Alive as Fuck: PIONEERS!#goforth at JACK

Photo by Kevin Frest

Photo by Kevin Frest

At the start of playwright/director William Burke’s PIONEERS!#goforth at JACK, we are seated. We are in little chairs. We see a huge net, hanging above us, watching us. JACK’s perimeter begins to rumble with the war chants of a fearless ensemble. Then there is that voice, Catherine Brookman’s voice, which has always sounded to me like it’s harnessing the metaphysical forces of a hundred sinners in some holy service in the center of America. From behind us, she propels the rumbling and the chanting onward.

With Brookman, the performers Nikki Calonge, Zoë Geltman, and Ugo Chukwu are summoning something. Is it the fury of a generation of worn-out children? Or just bodies in perpetual motion, reaching to grab something beating in the air, something with that blood red color Artaud is always referring to, that essence of life stuff. As they sing, they begin to stomp and bang. A transaction between audience and performers feels required to end this chant. Or a victory. We’re only five minutes into the play and I already find myself out of breath and feeling alive as fuck. This is Burke’s theater, a theater of pain, of life, of learning.

Feeling out of breath is normal at a Burke play. A few years back, while watching the frustratingly and relentlessly (in a good way) poignant the food was terrible at The Bushwick Starr, I had a similar sensation — in the first few minutes, Burke’s words and rhythm feel harmless. But soon thereafter, the language and its momentum reveals itself inside of you, filling your whole being up like war drums against your hollowed horizon, and you are out of breath because it just won’t stop and … you are feeling alive as fuck.

Back at JACK, I look up to discover actors climbing on an epic net. The net is epic because it spans the playing space and reaches up to the ceiling. As I crane my neck to see the performers climb it, I am struck by the realization that Burke has done the impossible. He has created a highly theatrical space out of bodies and danger and material and air. I am riveted, like the audience around me, as I watch Chukwu look out at us through the net and Geltman look over at Chukwu. Burke has created limitless opportunities for mining buffoonery, drama, danger, and aliveness via the performers, the net, the air, and this audience.

Now Geltman, with expert mastery of Burke language, delivers what could be considered to be a never ending sentence that touches upon all things but most importantly, some things, and also most importantly, all things. Everything matters in this monologue. Burke’s direction and his script tell us that he is not going to make a hierarchy out of his words or his many narratives. Everything Geltman says — even if she is barely audible, if it feels like a side note, if it sounds like a question — is significant.

Geltman is never out of breath, not really, because she has too much to tell us  including but not limited to recollections of a more authentic past and passed away world at which time and within which we were, or at least thought we were, in possession of a more authentic self. This authentic self was residing in some vastly more authentic location, a location whose true essence has, sadly, also vanished — like maybe the “90’s” or “California” or a “time where the life looked like a Malick film”. So maybe everything from the past feels better and everything before transplanting ourselves in NYC seemed purer or maybe not. As Geltman speaks, relentlessly (and I’m talking about a very satisfying kind of relentlessness), we agree that something we are familiar with but cannot name has been lost. It has. But we are not sad. Rather, along with Geltman we can indulge in and gain strength from the nostalgia for what came before our neighborhoods and favorite bars were gentrified, before our bodies and our spirits were Facebooked and Instagrammed into oblivion.

Burke is also pissed. PIONEERS!#goforth feels like a manifesto. We like it. We are pissed too because we moved to this city and we are trying to be seen and acknowledged by the “older people” who run the institutions and set the price for entry to MOMA and who don’t remember what it feels like to say, “this costs too much, the price is too high but fuck it I’m going to try anyway.”

To remain steadfastly in these neighborhoods of NYC, or east of these neighborhoods, or on bar stools, or at JACK, or at The Bushwick Starr, is to keep speaking and thus to keep saying, “my observations and questions and the moments I am seeing and remembering and writing matter” with a capital M-A-T-T-E-R.

At the height of Burke’s epic net narrative — net because it contains everything and it refuses to establish a hierarchy of ideas or words — we are faced with a seemingly insignificant sound, uttered casually by the wildly mesmerizing Nikki Calonge. Then it is uttered again. Then again. And again. And again. The sound becomes funny, then terrifying, then so sad, then so ridiculous, then so familiar, then so true, then so fucked up, then so boring, then so funny, then so true. As we watch Calonge investigate this sound, ingest and regurgitate it, sit in it, wait in it, wrinkle in it, we too feel ourselves transforming into something worth investigating. Our spirits, our brilliant observations, our nostalgias, our humdrum anxieties, our pain — all of it, as it turns out, is worth investigating.

So as we watch, we wonder if what the “older people” have, until now, considered insignificant in art (read: in theatre) might not be. We ask: What have we overlooked, of the things that matter about ourselves, as we attempted to get acknowledged in this gentrified neighborhood, this hungry, stuffed city? What part of our art, our observations, our humanity did we stamp out in pursuit of access?

Toward the top of the show, Geltman says, “Life is a job interview, full of masculine things to say and a need to make connections, make sure the older people notice you.” Here, we all laughed because Burke’s writing is so humble, sensitive, and honest. Also we laughed because, unfortunately, we know what he’s talking about.

By the end, the ensemble is chanting Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart”:

“your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.”

In the moments we have been taught to call insignificant, in the refusal to be quiet, in the nostalgia and celebration of what we lost, against a city that is saying “we don’t have room for you”, Burke’s manifesto-war-cry-net-narrative will have your heart beating, your breath racing, and your brain telling you, you matter.

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