Saturday, February 03, 2007

I've been spending my mornings from 7:30 to 10am painting the stage floor for our current production, "Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom" by Suzan-Lori Parks. The mutabilities in the title are the incidents of progress made by African-Americans, socially and economically in American culture. Imperceptible refers to the actual size and significance of this progress. The Third Kingdom is the playwright's invention, a state of being caught between cultures and never actually being allowed to settle into the new culture into which black America has been thrust. The play is heavily layered, filled with wonderful language and vivid visual imagery. It's been a great and stimulating challenge and an extremely rewarding project.

Early in the design process, our director suggested looking at the work of the late artist Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat was the son of a Haitian-Puerto Rican couple, born in Brooklyn in 1960. He showed an interest in art and an unmistakable talent very early. By age 17 he was a big force in the New York City graffiti art scene and evolved with it from the streets and the sides of subway trains to art galleries and major exhibitions. He was highly prolific, combining a wealth of graphic imagery and text in bold colors laid onto big canvasses in confident, slashing brush strokes or with common household paint rollers.

By the time he turned 20 he was a star in the neo-expressionist movement. He dated a young, aspiring singer named Madonna and started painting with Andy Warhol in 1982. He was exhibited internationally in the company of Americans like Keith Harring and the top Europeans. By 1984 he was experimenting with heroin, concerning his friends.

When Andy Warhol died in 1987, Basquiat became seriously depressed, and his heroin usage increased. He gave himself an overdose in 1988 and died at the height of his youthful powers at age 28.

I had become aware of Basquiat and his story while researching an earlier project to which his style wasn't really relevant. This time, however, I was struck by the similarity in technique across media of his paintings and the writing style of Parks. Both work in broad strokes and bold statements filled in with a myriad of subjective details.
Both are social commentators and their work shows the exuberance and richness of Black America while always letting you see the heavy undertow of pain and anger underneath. But their work is most compatible on this level: she works in complex, layered prose that also includes a strong element of visual imagery; he worked in complex, layered visual images that also included a lot of text. In other words, they dovetail perfectly.

Basquiat's interests covered a broad spectrum of urban, human and natural subjects. It didn't take long for me to find images in his work that corresponded to plot lines and characters in the play. The production style we developed for "Imperceptible Mutabilities" does not include a conventional theatrical set. When characters are not in a particular scene, each retreats to his or her own private lair around the stage that includes hints of furnishing and possessions that the character would have in life. Our director dubbed these "dioramas." We've treated the set as a kind of museum installation rather than as a stage set--which is what's actually been happening in theater world-wide for a decade or so anyway.

Because our theater has an amphitheater style seating bank, everybody can see the floor very clearly. I immediately suggested using Basquiat imagery to create the individual areas on which the cast would establish their personal spaces.
Its like putting a mosaic together--ten separate areas, each with its own character (the totally bogus anthropologist who examines black people as if they were a lower life form necessary for his research; the highly anal retentive professional woman; the three good friends who gather at one of their apartments to bitch about life, eat constantly and fight an infestation of cockroaches; the 1960s army sergeant who is heaped with titles and honors but who is used by the army as a glorified janitor; etc. And in the middle of all these is the Third Kingdom--the hold of the slave ship in transit through the Middle Passage, its human cargo suspended somewhere between Africa and America, one culture and another, one reality and a spiritual plane they sense but cannot reach.

The challenge for me is to keep the areas balanced, keep them individual in style and color but have bits of color running through them all that make a unified stage picture rather than a jumble. It's been a great project and it's rolling along now very well. I'm particularly happy because this will be the last production I design in my MIT career and I was hoping I could go out with a strong visual project--this is definitely it.

I'll be posting pictures of the actual production next week. Some of the Basquiats from which I've taken visual motifs appear in this post.

You might want to track down this FILM which I've never seen, but want to, especially when looking at the astounding cast, including Jeffrey Wright and David Bowie as Basquiat and Warhol.
Mike--Thanks for pointing this film out to me. I mentioned it to our director and while he didn't show it top the cast, he knows it praised it highly.
My gosh, such great history and all here...but, I have to admit, I know nothing about it! I'm afraid I've been a little sheltered when it comes to some of the finer things. But I love the history lessons and details.
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