PEOPLE I KNOW by Supergroup at Redeye Theatre
Even though I arrived uncharacteristically early for the show, my friends were running late. So when we all finally arrived, we had to ask the women next to us if they could shift over a seat to make space. They said they were a bit concerned about sightlines, but they decided it was all the same. The audience was, after all, seated in two expansive rows facing a shallow white wall running the whole length of Redeye’s stage. From the second row we mostly could see heads in front of us lining the otherwise-white panoramic view.
Before I continue, let me take a couple steps back, about 240 years to be exact, long before Supergroup decided to gather a fascinating ensemble of performers rich with dance, theatre, music, and life experience.
Imagine the imperial capital of Vienna circa 1776, which still found itself distant from the tugs of democratic revolution, at least for the time being. The emperor still reigned supreme and was presently embodied by the self-understood reformer Joseph II. The theatre was a space for high-society to be seen in their baroque best up in their balconies, in a theatre better suited to crowd watching than seeing the action onstage. [I actually wore my favorite scarf that night in Minneapolis for many of the same reasons—the theatre has obviously held onto some of its character over the centuries.]
But there was one seat that mattered most. At this time, the Hapsburg family had a private entrance to their balcony, connected directly to the royal palace. This balcony was smack-dab in the middle of the theatre and had the best view in the house. Every detail was planned with the emperor’s eye in mind: the layers of backdrops were assembled in a sort of 3D linear perspective to convene perfectly for his seat, not to mention that happy endings were forbidden by royal decree in order to keep the aristocracy happy and laughing.
Simultaneously, movers, shakers, and thinkers elsewhere in Europe were attempting to break with tradition with hopes of thinking the world forward, leaving behind benevolent despotism. The enlightenment would start to question the very institutions that the Austrian aristocracy enjoyed via their assertion that every man (term used knowingly—sexism was as alive then as now) could understand the world through studying and observation, not just those of a certain birth or with divine providence. The enlightenment esteemed the image of the scientist who examined the world through his microscope, discerning otherwise inaccessible knowledge. We look, we make observations, we draw conclusions. The enlightenment championed this as the process of knowing, like high school chemistry class all over. In the end, we should land on knowing.
Return to Minneapolis 2016. Supergroup’s performance began with a podium stage center, and the ensemble read through a passage of text offering a sort of parable—or was it an origin story—something about the eyelash of a whale. Each would pass the reading of the text like a torch. One would enter and share a sentence or two with their predecessor after which the first reader would exit.
The text finished as riddling as ever, but no sooner had Deborah Thayer begun moving through a score of punctuated gestures than the rest of the cast had slowly integrated itself into a roundabout of steady unison movement. The expanse of stage coupled with the audience’s close proximity limited our view of the whole scene. I panned my head to try to catch both Judith Howard and Derek Phillips as they were drawn back by an attitude in space. I missed something, multiple things. What was Deborah doing now? By the time the whole cast was integrated, it had the effect of watching a carousel of people filter past. Miriam Must cradled an imaginary organ in front of her liver, and Venus Demars was doing the same. Or had she moved a split-second later?
When the dancers pushed themselves against the white walls and began to open up the stage, it was a relief. Our craning, ping-ponging heads could rest for a minute, as the performers gathered around a table, each with a uniquely styled chair to read a script. It was a first reading of a new play. No, it was a meeting, come to order. The logic of the text was constantly shifting, but the attendees disagreed on most everything to comical effect. After a motion to introduce themselves failed multiple times, the people brought their chairs downstage and the white wall closed in once more. My section of the audience faced Judith Howard as she introduced herself. “Hello, my name is Judith. Hi, I’m Judith.” She repeated demurely. Everyone stood up and shifted one seat further. We were speed dating. The next performer took a seat. She, too, was Judith, as were all of the following Judiths. Around us, a flurry of other introductions of other people took place. Everyone was everyone.
A single performer eventually interrupted this shtick with a personal fact about what we once again assumed to be their real self. Debra spoke of her experience in medical school, regurgitating knowledge and leaving it for dance. Derek talked of a train ride through southern Germany ending in a delicious breakfast. Venus told of a desperate moment with her partner at a Prague train station. Judith had set a field of sugar cane ablaze. Miriam had played drunk a bit too well onstage and had been reprimanded for stealing focus. But soon the facts started to come in unison duos. Had Mary Moore Easter struggled to earn respect for dance at Carleton College or had it been Judith? After all, they both have connections there. We started to swim in the personal facts. Where was the truth? Was any of it true? Some or all, we assume. One by one, the performers clicked a button, activating a portable stereo system; analog tape recordings resonated from beneath our seats. The text was the same litany of life experiences, but the rhythms, subtle word choice, and the voices each different. One had a partner whose trans identity was denied by her family after she had committed suicide—I knew that was Venus’ partner from the earlier story. But someone had ridden horses with Meredith Monk. I laughed, dying to know who, doomed never to find out. All the while, the ensemble danced a score of collected gestures. Were they also quoting each other’s bodies alongside their life stories?
The walls broke open again, our limited perspective was once again relieved, but the performers gathered another odd collection, this time of objects. Deborah and Mary wrapped themselves in bubble wrap, and Venus placed a hot water bottle on the stomach of a large plastic light-up penguin. They settled in their seats wrapped in odd raiment and put on headphones to repeat the mantra of an iPad recording. Something about repetition and an action becoming more natural. When they finished, they re-convened their meeting from earlier on the floor at the front of the stage. The eyelash was invoked once more. Is it a lost savior? A last hope for humanity? An odd bit of humor? All of the above. Their discussion shifted into a call and response song led by Mary Moore Easter’s clear cool voice. The content escapes me, but the melody was laden with perseverance and hope but also sorrow and exhaustion. The lights faded.
I sat wanting to know more about these people that Supergroup knows. They are all heavyweights in their own right, yet so human in their carriage. The material had been mundane, absurd, and serious. The piece had brought up the hardships trans people have faced (and still do), along with the decisions that black men and women make to avoid or meet conflict fueled by white supremacy. There was so much to know, and we had only been there to catch a snippet of it.
PEOPLE I KNOW is about many things, and I won’t claim to know exactly what. But PEOPLE I KNOW is definitely about knowing and definitely about people. It recalls the absurdity of ever claiming to know an entire person with all of their life experiences. It pokes at our inability to ever know anything entirely. It allows us to live the process of learning about others, while reminding us that we have only been made privy to a fraction of their truth. The piece was thoroughly and wonderfully post-modern, which brings me back to my odd, seemingly arbitrary, historical context. Supergroup refused to let us play the role of emperor that night; we would never see or hear it all. Nor did we get to feel success as the all powerful scientist, landing on a singular conclusion. They showed us the limits of our microscope, let us feel the ways that our lens—our ears, eyes, bodies—has its limits.
I hate to be one who names something as timely or relevant when we are all feeling tossed around by national and world events. But this performance asks the questions I have been yearning for. What does it mean that we are dependent upon one another to compose the truth together? Will I be able to legitimize what someone else experienced, even if I didn’t see it, feel it, or hear it? My body can only know so much. I want to take a deep breath and listen, knowing that my answers are only part of this story that keeps moving forward.