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Fences, Workers’ Theatre, & the CPT(s)

By Mark Nowak

One of the unadulterated joys of living in the Twin Cities is the presence of the Penumbra Theater just a few blocks down the road from my house. Founded in 1976 by director Lou Bellamy, Penumbra has embarked on a five year project to stage each play in August Wilson’s 20th century magnum opus—which is, as many of you may know, a bringing home of the native Pittsburgh playwright, who lived in St. Paul from 1978 to 1990 and wrote a good portion of his 10-play cycle here. And as Chuck Smith, resident director at the Goodman Theater, recently said, “If you want to see an August Wilson play done right you’ve got to go to Penumbra. Those guys know him, they know how to speak that language, because they developed it with him.”
Last night while I was at the Bellamy/Penumbra preview of Wilson’s Fences—which runs through late September if you happen to be anywhere near St. Paul—and again this morning while I was rereading sections of the play and thinking about Chuck Smith’s statement, I latched onto the concepts of reciprocities, development, and the dialogism of collective action that have propelled me in the past decade to experiments in articulating poetry to documentary/workers’ theater within transnational social movements.

[And if you’re interested in reading more, I’d suggest some the following: Attilio Favorini’s Voicings: Ten Plays from the Documentary Theater, Collete Hyman’s Staging Strikes: Workers Theatre and the American Labor Movement, Gilbert Doho’s People Theater and Grassroots Empowerment in Cameroon, Alan Filewod’s Collective Encounters: Documentary Theatre in English Canada, Kirk Fuoss’ Striking Performances: Performing Strikes…]
What would it mean for the actual nuts and bolts our “poetry” to be developed with others?; to have not so much an audience or readers but collaborators (I like the connotations of compañeros/co-conspirators better) that “know how to speak our language”?; to create “poems” (or some sub- or trans-genre works that are inclusive of the poem in addition to other discourses/disciplines) that are impossible without the participation of others?; to create poetic works, as Bourdieu writes in Firing Back, that “invent a new relationship between researchers [poets?] and social movements,” that refuse to “mistake revolutions in the order of words or texts for revolutions in the order of things…”?
The history of my verse play “Capitalization,” for example, goes like this. Assembled (or mashed up) in 2003, it was first published by a small chaplet series here in the Twin Cities. That same year, it won a project development grant from a Chicago theater, which premiered it on President’s Day (2004). Shortly thereafter, students at a Chicago high school wrote and performed their own versions of “Capitalization.” In 2005, striking airline mechanics and cleaners from Northwest Airlines (AMFA Local 33) asked to have an excerpt of the verse play—on McCarthyism, Reagan’s firing of striking PATCO workers, and English grammar—staged at one of their rallies. The next year, it ran at the Cleveland Public Theater as part of a series leading up to the November elections, with town hall meetings after each performance which linked the central issues of each play to central issues in the election cycle (and, btw, for anyone in and around Cleveland this fall, the CPT’s production of Michael Tisdale’s “Goldstar, Ohio,” which tells the stories of twenty-two Marines from the Brook Park, Ohio based 325 Battalion who lost their lives in Anbar Province, Iraq, should be another important addition to the documentary/testimony tradition).
Left-labor and social movement verse theater received one of its first poetry-world awards when Marjorie Welish selected Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (CPT) as winner of the National Poetry Series (2007). Fence Books will publish Toscano’s much-anticipated volume this fall. A researcher and labor educator on environmental and safety issues at the Labor Institute in Manhattan, is it that surprising that Toscano’s recent work intricately addresses the laboring body in the spaces (environments, geographies) where language intends to but doesn’t always cohere—where it slips, breathes in something it wasn’t supposed to, falls and gets back up and attempts to coalesce again? CPT opens with “Truax Inimical” (in three parts), “a trans-modern masque for four voices.” Here’s a snippet from the opening pages, which of course we have to imagine simultaneously penned-to-paper and polyvocally-performed:
(1) Scrolling
(4) Pointing
(2) Clicking
(3) Selecting
(1) A refurbished laptop in a crate in the Indian Ocean
(2) A wave-swell five stories high approaching
(3) A decision to bare leeward 45 degrees
(4) A good decision, in the end, MS Word working well enough on 500 MHz / 64MB
Ram, 120 U.S. dollars + no charge (ground-rate) shipping
(2) Your weapon of choice…U.S. dollars?
(3) Avec me
(1) Avec ministerial me
(4) Avec ministerial beaucoup flappable me
(3) Bold conception that of Marti’s—why not refurbish it?
(1) Bold conception that of DuBois’—why not ship it?
(4) Bold conception that of Sub-Commandante’s—why not wholesale it?
(2) Bold conception that of Chavez—why not retail it?
(4) We’ve got two pots brewing in the back…
(3) One of them’s good for you…
(2) One of them’s not…
(1) We’ll decide which one you get…
Toscano’s CPT synchs and sings the body glocal; it places actual individuals into scripted overlays of linguistic slippage, where “(4) We once revered flat surfaces/(1) ¡No mas!” Globalization’s (and moreso, anti-globalization’s) politics, multi-lingualisms, and tongue-in-cheek (are they really?) questions appear throughout:
(3) Bechtel—in Bolivia, tried (but failed) to make collecting rainwater illegal
(4) Life is bluster on the move—for sure
(2) ¡Movimiento a la construcción de bombas poeticas efectivas para explotar la dirección general de Bechtel!
(1) Where do I sign up for a Spanish class?
Toscano’s new work continually makes us ask who’s speaking, to whom, in what intonation, and for what end(s); it highlights the low-lights of the neoliberal agenda in turns sarcastic, sacrosanct, and searing. In an era where the dialectic often seems to be represented by Myspace vs. Facebook social networking, CPT plays the joker in “Zero Friends (ZF) card deck”:
Zero Friends quits Zero Friends steering committee, again.

Zero Friends on a surgery table remembering a pretty darn good “us-v.s.-them” poem, again.
Poetics trialogues, radio plays, preludes, minimally staged dialogues, trans-modern masques and anti-masques… Toscano creates genres like a cow creates cheese: imbibing, processing, dispelling, re-processing, borrowing, mixing, amalgamating, aging… the latter in constant collaboration with and in critique of the creative industries’ version of Con-Agra, i.e., “the Poetry world” (with a Capital “P”). Which is, of course, already there in Brecht’s famous re-writing of that most famous dairy-related phrase, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Such are the fences in the world today—too many of them in too many geographies and keeping too many locked in and too many locked out. The Penumbra, workers’ theater, and the CPT address, in various ways and using various methodologies, the fences to be mended, the fences to be obliterated, the fences never-to-be conceived, and the fences to be bombed (Bansky-style). As a worker of the word amongst fellow workers of the world, these developments give me hope for what may yet rise, rise up.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 by Mark Nowak.