FEEL THE PAINE: ‘Thomas Paine in Violence’ at HERE Arts

Photo by Benjamin Heller

The spirit of Thomas Paine is a woman and she has something to say. Played by legendary vocalist Joan La Barbara, Paine is broadcasting her sermons of economic justice from the afterlife in Paul Pinto’s ‘electronic psychedelic opera-sermon’ Thomas Paine in Violence, directed by Rick Burkhardt and currently running at HERE Arts in association with thingNY through November 18th (tickets $25).

For the duration of the performance, La Barbara is seated six feet above the stage—on a different plane than the rest of us. She projects both stateliness and vulnerability in equal measure. La Barbara’s cadence is often slow, her voice an ephemeral spirit, swirling in and out of clarity but always commanding the ear’s attention. It’s a haunting performance, one that causes us to lean in and demands attention be paid.

Her sermon is far from proselytizing; it comes from a place deep inside of Paine. The text of Violence is primarily culled (or inspired) from Paine’s 1797 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, an excerpt of which is included in the program. In it, Paine advocates for an economic sea change centered on the idea of a guaranteed inheritance. According to Paine, the process of cultivating civilization removed people from the ‘natural state’ of the world and created both affluence and poverty. To Paine, the inheritance, to be collected when a person turns 21, is not charity, but justice served for taking the ‘natural state’ away from individuals and payment for ‘civilizing’ the world. These and other economic concerns consumed Paine during the latter stages of his life. In Agrarian Justice, his final published pamphlet, while advocating the inception of a guaranteed national income, Paine writes:

‘The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it. The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meets and offends the eye like dead bodies and living bodies chained together.’

None of this is to suggest that Thomas Paine in Violence is didactic or even particularly heady fare. Pinto and Burkhardt do right by never taking the material too seriously or talking down to their audience and there is an enormous amount of fun to be had during the show’s 75 minutes. The ‘Manchorus’ featuring Andrew Mayer, Christian Luu, Eddie Rodriguez Jr., and Paul Pinto deliver performances of frenetic, controlled chaos. The quartet is feverish, shifting seamlessly between chaos and order. In a sense, they represent the confusion at the heart of an ordered, civilized society. While the spirit of Thomas Paine remains centered, the Manchorus spins wildly out of control – dispersing, translating, perverting, transmuting, contextualizing Paine’s words with deliberately mixed results.

There are several moments during Thomas Paine in Violence when a Paine-penned aphorism is repeated by the Manchorus dozens of times on end. It makes sense, pleas for economic justice require near constant repetition because they are so easily cast aside in favor of sexier and more easily digestible causes. But the Manchorus does more than simply regurgitate Paine’s words ad infinitum. Each repetition gains weight, then dissipates, then reappears; slowly, over the course of several repetitions and with the subtlest of verbal dexterity, the text is morphed into something entirely new and made all the more immediate and profound. What starts out seeming like an amusing vocal exercise slowly becomes a heartbreaking and arresting modern translation of Paine’s revolutionary words.

By setting the opera in the afterlife of Paine, Pinto emphasizes the universality of Paine’s words—they are not tied to a singular time or place, their truth exists beyond the historical and economic moment in which they were written. The problem of economic inequality has been exacerbated exponentially since Paine penned Agrarian Justice and, despite recent steps forward in public awareness, there is little to suggest that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest among us won’t continue to widen.

The weariness lurking underneath La Barbara’s voice suggest the spirit of Thomas Paine has been broadcasting her sermons all these centuries, and will continue, in perpetuity, until the promise of true economic justice is realized. The question of ‘why is Thomas Paine broadcasting from the afterlife?’ is never asked during Thomas Paine in Violence because the answer seems so blatantly obvious: there is still work to be done.

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