Like It Is
at Cafe Voltaire
By Justin Hayford
According to David Mamet we live in "an evil time, which is to say a time in which we do not wish to examine ourselves and our unhappiness." We can't turn to our civic leaders for relief--they're too busy spinning half-truths to bother with reality, especially in an election year. Neither can we turn to the entertainment industry, which confuses panacea with catharsis in its relentless drive to sell soda pop and soap flakes. Our best hope, Mamet suggests, lies in live theater, where a handful of courageous artists uncorrupted by Hollywood or network television reminds us how things are, not how we would wish them to be.
One such artist is Johnathan McClain. American theater needs him the way constipated old men need high colonics. Hell, the entire nation needs him. A country that confuses USA Today with a newspaper, and talk-show hysteria with informed debate, desperately needs a mainline infusion of Truth--which is exactly what McClain delivers in his devastatingly accurate, wildly entertaining one-man show Like It Is.
Under Chuck Huber's crisp direction, McClain takes us on a front-line walking tour of America's often-overlooked intraclass war, in which the powerless ambush one another in petty skirmishes gussied up as liberationist insurrections. The world McClain creates is all too familiar. The recent rioters in South Central Los Angeles, for example, ostensibly striking back at a racist and classist judicial system, torched and plundered their own communities but left the Beverly Hills estates untouched.
In McClain's world a wheelchair-bound Puerto Rican gangbanger, crippled by a rival gang member's bullet, pledges to "just roll around and fucking shoot Knights of Cuba and PR Lords." A young black Muslim believes that Jews have stolen all the jobs from the black community. "Why do you think they call it Jew-elry?" he asks. "Our people invented the craft centuries ago in Africa, why is it not called Africanery?" A beat cop, who may wield some power with his badge and gun but is essentially the pawn of a faceless bureaucracy, blames the faggots and niggers (for starters) for society's ills. But ultimately his accusations are indiscriminate: he concludes, "Fuckin' people, right?"
McClain paints eight exquisitely detailed portraits of men in a world on the brink of collapse. From the good-natured Pakistani bus driver who can't understand why his neighbors insist on calling him "dot head" and "sand nigger" to the wandering Rastafarian whose meager marijuana crop was destroyed by federal agents to the British expatriate searching a subway stop for an unattended child to replace the son he lost under mysterious circumstances, everyone on this skittish city block believes he's been done wrong. McClain masterfully evokes eight wounded psychologies, giving each character a unique physicality and a dead-on accent (with the exception of the Rastafarian, who sounds like he swallowed a Scotsman). As each scene segues into the next through a coincidental moment-in-passing between characters, McClain creates an intricate landscape in transition: all his characters are either heading somewhere or momentarily stranded, caught in a liminal moment between departure and arrival when they're most vulnerable to exposure.
What they expose speaks volumes about our national character: no one here is willing to examine his own complicity in his downfall. Put simply, everything bad is someone else's fault--a destructive illusion that's guided our foreign policy and sabotaged our attempts at welfare reform. Like McClain's Muslim who believes the government put AIDS in vending machines in black neighborhoods, we Americans make a habit of imagining ourselves besieged by evildoers, from Soviet dictators to inner-city unwed mothers. We like to imagine ourselves living in an Irwin Allen disaster film where unforeseeable destructive forces arise and in due time pass into irrelevance: Saddam Hussein and Hurricane Andrew are essentially interchangeable. Like survivors emerging from the capsized S.S. Poseidon into the sunlight and the waiting hands of the rescue team, we convince ourselves that we're the innocent victims of misfortune, ripe for deliverance.
But as playwright Lee Blessing points out, the opposite of innocence is not guilt. It's knowledge. And for McClain, as for Mamet, what's missing in our national psyche is self-knowledge. As McClain opined after the show, "There is no accountability in this country." But unlike his characters, McClain doesn't point fingers or lay blame. With great empathy he zeroes in on the humanity of his characters. They may be deeply flawed, often deluded, but they are not monsters. On the contrary they're all too human, and finally wondrous and delightful. For all its unsparing social commentary, Like It Is is very funny. We laugh at McClain's characters for the same reasons we laugh at Mamet's petty crooks and high-powered operators: because they reveal too much of what we already know to be true about human nature.
McClain reminds us that being human is an ordeal--but a necessary one if we're to develop a sense of personal or national accountability. By taking us far afield he brings us closer to ourselves, something fewer and fewer theater artists seem willing to do. If we're ever to return to a day when theater matters, we'll need a few hundred more artists with McClain's vision and courage. The words Mamet intended for neophyte actors in his introduction to Melissa Bruder's A Practical Handbook for the Actor could just as easily have been addressed to McClain: "It is this sense of truth, a simplicity, and feelings of wonder and reverence--all of which you possess--that will revitalize the Theater."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andy Kopsa.