The Show Lasts Longer Than It May Appear – WATERBOY AND THE MIGHTY WORLD

Photo by Maria Baranova

After Waterboy and the Mighty World (at the Bushwick Starr, September 4-7, 2019) was over, I turned to a friend seated behind me and asked, ‘How long do you think that was? I’m going with fifty-five minutes.’ The friend had no idea, and I consulted my phone. At least eighty minutes had passed. The performance had lasted at least twenty-five minutes longer than it had felt (to me).

This is uncommon. More often, performances suffer from the opposite phenomenon – time becomes burden, boredom or tedium onstage results in the excruciating sensation of waiting for a thing to come to its conclusion. But on this recent night at the Bushwick Starr, while watching this performance by The Hawtplates, a husband-wife-sister musical trio (Justin Hicks, Kenita Miller-Hicks, and Jade Hicks), time was moved along with the rest of us.

This time loss sensation is, in my experience at least, so uncommon that I expended a good deal of thought trying to figure out how it had happened. Often, the time (length, duration) of a performance is set up by using a theatrical device (frame). Our expectation of how long a thing is “allowed” to be is dictated by the thing itself. If narrative, the story being told is usually our main timekeeper. If we get bored of the story and lose interest either in its content or the way it is being told, time becomes the enemy. When the work is non-narrative, I suppose the most common thing that might happen is loss of focus. Or, with pieces that rely on a suggestion of narrative but function in non-linear and abstract fashion, when you become lost – not in the work, but lost outside of it, searching for a way back in.

I hesitate to apply any single word or descriptor to define Waterboy and the Mighty World, because my options don’t fully capture the experience. Spell-bound is one such word. To be spell-bound, you must fall into an experience so deeply you cannot get out until you are released. So:

There is a great deal of care and ritual in The HawtPlates performance style. They set up a square in the center of a theater. They enter slowly, non-theatrically. There are five studio microphones set up about the arena. They are using scripts of a sort, but those scripts are being supported by smooth unfinished wooden holders as opposed to black metal music stands. There is, already, a palpable sense of the journey ahead.

Then the journey begins. It’s made up mostly of song, sung by three voices, rising, falling, harmonizing, growling low and pitching up to top of range. There are almost no instruments, save for a few acts of percussion. The words – lyrics, storylines – are abstract without being diffuse. It is possible to establish, for one’s self, a setting and time. It’s Old West, somewhere between 1850 and 1880? It’s a time when people were hung without trials. It’s a time when the law showed up on horses. It’s a time when the result of a search for water could be the difference between life and death. The music both honors this setting and complicates it – some is recognizable as traditional folk music (there are reinterpretations of songs made famous by Odetta Holmes), and some is more experimental in its composition. None of it is obvious. On the night I attended, there was only a single ‘break’ in which the audience was able to applaud, the songs blending tautly into next, layering over the former like waves breaking. In between, there are often audio clips played, which advance a semi-narrative. It’s not text you can place (like, ‘oh I get it, that goes here’) and so you carry it for a while before letting it go. It leaves you with your hands full. This is more or less true of the lyrics within the songs as well. Your attention stands in for the catharsis of applause. You feel, given the virtuosity and care demonstrated onstage, that you owe this much. You can carry all this. If you let it fall, it’ll break the spell. Don’t spill the water.

In reading about the show afterwards, I was able to place the performance in more of a context, for better or worse. I’m not sure if I would have preferred to have this information beforehand. Specifically, the context to which I’m referring is that much of the show was built around a real person’s story – that of Bass Reeves, the first African American US Marshal, who according to Wikipedia was born in 1838, died in 1910, and was credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons and also shot and killed 14 people in self-defense.

I had known that there would be an examination of the “complex relationship between people of color and law enforcement in America” from the show’s marketing. I was prepared for something potentially heavy. So maybe it was a relief that what I found myself carrying at the end was not weight, but something else, less knowable. More like an aura, the smell of a place and time not your own. Something you couldn’t drop, that soaks up time like it were water. You squeeze it later on and all that comes out is remembrance of sound.

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