Minor Threats: Chris Thorpe & Rachel Chavkin’s Confirmation at The Invisible Dog, COIL Festival 2016

Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

I haven’t thrown a dildo in the mailbox for Oregon, but I’ve belatedly followed the white militia’s armed occupation of a wildlife refuge and the ensuing conversations around who is labeled a terrorist, and how race and gender – in both sly and slap-you-in-the-face ways – shapes the narrative and physical treatment of these men. One person’s terrorist is another’s patriot. Confirmation bias – the subject of Thorpe & Chavkin’s self-conscious exploration of the extremist in us all – asserts that our deeply held beliefs and self-concepts influence, and grossly limit, how we perceive the world. Confirmation masterfully reveals one man’s mission to confront his absolute other and what can happen when we willingly go into a space that does not conform to our own tenuous self image.

If writer and performer Chris Thorpe lectured about dehydrating fruit for ninety minutes, I’d listen up. He’s (as he says so himself) charming, intelligent, and fun to talk to. We surround him, a single boxer in a ring fighting an invisible opponent, and he shares his desire to engage in an “honorable dialogue” with someone who holds completely opposing views – in this case, “Glen” a self-described Nazi he finds on the internet. The performance, resulting from this 8-month conversation and academic research, falls somewhere between a Spalding Gray lecture and Anna Deavere Smith’s interview-based embodiments of others. And, as the sacramental title suggests, we witness a ritual that threatens to annihilate, or promises to transform him.

Thorpe begins with an interactive experiment, throwing three printed numbers on the floor and asking us to come up with a rule governing the relation between those numbers and then another set that adheres to our rule. He gamely awards audience members with lollipops for sharing their rules, sequences, and demonstrating the power of seeing things that conform to our previous experience. Evolutionarily, Thorpe teaches us, this obsolete survival trait of seeking patterns that support what we already know may have served a communal function. But, now it makes us feel “righter than we actually are” and more isolated. Thorpe then resuscitates (by making an audience member recollect) Donald Rumsfeld’s famous evasive koan regarding evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction on “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” Thorpe praises Rumsfeld’s “profound” statement on the power of unconscious unknowns, as well as his own ability to overcome his liberal lens and see the brilliance in a political adversary.

The blare of Minor Threat’s punk classic “Guilty of Being White” disrupts the affable lecture vibe as Thorpe, now frantic professor, tosses printed lyrics into audience hands. The song’s controversial history as both racist and anti-racist, unhinged from absolutes, prepares us for his encounters with “Glen.” At times, Thorpe speaks as “Glen” or offers the audience scraps of paper with Glen-isms to read. We – New York City experimental theater going super-liberals – listen and give voice to hateful expressions of racial superiority along with reasoned valuations of local labor practices and humanizing insights about losing a spouse, constructing “an increasingly nuanced and complicated racist.” But Thorpe acknowledges that this, ‘we’re all human after all and have more in common than we could ever imagine, blah blah blah’ can’t be the endpoint. But then, what is?

The empathic possibilities toward his Hitler with a heart of gold are blown apart when he glimpses the Holocaust denial pamphlet “Did Six Million Really Die” over tea and biscuits. Because Thorpe is fully committed to the “feeling” of another’s eyes, he reads, absorbs, and immerses himself in anti-Semitic theory until it pierces the core of his identity: “I am losing myself talking to you.” Ultimately, his attempt to truly hear-out “Glen” threatens to eviscerate, rather than widen his sense of the world.

Traveling from 0 to Auschwitz, I think, bypassed some of the more subtle, corrosive and systemic effects of unconscious bias. Thorpe ends with the fantasy of gently swapping eyeballs with “Glen,” finally feeling another’s perspective while maintaining one’s own mind. I stumbled on the absolute distinction he made between mind and eye, and his return to empathy as an answer. I recalled Deavere Smith’s juxtaposed embodiments of Al Sharpton, a Rabbi, and the Black father of the child whose accidental death launched the 1990s riots in Crown Heights. In works like Fires in the Mirror Smith brings voices together onto the stage of her body, ultimately creating an imagined space where they can temporarily reside and be heard together. She braids conflicting voices into the shared world of the artistic piece. Thorpe, instead, leaves us questioning the efficacy of his ritual, it’s unclear who or how much either one of them moved toward the other, or, he laments, if at all. And while his pursuit of a dialogue with “Glen” is laudable – principled, without becoming preachy and extraordinarily rendered in an unflagging performance – I was left wondering, what does this amount to?

The next morning, mulling over the show with the liberal white noise of NPR on (of course) in the background, I heard Shankar Vedantam, science correspondent and author of book and now podcast The Hidden Brain on the power of unconscious biases. I checked out his website and ended up listening to a talk in which he recounts the surprising discovery of his own entrenched race and gender-based biases revealed by repeat psychological tests. The real problem with bias, Vedantam insists, is in the cumulative effects that turn problematic and private thoughts into real behaviors: the doctor who’s more likely to prescribe a medication to white patients or the job recruiter who inadvertently ditches the black-sounding applicant names. In his call for closer recognition of the broader cultural effects of unconscious bias, Vedantam cites Mahatma Gandhi: “The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.”

In Confirmation, the first in a trilogy, Thorpe is surely doing just that: candidly revealing his own devils, imploring us all to keep at the impossible task of “trying to taste [our] own tongues.”

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