Having burst out into a joyous refrain of “Die when you die,” the ensemble suddenly froze, and one performer stepped forward, announcing matter-of-factly, “America is having a nervous breakdown.”
The line from Allen Ginsberg’s “Independence Day Manifesto” perfectly summarized “I Am America,” a project by the Italian theater company known as the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, which combined Ginsberg’s poetry with folk songs from the American South in a provocative hourlong performance at the Whitney Humanities Center.
Much of the show’s impact was derived from its sense of intimacy, one an American ensemble would never have been able to achieve. Even from the doors’ opening, performers created an atmosphere of confidentiality, ushering the 30 or so audience members by the arm to specific seats, speaking with them in hushed voices. Something about the foreign accents and mannerisms allowed one to accept that social standards were different, to be willing to experience something unfamiliar that went beyond what we would normally consider the bounds of privacy.
The show’s loose premise was that of hopeful foreigners immigrating to America only to become, as Ginsberg was, disillusioned with capitalism and societal rules, and subsequently to lose their minds. The dialogue consisted of fragments of Ginsberg’s poetry, often recited over the plucking of an acoustic guitar or the ensemble’s singing. Wild dancing accompanied some of the musical numbers, calling to mind an exorcism.
The performance seemed like a study in insanity, focused on building a precarious tension between celebration and lamentation.
The primary purpose of the first half of the show seemed to be to disorient the audience. A woman’s cawing and convulsing like a bird transitioned into a young man’s shaking his torn-off shirt between his teeth in ecstasy, followed by a woman in a feathery black Afro wig screeching and spinning, raising a lantern over her head and reciting the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
About half an hour into the show, the absurdity suddenly made sense. In a scene around a simulated campfire, the only American in the troupe began dancing and chanting to the clapping and drumming of the other performers encircling him, as a woman holding a twisted American flag behind her back like butterfly wings danced on the crates behind him. The accelerating chant captured the euphoria of Ginsberg’s poetry: it was at once violent, celebratory, haunting and unrestrained.
The euphoria exploded as the show devolved into a simulated rock concert, in which all the cast members were singing, dancing or playing the guitar before the backdrop of an undulating American flag. The scene ended abruptly when a young man said, “Everybody’s serious but me,” as if to say, “Yes, this is a parody, but so is everything.”
In the most powerful moment of the performance, the hyperactivity eased up, and the same young actor, shirtless again, soliloquized beneath dim red lights in a sort of confessional. His speech put the audience into a trance, evoking the youth, drugs, sex and insanity that Ginsberg celebrated in one tender monologue over a romantic guitar melody.
This one vulnerable moment following all the chaos made the performance function much like Ginsberg’s poetry, which, beneath its loud and abrasive surface, articulates fundamental personal truths.