By Maxine Phillips
Review: “The Debates”
Created by Theater in Asylum and the cast; Director Paul Bedard / Choreographer Katie Palmer / Lead Dramaturg Samantha Keogh www.theaterinasylum.com
“I think I finally understand Glass-Steagall,” my companion said as we left the Kraine Theater in the East Village on Primary Day in New York City. It was high praise for the performance we’d just seen, “The Debates,” by Theater in Asylum. Throughout the Democratic presidential debates, the troupe, created by DSAer Paul Bedard and Katie Palmer, had met with audiences to watch the debates and then talk about them. They assessed the candidates’ body language and teased out audience concerns about health care, electability, jobs, foreign policy, and taxes.
I hesitated about attending the performance. Was it possible to make interesting theater from debates that were less Theater of the Absurd than War of the Wonks? Did I really want to trek downtown after hours of handing out Bernie literature at subway stops to hear the stage Bernie say that he didn’t care about the “damn e-mails”? But once I’d wedged myself into a half-broken seat in the threadbare theater, the fatigue of the day subsided and I was entranced by an enthusiastic multi-media romp through the nine Democratic debates, with a few asides from Republican candidates thrown in.
Grainy footage played in the background as actors lip-synced with the candidates in answer to questions. How high would Bernie raise taxes on the rich? Less than under Dwight D. Eisenhower. A “parade of dead presidents” crossed the stage, as the percentages of taxes under their administrations flashed on the screen, from a high of 94% under Franklin D. Roosevelt to a low of 28% under Ronald Reagan, settling in to 39.6% with the non-socialist Barack Obama.
Reminding the audience that ”Before we’d ever heard of ISIS we had the 2008 housing crisis,” a news commentator asks how Bernie and Hillary would deal with Wall Street and avoid another financial meltdown like that of 2008. A Bernie character urges “a working class revolution” while a Hillary character sings of “simply working to a solution.” Bernie wants to bring back Glass-Steagall, the regulatory legislation passed during the Great Depression and repealed in Bill Clinton’s administration that kept consumer banks from engaging in investment activities. Hillary prefers Dodd-Frank, the regulatory reform legislation passed in 2010. Actors tap dance in formation, reminiscent of escapist movies made during the Great Depression.
Even ironic levity ended when the troupe gathered on stage to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and the prison-industrial complex. They pointed to Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has led to what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” They read statements from Sanders opposing the bill and accurately predicting what would happen if it passed, but add that eventually Sanders voted for it. They quoted Hillary Clinton in 1994, saying “We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets” and juxtaposed it with her current statement that “One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison. . . . I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men.”
Woven throughout the vignettes are words from past audiences asking how one person can lead this diverse country, how democracy can best be served, whether we have a democracy, whether politics is a total bore.
It may be a bore for some, but it’s important, says the troupe, and at every performance actors urge audience members to register to vote, to vote, to debate, to be informed. At the end, they echo and refine a phrase: “Every debate is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity.” Our identity as a country, they imply, will be shaped by this election.
Maxine Phillips is editor of the Democratic Left magazine. This article originally appeared in the magazine’s summer 2016 (early June) issue.
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