By Christopher W. White, Mugwumpin artistic director
“When you start a country with a Declaration of Independence, and you put in there that it is not only your right but your obligation to pursue happiness—alone, together—there’s no limit to what that could possibly mean. And then when you say in the Preamble to the Constitution that the purpose is to form a ‘more perfect union,’ you are going to have people, as long as that country lasts, saying, ‘Yes, and I can form a more perfect union than the one that everybody seems to think is okay.’”
—Greil Marcus, in conversation with Mugwumpin, July 24, 2012
As cultural critic Greil Marcus points out, America is a made-up country—a story as much as a place. It’s a nation founded on a set of ideals, a foundation that leads inexorably to a nation full of idealists—whether their ideal is absolute equality, racial purity, or Constitutional originalism. And idealists have a shorter distance to go than skeptics to arrive at ironclad conviction—the kind of conviction that makes you put all your chips on one little square. And where convictions are ironclad, conditions are ripe for the emergence of prophets.
My curiosity about prophecy in America began with competing claims of apocalypse. For years, we’ve been hearing warnings that the end of the Mayan calendar in December 2012, foretells the end of the world. Not long after the blockbuster “2012” left movie theaters, a billboard went up near my Oakland apartment, warning that the end would come sooner than expected: May 2011, according to Oakland preacher Harold Camping. Suddenly, apocalypse was trending. I couldn’t pick up a newspaper or catch a glimpse of CNN—hell, the Weather Channel—without a foreboding glimpse of our imminent destruction. It was nothing new, of course; these things come in cycles. I remembered back to December 31, 1999, uncertainly celebrating with friends in my apartment in Queens, looking across at Manhattan and waiting for the entire city to go black. But why does this cycle perpetuate?
When Mugwumpin began discussing themes for our next piece, the idea of apocalypse was raised, but it seemed too obvious. The undercurrents beneath this cycle, however, drew us in. From casual knowledge of America’s religious and spiritual history, I got the sense that prophets have always been stirring up millennial fervor. It seems to be woven into our cultural DNA, part of what makes us American.
Soon after we settled on “American Prophecy” as the theme for our next show, I came across a book by Greil Marcus called “The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice.” Marcus discusses an idea that has become central to our piece: that in America, prophecy names our failure to live up to the promises on which the nation is founded. It is more concerned with the past and present than the future. Yes, there will be consequences for betraying those promises, but we must first understand the betrayals before we can cope with those consequences.
These ideas resonate with an anxiety that has been growing in me for years. I do fear, deeply, that the multiplicity of our ideals are sliding further and further away from each other, and that, as we do when we slip, we’re grabbing at anything we can and pulling it down with us—polar bears, religious minorities, human spirit and agency. I’m terrified that there’s a point of no return; I’m terrified that we’ve already passed it. But I’m a doubter and skeptic, so ironclad conviction doesn’t come easily to me. So instead I lose sleep over the paucity of my efforts to counteract the slide: riding a bike rather than owning a car, signing a petition every now and then. Were I to follow my convictions to their natural conclusions, I would stop flying in planes. I would pour sand down SUV gas tanks or chain myself to a drone. But I don’t. What would it take to make me go all in?
In July, Marcus very generously sat down with Mugwumpin at Z Space to discuss his book and the themes that it raises. With this piece in particular, inviting our audience into the process of making it, not just to engage with but to feed its creation, felt vitally important. We made the event public and also live-streamed it. (Video of the event is available here). We were especially taken with the idea presented in the quote that I began with: how do we balance both the pursuit of individual happiness and the never-ending quest to form a more perfect union? As the recent political conventions so clearly illustrated, moving towards one group’s “more perfect union” inherently demands moving away from another’s. Perhaps the answer is to form that union on a micro level, within a small community: a mini-America. Or perhaps the answer is just to start over, to scrap everything except the ideals and rediscover how to enact America’s story.
Destruction as an opportunity for rebirth—or the conjoined nature of ruin and renewal—underpins our next event on the path to the full production. As we were beginning to research our theme, I cast about for as many different concepts of prophecy in America as I could find. This search led me to interview Kenny and Roger Perkins, brothers who are activists and singer/dancers from the Mohawk Nation. They are currently developing “Mystical Abyss” with Theatre of Yugen, inspired by Iroquois creation myths that envision the world’s beginning arising from destruction. The Perkins brothers have also been lecturing on Mohawk prophecies, which envision a similar destructive rebirth. These intertwined themes have led Mugwumpin to invite Yugen to co-create “Our Toes Grip the Edge: Where Prophecy Meets the Abyss,” in which we’ll present elements of work from our respective shows (in their different stages of development), hear more about Mohawk prophecy from Kenny, and invite the audience to discuss these themes with us afterwards.
As we continue working on developing the piece, we want to find more ways to include the audience. Naturally, I also see these events as opportunities for audience engagement—building excitement, expanding our audience. But of equal importance is the opportunity to let the audience feed ideas back into our process. One idea we would like to try is to simply have a salon-style dinner with the ensemble, allowing for minimally structured discussion. The price of entrance: bring one person who has never seen a Mugwumpin show—and perhaps some thoughts on this question: “What do we mean when we talk about America?”
Christopher W. White is artistic director of Mugwumpin.
Mugwumpin’s piece about prophecy in America, currently untitled, will open in March 2013, in a co-production with Z Space. “Our Toes Grip the Edge,” from Mugwumpin and Theatre of Yugen, is on September 18. Visit mugwumpin.org.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.