Monday, October 8, 2012

Guerrilla Theater Company


Guerrilla Theater Company debuted on "Columbus Day" twenty years ago, at the first celebration of the Committee of 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance.
(October 12, 1992) On this cool Monday evening, Columbus Day, a holiday which had always been celebrated unquestioningly in my youth, was under fire. In Public Square, Cleveland Public Theatre had organized the very first 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance Festival, a celebration of Native Americans. At least 500 people had come to protest, peacefully and with style.

True to his word, Jim Levin invited Guerrilla Theater Company, who hadn’t done anything to date except annoy some coffee drinkers, to participate. Seven well-intentioned, middle-class, white kids struggled mightily to produce a handful of sketches about the Native American experience.

We arrived at the Free Speech quadrant of Public Square shortly before dusk. There was a drumming circle going on, a dozen or so people of indigenous ancestry producing a slowly, steady, resonant beat with their drums, chanting beautifully. There were also a number of ragged-looking, white, crunchy-granola people in the circle with them.

As we ambled across the park, Levin walked up to us -- we were all wearing jackets, summer was fading and with encroaching night the temperature was dropping swiftly. He looked earnest as he approached. He always looked earnest.

“Hey, uh, Gorilla People,” he deadpaned. “Glad you could join us.”

“Thank you for including us in this event,” I said. “We wrote some plays just for tonight, we hope they’re appropriate.”

“Yeah,” he said, and took a brief pause. He peered into the middle distance, as though he were trying to discern what brand of jeans that guy crawling up the Terminal Tower was wearing. “You know, we’re going to finish up in an hour or so, and we’ve got a real peaceful vibe going here, if your people aren’t entirely prepared, it’s cool, if, uh ...”

“We’re prepared,” Torque said. “Say the word and we’re on.”

“Oh,” Levin said, “uh, okay, well, the stage is right over there, when the time comes.” There was a temporary platform, a surprising three feet high, complete with a rail for safety and two microphones.

“Great,” Torque said, “just say when.”

We walked over to the stage, which was unoccupied during the Drumming Circle, and dropped off our stuff.

“He doesn’t want us to go on,” I said.

“Oh well,” Torque said.

We waited around for fifteen minutes or so. The drumming continued, it was very pleasant, and moving. I wondered what it had been like earlier in the day. Probably a lot of yelling, a lot of speechifying. There were protests (in Little Italy the statue of Columbus on Mayfield Road had had red paint thrown on it) and anger, but also a lot of music and celebration.

Now, however, it was peaceful, no one here but a hard-core band of thirty or forty fans of CPT and their Native American comrades.

“Greetings again, folks,” Levin said, speaking on the mic. We hung back against the rear railing of the stage. All seven of us were wearing our new, soon-to-be-immortal GTC T-shirts -- the logo was now a seated gorilla wearing a helmet that covered his eyes, with the word “THEATER” running cryptically beneath him.

“We’ve had a great day here celebrating 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance. That was a great drum circle.” Pause. We wait. “We have just a few more events lined up before we call it a night.” Another pause. Levin smirked.

“We at Cleveland Public Thee-ay-ter ... are dedicated to presenting new, young, street artists. So it’s only fitting that here, making their stage debut as part of our festival, are Guerrilla Thee-ay-ter Company.”

“Good evening!” I said into the mic. A surprising and hearty “good evening!” was their response. “We are Guerrilla Theater Company and we are proud to be participating in the 500 Years of Dignity and Resistance!”

Smattering of applause. As I peered out at them in the diminishing twilight I saw a lot of Indians. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many real Indians in one place. And I was keenly aware that our little band of white kids was about to do some plays addressing the Native American Question. Jesus.

“We are going to present a short selection of plays for your enjoyment. The first is called Tourist Trade.”

Jelly Jam joined me at the mic. This one was written by Mammy -- I was a White tourist, asking the price of lots of native hoo-hah (a shawl, a tom-tom) from Jelly Jam, an Indian. Then I ask how much it would cost to buy everything -- Nature. The Native American does not understand what I could possibly mean, and so tells the White Man no one could buy the air we breathe. The White Man is pleased to deduce that it’s free and takes it.

“I hope you enjoy it,” is Jelly Jam’s polite reply.

Polite silence as we set up our next piece, a thoroughly confusing piece of work I wrote that employed the entire six member ensemble.

In this one we presented a series of sequels to the 1982 movie E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial. In these follow-up films, E.T. returns with more and more friends and they eventually over-run the planet.

Get it?

Polite applause for the effort, as we set up for another play.

Levin leans his head through the railing in the rear. “How many more are you doing?” he asked, politely.

“Just one,” Wee-Bear told him, “it’s all we’ve got.”

We concluded with a piece written by Torque, thankfully not the one he had developed in rehearsal about the Native American who attempts to maintain his dignity while getting hit in the face with a number of cream pies, but instead a straight-forward, didactic piece arguing the offensive nature of the Cleveland Indian’s mascot.

Suddenly Torque dumped the script and hollered out, “DUMP CHIEF WAHOO!” with his fist in the air. This was greeted by enormous hoots and the strongest applause we'd received. We retreated in triumph. Levin took the stage.

“Guerrilla Theater Company, folks!” he said, “When does your show open?” he called to us as we picked up our jackets to go.

“Next week!"

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