragment) or within any individual story.
As a title, Those Before Us can be read in two ways, both as referring to the layers of history that the production draws attention to and to the way in which the combination of dancers and voiceovers bring characters linked to this history literally before us. These persons range from a Dutch settler unhappily aligned with a capital-based concern intent on exploiting the indigenous residents of the city to a white woman becoming a nineteenth-century military wife, a black man going to fight in WWI, and a man born into a military family facing displacement and the razing of everything on the island, including the nature that he has heretofore resented. Racism, sexism, and exploitation of course figure in these individual stories, and the fact that the costumes of the dancers, whose movements express the general emotion of each narrative fragment rather than directly corresponding to the unfolding plot, accumulate dirt and natural debris—especially in the case of Bootsma and Muniz—might be seen as symbolizing not only the struggles of life and history but also the way that grains of history accumulate and its rootedness in location and the land.
The quartet of personal, historical stories sits within a clever dystopian frame. At the outset, audiences are welcomed to the Terrarium Museum of Natural History, a place that has reconstructed life as it was before the "Great Explosion." This pre-recorded message (voiced by Katya Stepanov) is interrupted by the voice of "Maya" (Vincent Lidie), to whom you are connected via the trees. Maya talks about a future on a planet that has undergone extensive damage and in which a "High Council" disappears people, has erased history, and controls what we know. He thus asks for your help in finding memories as a means to restore truth and knowledge. As records for heat and glacier melting are continually broken and drafts of executive orders by the U.S. government to censor the internet are leaked, Maya's future seems barely speculative, but in Those Before Us, the atemporal final act, "Convergence," is ultimately hopeful, arranging everyone in a circle and focusing on unity, peace, and restoration.
We admit to having a bit of trouble with our 4G at the start, which caused playback issues, but once we successfully logged into the Governors Island wi-fi, everything came together smoothly for an enjoyable and unique experience that was simultaneously individual and communal. Rebis is hoping to bring Those Before Us to other locations in the future, and we look forward to what this innovative group of artists creates next. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler