“Theater is dead. Long live theater.”
That may be the theme of Nathan Alan Davis’ imaginative and puzzling new play, The Art of Bowing, which you can now see in its world premiere by Haven Chicago, directed by Ian Damont Martin.
That theme plays on the royal tradition of mourning the death of one monarch while celebrating the succession of a new one—and its view toward the future.
On the other hand, that may not be Davis’ theme. But he doesn’t give us a lot of help in determining what his play means, he presents many ideas in seven scenes performed by three actors. At the same time, he demands that we keep in mind the crisis of climate change, the horrific history of slavery, and current demands for social justice. Among other things.
Just after 8pm on opening night, I noticed the man sitting at the end of our row was looking around, as if he was trying to figure out when the show was starting. He went out to the lobby and when he came back, he wandered around the bare stage and finally turned on the ghost light and brought it to the front of the playing area. Yes, he was an actor—David Goodloe, playing Akwasi. But he’s not an actor, as he tells us repeatedly.
He says, “Y’all see all this emptiness? Can you believe it? The theater finally died!” He talks to his audience about the situation; he suggests we might see a resurrection. The fourth wall doesn’t exist in The Art of Bowing.
Soon Akwasi is joined by Enoch (Beck Nolan), an actor through and through, he tells us, and quotes his favorite line from R&J. (He played Romeo.) He praises Akwasi for bringing the light because he thought all was dead. Enoch pulls a long, rolled-up piece of paper from his pocket and reads “Things to remember in case the theater dies.”
Enoch and Akwasi circle the stage s few times discussing the death of theater. Now Farah arrives (played by Bryanna Colon), wondering if she needs to give a speech. “The theater’s dead. It’s really dead. Does that mean I have to make a speech? Am I supposed to have something to say?”
The three performers decide they are the Three Resurrectors. They will make a play that is epic, classic, socially relevant, hopeful and funny. That’s how we start on a meta-theatrical journey through the ages, starting in ancient Egypt, stopping in Atlantis where the heavy rains will drown the city, then to west Africa to consider the slave trade, and finally on to the modern era, where a drug charge provides fodder for discussions of social justice, police brutality, racism and white privilege. Two final scenes take us to the future.
If this sounds a bit jumbled or rambling, it is. The play undoubtedly needs more work. But it’s earnest and good-hearted in its intent—if theater is to survive, it has to address ideas that matter. (At least I think that’s the intent.) The three performers are agile, adept and creative in moving from era to era, with quick costume changes and role switches. (The number of roles each actor plays is astounding.)
Martin’s direction of Davis’ script is crisp and edgy and the rest of the crew brings magic to what may seem a simple exercise in stage movement. The costumes are creative and abundant and the set changes, while often minimalist, are handled adroitly by the on-stage crew. The cartoonishly silly thrones for the king and queen of Atlantis are an example. Sydney Lyons is scenic designer and Michael Cerrie manages the props. Lily Walls is the costume designer, Lighting is by Vianey Salazar with sound design and original music by Michael Huey. Amy Rappa is stage manager. The crew is on stage frequently to move the scene changes and transitions along smoothly.
Now about Davis’ title, The Art of Bowing. Is it bowing (bending from the waist) or bowing (playing a stringed instrument)? Is it relevant that an 18th century composer and theoretician named Giuseppe Tartini wrote a short book on the violin titled The Art of Bowing? Did Davis stumble across that title in some random net search and say to himself, hmmm, maybe I can use that some time? We’ll never know.
Davis, a Rockford native and University of Illinois graduate, is director of MFA playwriting at Boston University. His other plays include Nat Turner in Jerusalem and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, staged here by First Floor Theater in 2018. Three more of his plays will receive world premieres this year.