William Burke and the Never Ending Celebration of Failure

Photo courtesy of The Brick

I have said before (maybe only in casual conversation) that William Burke’s writing frequently deals with the oft fetishized (at least in the arts) idea of failure. But failure is generally a concept that is treated as a subject, either as the topic of a panel discussion or think piece on Howlround. Burke’s writing intentionally makes failure the process and product of every play. Further, the failure Burke examines comes from overuse, dereliction, or poor design, not the result of freewheeling adventure or calculated risk-taking. Is there a better analogue for the United States of America today, which through dereliction and poor design has created a society of vast inequality, cruelty, and abuse? Burke has made this analogy clear by using the fabric of the American flag and its overbearing symbolism the content of Untitled American Flag Craft Project (currently being performed at the Brick through December 16, tickets $20). Over a dozen performers chew through some dense, associative text while cutting up and reassembling American flags into things new.

Upon walking into the Brick, it’s clear that the dismantling began long before the first performance. William Burke (writer/director), Ann Marie Dorr, Brynn Herdrich, Emily Moler (all three directors each handling a certain number of performers), Megan Lang (lights), and Carolyn Mraz (set) have dismantled the Brick. I had never seen the space without its exceedingly large black risers that separate the entryway from the stage. It’s much larger and skinnier than I had previously imagined. I found beyond the curtains that shroud the stage something I’ve come to expect from a Burke production: spaced equally along the right side of the space are three horizontal cork board tables suspended from pulleys by white ropes. Burke loves dangling things. At the far end of the stage is a display case filled with scraps of American flags. On the wall next to the piano is one especially well-lit fire extinguisher. Was this lighting choice foreshadowing? Lang has a knack for demonstrative lighting, but maybe this was just a case of whimsy. And with an abrupt dimming of the lights (Sit Down commands Lang), I cracked open my Genesee Cream Ale (oh glorious wonder of Rochester) to watch the madness unfold.

Here’s the fundamental idea behind Untitled American Flag Craft Project: each performer deconstructs and makes something new out of an American flag using scissors, tape, thumb tacks, and other crafting tools on those suspended cork boards. While doing this, they recite monologues all of which end with a litany of curses for everything from egg timers to disgraced quarterback and perpetual awful beard grower Jay Cutler (Burke is a renowned Denver Broncos fan). The rest of the monologue is a description of some beverage that is more than the sum of its parts. The description of the beverage is obviously the work of the performers, perhaps with some subtle Burke hints and prods. Burke is here evoking another fundamental part of American political identity, this time the words on the Great Seal of the United States, E pluribus unum, or “Out of many, one.” It was once the de facto motto of the United states and continues to be a euphemism to describe how one United States was formed from the 13 original colonies. It has morphed to refer to the melting pot that is America, and here, it is represented in the making of one beverage with a mélange of ingredients. The performers represent another instance of one thing coming from many. Perhaps this will become apparent when all of the performers take the stage one after another during the marathon performance on December 16th.

The action of performers in Burke’s plays are often displays of failure, or they are at least so complicated by set pieces and intricacy of movement that performers can’t help but fail. In American Flag, we hear about these societal failures, but we also see things break, such as when Daaimah Mubashshir continually forgets to set her egg timer; when she does, it goes off too early or not at all. It was a wonderful moment of silent movie-like success through failure: Mubashshir seamlessly incorporates the failure of the egg timer into her monologue spinning a technical difficulty into brilliant theater. This is the dramaturgy of failure I alluded to at the beginning. It doesn’t risk failing by going out on some hitherto untested theatrical limb. It creates failure out of words and actions. It is an absurdly cathartic experience to witness a celebration of the fact and act of failure instead of just a discussion on its phenomenological benefits. For this reason, American Flag Project is a very well-timed piece because we are daily confronted by the results of our individual, institutional, and societal failures. The performers I saw (I saw only 7 of the much larger cast) each dealt with this greater failure in individual ways. Most poignant for me was Chris Cancel’s creation of a makeshift Puerto Rican flag. His snipped-up pieces were not enough, though, because the American flag does not have all the necessary parts to make a Puerto Rican flag. Cancel smuggles in a triangular piece of blue tarp and tapes this and one star from the American flag to a rectangle of red and white stripes. His list of fuck yous is substantially different from the other performances I saw; his were almost exclusively reserved as a fuck you to the utter failure of the government and people of the United States in their duties to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

We are confronted daily with the fruits of our societal labor or lack thereof, and those failures come forever cloaked in the Red, White, and Blue. This project, nonetheless, strives to create something new while naming and deconstructing the failures of our society, from inequality to racism, from sexism to institutional oppression. Each performer, by the end, has created something new and unique from their flags. As a final act, they hoist their work spaces up into the air via the pulley system for all to see, after which, each one says “pretty good.” Some of them are messy. Some are representational. Some seem to have been improvised in the moment. No matter the finished product, each flag is then taken over to a large glass case at the far end of the space and placed inside the honorable receptacle. Untitled American Flag Craft Project is some powerful political theater, performed by impeccably individual performers, that stares into the depths of your inevitable political soul but doesn’t lecture you about wrong or right. I think it’s the unflinching embrace of failure and its inevitability that makes this possible.

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