My name is not John, but it may as well be: on Danger Signals by Built for Collapse

Photo by Charlie Dennis

Danger Signals is an incredibly dense performance. It is a gift that was perhaps spawned from the personal history of director Sanaz Ghajar (and what a deft directorial touch she has!). The text, by Nina Segal, is packed with allusions and historical references. It has three distinct narrative threads: a woman giving a lecture on the brain in NYC in the present day, a chimpanzee explicating the events of the Second International Neurological Conference in London in 1935, and Sir John Franklin explaining his efforts to save his ice-bound expedition in the Canadian Arctic in 1847. But there are several more Johns. Well, seemingly infinite Johns, all apparently doctors, and each portrayed with mustachioed certitude by Robert M. Johanson. And the men keep coming, sticking their thoughts and bodies in places where they have no reason to be. John Fulton, the man who pioneered the lobotomy and presented his findings at the Second International Neurological Conference, seems to always be lurking right around the corner with his large eyes and close-cropped hair. These first lobotomies were performed on two chimpanzees, Becky and Lucy, the latter of whom is played with unnerving precision by Eva Jaunzemis. John Fulton and his experiments on Becky and Lucy are among the subjects the lecturer is supposed to be speaking on. She is now late because she is contemplating a dilemma. All of this is the content of the remarkable opening monologue delivered by the never-not-inspiring Jess Almasy. The lecturer does not want to be theatrical nor to entertain, but is caught up in a “dilemma”: how do you talk about a thing when you are currently inside of that thing? I.e., how do you talk about brain dysfunction when what you have is a dysfunctional brain?

The ice that has trapped John Franklin’s ship is the clearest metaphor for the state of the lecturer’s mind as she prepares for her lecture. She seems always trapped on a precipice of precarity. In the first moments of the play she moves while seated in a chair, stretching her limbs to their most vulnerable extremes and then stabbing herself in the gut before turning her chair precariously on one leg and repeating the violence of her dance. She is joined by Lucy, the chimp, who stands and mimics the lecturer’s movements. The lecturer is, as the ship in ice, “trapped and moving, at the very same time.” Lucy also is put in precarious positions, though she seems far more comfortable in them. At one point, she balances atop a ladder. Another, she perches on a railing, but with enough confidence to hurl a banana peel at one of the white doctors.

But the many men? Oh no. They are always sure of themselves. When John Franklin is faced with the inevitable death of his entire crew, he makes it very clear that no one is to use the term “ice prisoner,” because it is bad for morale. When the lecturer is taken over by the other narratives swirling in her mind, a man is there, a doctor, named John (“of course your name is John”), assuring her that he is there to help her. When the lecturer frees herself from the temporary hallucination of being Becky, the other chimpanzee lobotomized with Lucy, the man, now Rob, is there to reinforce the hallucination, because he wants to “retain the form you’re used to, so you stop freaking out.” These men won’t stop adding layers of meaning. And those layers of meaning all have a single purpose: to control behavior. What was remarkable about the result of John Fulton cutting into a female chimpanzee’s brain? The absence of anxiety that was always there before. Why does Rob attempt to soothe Jess after she is able to regain her footing? So that she does not freak out. For every thing a female character does, a man is there to curb that action, to manage a behavior, to control some emotion.

Danger Signals is a deluge of subtle and delicate metaphors that compound into a terrifying edifice. The history in the text (of lobotomies, of white-male explorers, of colonization) becomes compressed: events, accidents, happenstance, and mistakes, become “like layers of snow into a glacier.” So, too, does the mind of the lecturer become like a glacier or the floe of ice that surrounds John Franklin’s ship: at any moment, a sudden shift may open into a crevasse that will swallow her whole. We witness this lecturer swallowed by just such a mental crevasse as she stands before her audience, silent, for 7 minutes, her mind criss-crossed by the topics of her lecture as well as by those damn men, one of whom coughs, a cough that is “male and authoritarian.” It causes her to flinch. The men are EVERYWHERE. And they just won’t stop being men.

There’s this thing I know about myself. I once thought it was a problem all my own. I think that if I can see enough of a pattern, if I get enough info, I can figure out how a thing works. If I know how a thing works, I can make it do what I want it to do. I’ve felt this way at the end of broken relationships that have persisted for too long but that I wanted to continue. It’s the way that John Franklin feels about saving his ship that is stuck in the ice. It’s the same way the lecturer describes the men who are “looking for a narrative, a structure, a functional frame with which to pull together, the seemingly-disparate-but-actually metaphorically meaningful strands, which can appear to make up a life.” Well gosh darn it if that’s not what I feel like I’m supposed to do right here in this Culturebot response. Hence: My name is not John but it might as well be. I’ve been tasked with layering meaning on top of a performance that specifically addresses a man’s need to control meaning through the building of layers, the creation of masses as intractable as glaciers, the creation of stalwart edifices of sense.

It seems to me that the play is less about the brain itself and more about what we do to it, specifically what white men have done in the past to control it. But honestly, I don’t know. Danger Signals demonstrates that we are all in recovery from a metaphorical traumatic brain injury, one caused by the Domination of White Men. The lecturer’s scope at the beginning has widened from the dysfunction of a single brain to the dysfunction of a multitude of brains in concert. From within this society of brains we must try to diagnose and fix the dysfunction. Is that an impossible task? It is a marvelous thing to watch a group of people, led by women, inspired by women, scored by women. (This is a lame parenthetical: Jen Goma’s compositions are geniusly placed and paragons of non-diegetic mood creation.) Danger Signals is not a play that needs me to come along and say what is what. It offered me another essential moment to reckon with my own whiteness, my own maleness, my own history of colonization, of privileged control over my world and the worlds of others. But that’s not the play’s purpose. That purpose is not for me to explicate.

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