No Man's Land!

Photo Credit: Victoria Medina Photography
No Man's Land
Written and directed by Melissa Moschitto
Presented by The Anthropologists at TheaterLab, NYC
November 18-December 11, 2016

Given its focus on identity, race, and theatrical narratives, the new play No Man's Land could not be more timely, debuting as it did only a few days after Vice President-elect Mike Pence's, shall we say, controversial visit to Broadway's Hamilton. Created by theater company The Anthropologists and written and directed by Melissa Moschitto, the issues it interrogates have come increasingly to the fore of our national discourse over the past eighteen months and look to remain both pressingly and depressingly relevant for the foreseeable future. In the program, Moschitto discusses The Anthropologists' "unequivocal support" of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact on the company's work and personal realizations, but suddenly, police brutality seems just one means of oppression among many when officials are using segregation-era tactics on protesters outside the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and a neo-Nazi has been appointed as a top presidential adviser. Much to its credit, No Man's Land takes a wide perspective on the deeply entrenched systemic racism and the silencing of non-dominant voices that it examines. Select performances, listed on the show's website, further the dialogue after the play is over with "Re-Frame Your Reference," a series of events dedicated to "investigating privilege and systemic racism in the United States today by recognizing and challenging culturally embedded frames of reference."

The initial frame of reference for No Man's Land is the true story of Jeremiah Heaton, who attempted in June of 2014 to claim a piece of desert between Egypt and Sudan in order to "found" The Kingdom of North Sudan. The then-38 year-old white Virginia man made this claim to grant the wish of his seven year-old daughter, Emily, to be a princess. In a mostly white space containing little more than some sandbags and some patriotically red and blue pennants, the play starts off as a satirical fundraiser for Heaton's kingdom (the real Heaton did attempt to crowdfund, largely unsuccessfully), with the King (Brian Demar Jones) as a Tony Robbins infomercial pitchman type. Supporting him are the other actors as comic, stereotyped versions of John Smith, Patrick Henry, and Christopher Columbus (none of whom are played by white males), with Columbus claiming that he invented the whole idea of jamming a flag in some land in order to claim it. At first, the slides that accompany Heaton's pitch show things like headlines from media coverage of his claim. Soon enough, however, the slides take a turn to images of slavery and refugees, derailing Heaton's performance as No Man's Land itself takes a hard turn into the metatheatrical.

The actors, Tony (Michael Ables), Annie (Jean Goto), Georgia (Mariah Freda), and Reggie (Brian Demar Jones), clash over what story they should be telling and how they should be telling it. Their competing visions and interests lead them into a maze of difficult social and artistic questions. Georgia, for example, who is more concerned that their version removes Emily's voice and agency, suggests that she is not a very good intersectional feminist when she voices that all-too-common refrain, "Do we really have to bring race into it?" As Reggie, who is Black, points out, race is always already there, whether we attempt to ignore it or not. Would a Black father who did the same thing have gotten same type of media coverage? Would his story have been optioned by Disney (as, like Heaton's crowdfunding, actually happened)? Tony takes up Georgia's invocation of gender when he asks her what is going on with the "Princess Disease" that seems to infect our cultural narratives, which leads to the first of a series of attempts to recreate the play's narrative. Should it be a fairy tale from Emily's point of view? A parodic discussion of the (so far non-existent) Disney film? An all-encompassing look, for which Tony advocates, at the brutality of white colonialism? The story of a particular Sudanese refugee, Susan Lina Hassan, who was attacked in Egypt, as Annie would prefer? (But how can they know how to tell her story, based on a single news report, or how can they know if she would want her story told at all? And would it matter if the answer were no?) What about hearkening back to an ancient Greek tale in which the Cinderella figure is a Greek slave in Egypt? Again and again, reality intrudes on or disrupts these artistic recastings, and simple inversion proves to have its own problems. At one point, the actors resort to telling their own stories, reflecting on elements of their identities, but even here, the fact that these are actors being played by actors means that, for the audience, these stories too cannot escape questions of authenticity.

The characters' struggles with the play highlight the complexities of the issues that they raise. Moschitto asks us to think about, for instance, the interrelationship among casting, passing, and cultural appropriation. What is the difference if Reggie or Tony, who is Native American, plays Heaton? What if Annie or Georgia "passed" as Hassan? In some ways, colorblind casting, at least in New York City, has become so commonplace as not to be worth remarking upon unless it is clearly trying to make a point. But the debates in No Man's Land force the audience to consider the complex racial politics underlying something that most people would say is no longer a big deal. Colorblind Shakespeare, for example, is the norm, but a colorblind Raisin in the Sun would be problematic. Stories, as Georgia says, give us permission to think and act in certain ways, and so, how we tell them matters. In Reggie's words, "Art has consequences," and this play asks tough, interesting questions about both halves of that claim.

After its initial swerve from its opening conceit, No Man's Land keeps the audience pleasurably on its toes while it tries to hammer out its own existence. It's aided in this by strong, versatile, entertaining performances by the all four members cast and often simple but impactful lighting design by Nic Christopher. This is a very smart play that acknowledges the messiness of trying to tell this story or any story, and insists on characters that are correspondingly less than perfect (Georgia, for example, admits that, as the parent of a daughter, she is often just too tired to live up to her own ideal of fighting the princess narrative). However, the proceedings are far from humorless; while the production's goal is not to provide comforting entertainment, it also does not miss the chance for an extended silly dance-off. The Anthropologists do not offer many answers, and in fact encourage the audience members to keep asking questions after they leave the theater. No Man's Land assertively stakes its claim as an incisive, even necessary, work for the present moment. - Leah Richard & John Ziegler