“Synecdoche, New York” is an intriguing, thought-provoking drama about_______________________________________. (fill in the blank)

I’m formulating my ideas and processing my feelings about this work, and have chosen to do so before I research any reviews or analysis so that I can keep my thoughts as pure as possible. But artist and cultural activist Erykah Badu’s lyrics come to mind, “What good do your words do, if they can’t understand you?” Can art be too abstract for its own good?

This film reminded me of a well thought out play. It’s no secret that plays are generally thought to have more depth than movies. I believe this is because (among many things*) the generally short time span plays encompass as opposed to films, and therefore the audience in invited to experience the entire world of the piece infinitely more than with cinema. However, this film spans nearly 2 decades (I think). I still felt like I was watching Angles in America by Tony Kushner or perhaps In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks. That delightful heavy feeling you experience with a show like that, was felt while watching this film. I was so impressed.

Generally, plays tend to lean towards the abstract more than films. Synecdoche, New York was definitely abstract. In this work we follow a theatre director named Caden though several romantic and familial relationships as he attempts to understand himself, a goal he never achieves (or perhaps only slightly achieves by having his life completely manipulated by a theatre director playing himself). He is awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Award”) and plans to create a huge production to tout his skills. He sets his pseudo-performance art style play in a warehouse and has a cast as large as the community of people he surrounds himself with. Let’s just say its a MASSIVE production. The play is never fully mounted (I think).

It’s not an easy film to describe. I recommend everyone see this thought-provoking film. What did I take away? A reinforced idea that life is obscure, and the relationships within are based on an innumerable amount of absurd details.  That happen to be fascinating because of what they may suggest about one another. (Why where the psychiatrist’s shoes so damaging to her feet and why did she ignore it? Why was Hazel’s house always on fire?) I also remember that life is not about the individual. Keeping this in mind should put ego, paranoia, anxiety, and selfishness in perspective.

It seemed that Caden (was he ever really sick? and was there anything significant about Olive’s green poop at the film’s start?) was unable to overcome the stress with directing his own life, though he was astute in directing actors. Eventually, an actor, playing Caden as a theatre director had to direct him in his everyday life until his death. Or had he become just another actor in the play?

This film will leave you with plenty of questions.

Footnote:
* films make more money and have the luxury of being as trivial as they want because they have a larger audience

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Black Theater: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards is not a book that focuses on directing theater. Its focus is not even directing “Black Theater.” Rather, it is a study of African-American theater and how it is produced today. However, by examining African-American theater practices, traditions and history, the book highlights key points that directors should not forget. Any director that takes on the task of bringing Black drama to life on stage must acknowledge the need for call and response, repetition and ritual, and finding the relevance of African traditions in theater.
A large part of African-American culture and performance history is the usage of call and response. In call and response the performers and the audience share in the experience as participants in a time-honored ritual. This technique can be observed throughout the history and present day activities of African-American people, from church and religious gatherings to all different forms and variations of music. Call and response is a large part of blues, gospel, Negro spirituals, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and hiphop. Musical selections like Stevie Wonder’s rhythm and blues hit “Fingertips”, Ray Charles’ blues anthem “It’s Alright”, and Donny Hathaway’s gospel ballad “I Love the Lord” welcome, demand, and even require audience participation. Hiphop’s Emcee, popularly referred to as a “rapper”, is derived from the initials M.C. which stand for Master/Mistress of Ceremonies. At social gatherings where hiphop was present, M.C.’s began to host such events with crowd participation routines, which later grew into full-scale verses of musical spoken word. The writers within this book insists that these traditions in African-American storytelling are also found at the core of Black theater.
It is important for a director of Black theater to understand the important role of call and response and that proper arrangements are made to accommodate it. Black audiences will respond to a moving and compelling story and the way it is presented, with both verbal and non-verbal communication such as claps and stomps. It is important that they not be discouraged by this or bound to the rules of traditional “western theater”. In Paul Carter Harrison’s essay Forms and Transformation, he asserts that Black Theatrical tradition dates back to a slave ritual know as “The Ring Shout”; in this event Africans in the Americas shared their stories while witnessing the stories of others in a circle with dance and audible praise. This tradition is similar to religious testimonies and hiphop ciphers, where the audience and performers are peers sharing experiences. The essay explains that this builds an unbreakable kinship between the performers and the audience, allowing for a give and take of energy and security between the two parties. A writer from the Negro Ensemble Company states, “We never needed to look in the papers to find out whether or not we had a hit, we could tell by the way the audience responded” (pg.325).
Repetition and ritual are focal points, often mentioned throughout the book. A continuous pattern of actions and words are the building blocks of Black performances. In other words, rhythm is a needed storytelling tool when dealing with the African Diaspora. This is also reflected in music and religious ceremonies. Paul Carter Harrison says that rituals are spiritual and that spirituality is a cornerstone of the Black drama. “Without the benefit of a forceful, spiritually expressive character, the dramatization of black experience becomes frozen in sociological analysis” (pg.323). The contributors argue that Black theater is rooted in ritual not realism.
They proclaim that the overtly spiritual rituals found in plays like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow’s Enuf, are what causes the audience to respond. It is not a simple portrayal of events, but a dramatized, sermon-like depiction of true life experiences, that draws the audience into the story. “It is widely accepted that, owing to the incantory power of the preacher to rouse emanations of the spirit, few leave the black church ritual the way they entered. At work here is not merely representation of the Gospel…; it is the mimetic figuration of myths conjured with a language that signifies the conjunction of ethos and cosmos, a ritual reenactment of earthly issues” (pg.326).
“Transformation requires a procreative process whereby the retrieval of the old is transmuted into concrete image or idea in the new experience. Thus in addition to rhythm, one of the important performance devices found in African Diaspora cultures is repetition…”(pg. 327 Snead:50-57). The usage of repetitious action and speech is vital to the communication of Black theater. So it is important that even if there isn’t repetition in the text, repeated words or phrases, that characters performing African-American stories exercise repetition in the way that they speak or in their actions. A character rhythm must be created, actors must conjure up the ideas expressed throughout the piece. It is important that the performance follow a ritualistic pattern of rhythm and repetition.
Finally, it is important that directors of Black theater understand the importance of the history of African traditions in theater. This is important for contextualizing your work, as well as breaking new ground as an artist and storyteller. In her essay The Sense of Self in Ritualizing New Performance Spaces for Survival, contributing writer Beverly J. Robinson describes briefly the history of African drama in the Americas. According to the text, dances like “The Limbo” were formed during the Middle Passage to “keep Africans as physically presentable as possible”. She also contends that Negro spirituals and later songs developed on the “chain gangs” by African-American prisoners were games and codes, that not only aided the escape and revolt of Africans, but kept them safe from harm during their demeaning tasks. Mrs. Bessie Jones, granddaughter of slaves, recounts, “the older men would teach the younger ones how to sing certain songs to keep the field boss at bay. Because if you get too still the captain will think you might be doing something wrong.” “If you want to please your captain/Sink em’ low boys, raise em’ high,” went one slave song. “Sink the shovel low in the dirt to get a shovel full, and then throw it up high. A light shovel always meant a whipping or punishment” (Robinson 334). We can gather from this that the traditional usage for Black drama and performance are practical at their core. For example, certain games, codes, and dances developed by slaves are still used as teaching tools for children today.
“Two ritual elements universally common to theater are dance/movement and storytelling/oral tradition” (Robinson 332). It is clear that African-American movement and storytelling techniques are different in style and culture than traditional western ones, so directors of Black theater would need to acquaint themselves with African-American styles of dance and oral tradition in order to successfully direct Black drama. It is also necessary that we take into account the context of each performance tradition for Black Americans. These dances, words, and other forms of expression are often created as defense mechanisms in hostile environments and tools for everyday survival. It is important that we not minimize or forget that history when addressing each performance method.
African-American theater must not be an imitation of mainstream white theater that is most common. Rather it is something wholly different and should be directed as such. It should use the methods of call and response to engage its audience in fellowship and camaraderie. “Stanislavsky’s ‘magic if’ treats ‘if’ as a word that can transform our thoughts… This particular doctrine becomes destructive for many African Americans, whom ‘if’ can make very angry. ‘If there had not been slavery,’ ‘If I were white,’ ‘If there were no racism,’ ‘If I could get a job’ …” (pg.353). It is clear that our methods must be different. Black theater should be based in ritual and repetition so as to serve the play and drive home the spiritual core of the story. The director should utilize the history that it is built on as a blueprint for the future or as possible rules to strategically break while setting a new standard and covering new ground. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre of Harlem said, “My vision of theater is one rooted in the heart, not the mind. I want to add another dimension to theater-the dimension of human spirit, so that people will get to experience who they are when they come to the theater…”(pg.352).