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The Anthropologists try to tell a story without bias
When she agreed to be interviewed about No Man's Land, the new piece she's written and directed with The Anthropologists, Melissa Moschitto had a very specific request: "I don't feel comfortable being the only person quoted."
That's in keeping with the show itself, which runs through December 11 at TheaterLab on West 36th Street. The artist and the project are both striving to support multiple, diverse perspectives at all times. "So many of the narratives in our play are drawn from pop culture and have been written by and perpetuated by white people," says Moschitto. "We are learning to see past that and see what stories we are ignoring."
No Man's Land is a work of devised theatre from a company that is "dedicated to the collaborative creation of investigative theatre that inspires action." It begins by recounting the well-publicized, true story of Jeremiah Heaton, a white Virginia dad who planted a flag in an unclaimed region of an African desert in order to make his daughter a real-life princess. The focus quickly shifts, however, to the broader role of stories and storytelling and how those stories might (intentionally or otherwise) support a system of racism, bias, and privilege.
Four diverse actors dissect and upend these themes, challenging each other with unending questions and sharing their own experiences as artists, storytellers, and audience members. This culminates with an attempt to tell the very different, yet equally true, story of Susan Lina Hasaan, a Sudanese woman who endured extreme violence. The Anthropologists discovered her plight in a footnote from a UN article they were reading for research. As the play puts it, "No one is coming to the theatre to see the story of an anonymous Sudanese refugee".
Both tales are part of the show's kaleidoscope of characters and genres. The company also uses choreographed movement, shadow puppets, and even an interview session with classic Disney princesses. The drama, and surprising humor, is propelled by watching the actors try, and often fail, to tell a simple story, free of bias.
Actress Jean Goto brings her own mixed background to the process. "My mom's side of the family came over soon after the Mayflower and have been here for generations, while my dad's Japanese side came over to Hawaii in the early 1900s," she says. "So I come from a place of both privilege and struggle." Developing this show, she adds, has changed her perspective on racism: "It isn't a dichotomy of 'good' and 'bad,' but instead a spectrum of biases and assumptions. I'm also much more aware of how deeply these run and how difficult it is to see them and shift them."
A week before opening, the development process for No Man's Land was rocked by the presidential election. It became clear to the company that, no matter one's politics, we arguably all need to ask more questions about divisions and privilege. Moschitto, who is also the company's artistic director, found her own voice renewed. "My job as an artist went from simply being non-racist to anti-racist," she says.
Producer Malini Singh-McDonald hopes audiences will feel called to action. That's why the company has partnered with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, an international, anti-racist collective that works to build an effective movement for social transformation. After each show, Singh-McDonald gives audience members PISAB "action cards" that ask questions about the reader's everyday life. One example: "Do a quick check of your podcasts, blogs, and news for racial diversity. Mostly white?" The card then gives suggestions for other sources that "may not be written for you, but offer an invaluable opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others."
Moschitto hopes the questions raised by this production just keep generating more questions. "We want audiences to leave questioning the stories they tell and why," she says. "But these are questions truly asked with love because we are asking them of ourselves at the same time."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'No Man's Land.' Go here to browse our current offers.
Andrew Block is TDF's Manager of Off and Off-Off Broadway Services.
Photos by Victoria Medina Photography. Top photo: The cast of 'No Man's Land.'