Monstrous, or, The Miscegenation Advantage starts with a simple question of identity but quickly becomes distracted by unnecessary historical background and underused dramaturgical elements; this show raises issues instead of questions and because of this it becomes impossible to provide answers.
Part autobiography, part research, part indictment of racism, part dance, it’s hard to say what exactly this show is because it doesn’t seem to know. What is clear is how personal the project is to creator/playwright Sarah Waisvisz, as the main question heading into this show is her search for belonging, being the child of both French Jewish and Black Caribbean heritages. This is a perfectly solid premise and question to seek to answer, but we don’t get very far along the path for answers – Waisvisz relates her experiences in Martinique and stays there for the majority of the show’s hour-long running time.
This show, it seems, is mostly about Martinique and the African diaspora brought about by the slave trade. Again, this could absolutely work, because to explore your parent’s origins makes sense if you’re trying to determine your own identity. It does seem weird though that despite spending so much time on her maternal origins, almost no time is devoted to those of her father. Even if the focus is mostly on her mother’s side for some particular reason, we never see this reason (in a play about personal identity, focussing on one parent’s origins over another’s needs some explanation). It seems there are points where Waisvisz feels her identity is defined in relation to her father, such as the otherwise odd moment when she remembers that she and her brother would segregate her Barbie dolls and give the less important ones “haircuts” before stuffing them in a box together, clearly included to evoke the Holocaust. These moments could also potentially be powerful if they’d been further developed and explored. I appreciate that with the African-American slave trade content there’s probably enough in Monstrous on humanitarian tragedies, but to bring up a childhood experiencewith such an obvious and ironic historical parallel and then to not explore or expand on it is, quite frankly, to tease.
There are parts where Waisvisz discusses her own experiences with institutionalized racism at home – a neighbour assuming she’d gotten back from a Florida vacation because she looked ‘so tanned,’ for one part – but this quickly gets a little out of hand when she brings out a notebook full of such experiences and asks audience members to read a few aloud. It’s a very effective moment of alienation for the audience, but the Brechtian agit-prop style of this part doesn’t gel well with the tone of the rest of the show, which is much less confrontational and more of a typical monodrama. This part, as well as later when the revelation comes that a female ancestor was bought in Martinique after the abolition of slavery and Waisvisz’s anger manifests itself as yelling at the audience, mostly serves to make the audience uncomfortable as no solution to the problems being shown is offered.
Certain aspects of this show, with its projection screen, cultural rumination in a globalized context, and dance breaks cannot help but remind of dramaturg Emily Pearlman’s I think my boyfriend should have an accent… but in Pearlman’s show the cultural ruminations are inspired by her own experiences traveling around the world and the necessary questions that arose out of those experiences. In this piece, Waisvisz’s own narrative implies that the experience in Martinique was borne out of her thoughts and search for answers in the first place. If the structure of the script was “I wanted to find something out, I went to this place, and this is what I found out,” then that would have fine. Simplistic, perhaps, but fine. The structure of the show as it is though is much looser and repetitive, with no clear middle or end. Chronologically we jump forwards and backwards in history and Waisvisz’s own experiences, but again the through-line seems tenuous at best.
The same song is played at least 4-5 times for upwards of 30 seconds each time. The inclusion of the song – Chantal Goya’s “Adieu les jolis foulards” – makes sense with the Martinique sections, as it is a French pop song that appropriates a folk song from Martinique about a mixed-race woman whose European lover is departing for France. What makes less sense is having to listen to it 5 times. It opens the show with no introduction and with its smooth ‘70s production values and children’s choir, it sounds very calming and relaxing before Waisvisz tears it apart for its tacit perpetuation of colonial attitudes. It’s a valid point but perhaps instead of listening to Goya’s version so many times a recording of the original folk song could be included, for variety’s sake as well as presenting cultural appropriation in a tangible manner to the audience.
Monstrous’ ending also speaks to its structural issues. One of the bizarre elements that isn’t mentioned often enough to really be powerful is the inclusion of a deus ex machina DNA test that can determine how much of your genetic code was supplied by ancestors of different races. Besides the questions that this raises (this kind of test exists? How do they determine the results? How accurate are they? What are the social/ethical implications of telling people that your DNA determines how Jewish/Black/White/[insert race here] you are?), we only hear of the test three times: first to say that it exists, then that it was a simple saliva swab rather than a blood test, and then for Waisvisz to literally hold the envelope containing the results without opening it. After this: curtain. The show is over.
If you’ve ever studied theatre then you’ve probably heard of Chekhov’s Gun, aka the Mantelpiece Rule: if you introduce an object with dramatic potential, then you have to let that object realize its potential before the end of the play. Otherwise, the object’s potential for action only distracts the audience away from what actually occurs – to use a detective story term, the object becomes a red herring. Theatre, traditionally associated with illusion, is a medium of perception, and to toy with the audience’s perception, promising answers with no intention of giving them, seems dishonest. To leave the question “Should I open it?” with the audience is not to answer it yourself, which would imply that you don’t know. If the playwright cannot answer the questions her own script poses, then the issue goes far deeper than bad dramaturgy.
As I see it there are two possible decisions, as regards this envelope: choose not to open it and explain why, or open it and deal with the consequences. Waisvisz chose neither: arguably the actual ending is closer to the first option, but because none of the scientific/ethical questions the DNA test’s introduction poses are answered and she might still open the envelope, I would disagree with such a statement. The other option – that of opening the envelope and dealing with the fallout – has its issues as well. At the beginning of Monstrous it is understood that Waisvisz is exploring her identity as a mixed-race person: the DNA test is one way of providing closure on that front, though it would have been interesting to hear Waisvisz justify turning herself into a specimen for scientific study, essentially to surrender her humanity for the sake of closure. It would be problematic to open the envelope, find out the scientific truth, and choose to go with it or disregard it, especially after mentions of eugenics cast doubt over placing responsibility for classifying racial identity in the hands of science. Waisvisz also mentions the One Drop Rule (if you have a single metaphorical drop of blood in your veins that comes from a certain racial group, then you identify as belonging to that racial group) without affirming or denying it, which would make interpreting the results problematic as well. It’s already abundantly clear from what she shares of her own history that Waisvisz is mixed-race, and what would a DNA test do except confirm that this is, in fact, the case? In order for this element to work it either needs to be given more room in the text to be fully considered, or it should be dropped entirely.
My last question for this show is its title – why Monstrous? What is the advantage to miscegenation? Neither is explained. The title seems only tangentially related to the show. They aren’t contradictory, but like the show’s form and content, they don’t seem to sync up either.
Monstrous, or, The Miscegenation Advantage
A Calalou Production
Created and Performed by Sarah Waisvisz
Directed by Eleanor Crowder
Dramaturgy by Emily Pearlman
Sound Design by Mikki Bradshaw
Choreography by Shara Weaver
Stage Management by Madeleine Boyes-Manseau
At Arts Court Theatre
Saturday 13 February 7:00 pm
Thursday 18 February 7:00 pm
Saturday 20 February 1:00 pm