Identifying the Spectrum
Art moves us all in different ways. Sometimes exclusive, sometimes inclusive, it can be said that art is made to make us feel. To me, the most critical new art and performance pieces of our times are ones that move us as a public to action, move us as a society towards evolution, move us as a people towards love. This particular piece of art that I saw, CORPUS INTERRUPTUS at the University of Hawaii Kennedy Theatre’s Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, I think moves many in the direction they need to. It ran from April 6 to April 13, and I had seen it once per weekend.
In a world, on an island even, that doesn’t know how to have productive (i.e. civil on all sides) conversations about gender, sexuality, and identity comes this production created by a plethora of artists. Looking at the program, many writers and designers came together for this project directed by Kat Altman. The performers that brought the script to life were Jaron Chatani, Hulita Drake, Kuahea Kukahiko, Aleesha Menor, Sherry Pataray, and Jake Wolf. Between the six performers, black stage blocks, a chest of toys and materials and smatterings of gray everywhere, CORPUS INTERRUPTUS describes itself as a show easiest on the front cover: “a devised theatrical experience about gender identity in 2019.”
Beginning with a crazy yet mellow “mosh pit” (if six people counts as a mosh pit), the show makes frequent use of static to represent discord, negative noise, and generally the world trying to wear you down. This static cuts off the actors “cutting loose,” and they introduce themselves by name and by whatever they identify as- or don’t identify as. The hard-hitting and exploratory questions begin two minutes in- why do I have to share what I am? Why label myself? We are introduced to the actors, and they share many intimate details about themselves, like how one is on the autism spectrum and another finds it difficult to identify as either man or woman because depending on the day, both feel right. It is a casual sharing, a window into the actors before the performances go up, and thus does not feel proud of elitist; by sharing these details as-a-matter-of-fact-ly, we are invited to the conversation. Throughout this “who am I” dialogue, the actors are wearing drab grays, covering up the various LGBTQ+ positive clothes they were wearing before. Then, an “unzipping” happens, sealing all the actors in to their perceived “selves.”
From here, a series of vignettes exploring, questioning, and critiquing various elements of gender identity begin. Kukahiko is the focal point of a household and a family where she doesn’t quite fit in and is deftly yet politely swept aside, Pataray and Drake deliver a powerful and chilling piece tracing bullying from a younger age and how it leads to violence, abuse, and outright rape of those that are queer. Chatani and Menor share a couple of layered scenes, the first featuring Chatani as a judgemental, oppressive force that continually says “no” to Menor as she tries to find the right look, image, and skin to live and breathe in. After going through maybe a million, she is told to wear the one she came in with, and that she was to pay $300 for it. An alarmingly real look into queer life and identity, where if the world and society is not comfortable with you in your own skin and self, then you shouldn’t be either. The continuation of this piece sees Chatani as a curator and Menor as a statue or a mannequin of sorts. Chatani’s character wants Menor’s body to appear gleeful, happy, and vulnerable, but Menor wants to strike her own pose, and is constantly being reverted to what Chatani wants her to be instead of letting her be who she wants to be. Again, a powerful metaphor for the queer individual- cater yourself in a way that is accepting for the world, even though that isn’t you. Chantani and Menor’s pieces also speak to the current level of patriarchy that proliferates the world even today- women are constantly being told not to be satisfied with their self-image and are constantly trying to be categorized by large companies, ads, magazines, and sometimes even society in general.
Kukahiko then presents a poem in front of the class, one where it details her personal discovery that she is attracted to women in the same way she is attracted to men. There are jeers and jokes made by the class while she continues, but she is forced to stop by the teacher, who waves all of her sharing away by calling it a “fantasy,” and chalking up her feelings to not being real. In a powerful moment, she crumples her poem, but everyone else does as well. When you silence one person, you don’t know who else you are silencing indirectly. A wonderfully fun cabaret piece led by Wolf (joined by Pataray and Kukahiko) have him singing to the audience about how wonderful Drake is onstage, then flipping the script in the second half of the song by ending the song, (paraphrasing) “if you saw her the way I see her, she wouldn’t look queer at all.” One of the few bright pieces of the show, this ending garnered lots of cheers and support.
They were a couple of voiced-over pieces, one with a commentary on social media and one talking about the mahu of Hawaii, both featured the actors either reinforcing key words in the dialogue or saying complimentary lines of dialogue that helped enforce the messages being presented. We are then treated to a piece where the cast stands in a spotlight and are forced to debate each other, which quickly escalates into mudslinging. A brilliant metaphor of a piece- after all, what better way to keep these voices silent than to turn them on each other? Wolf has another piece where Pataray, Drake, and Kukahiko are his voices, demonstrating that people with loud and contradicting voices/nudges/instincts in their heads are valid, and yes, it is hard to get things done with all three (or more) talking above you. Pataray has a personal piece where she is addressing her male-identifying side, Robin, in a short piece designed to illuminate how hard and sticky having two sides of you can be and how no matter you try and keep them separated, some days it’ll be tough, even for you.
After all these vignettes, Kukahiko is a lone voice in a sea of darkness, singing a chilling rendition of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera,” and when she is done she joins the darkness, and the audience cannot see a thing. During this time, the audience hears (and feels) stage furniture tossing and turning about them, a seeming cacophonous storm being conjured in the space amidst the sticky sound of static. The lights take their time to come up, and when they do you see the actors tired, venting out their frustrations onto these bits and pieces of furniture, allowing for a sense of catharsis to flow after they drop their furniture and survey their fellow survivors around them. After a few moments to catch their breaths, the actors perform another “unzipping,” but this time to discard the “selves” that were projected onto them and throwing them aside with their drab grays costumes, now fully embodying who they are, no matter where they fall on the spectrum.
This was a very eye-opening show. It works on multiple fronts- a way to affirm those that may be going through issues about questioning identity, a way to make approaching the conversation of how gender and identity and any other “label” is much easier to determine while on a spectrum rather than clear-cut black and white, and a way to open the eyes of those unfamiliar with any of the issues and elements of the show. As mentioned in the production, there are not a lot of stories about people like these actors- those who are not cisgender or heteronormative. Not that stories about them are bad, but they are the “standard,” and it’s difficult to come to terms with who you are when you realize you do not fit the images and stories that are paraded all around you. Amidst all of the angst and sadness, the audience is also greeted with the message that through unity, a way through the static of life is possible.
I wish that this show had more people to watch it, and that it could have ran for more than two weekends. It spoke to me on levels that I was not aware I had thought of, enough where I needed time to write this review. The production is no longer playing, but it was a strong show nonetheless. The actors shed their skin to tell these stories with so much truth, it became less acting and more sharing, something that I think we all can appreciate it intimate pieces like this one. Bravo to the cast and crew of CORPUS INTERRUPTUS.
Written by Gloria Bentham.