A child’s leg ripped off by a runaway car in a riot. A politician thrown in jail for his peaceful community organizing. An unarmed motorcyclist brazenly beaten to death on the street by cops. Sitting in the audience inside the Carnival Studio Theater of Miami’s half-billion-dollar Cesar Pelli-designed Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and listening to accomplished actress April Yvette Thompson recount these memories of her childhood, it would be easy to imagine she’s talking about things that happened in, say, apartheid South Africa. Or some other regime a million light years removed from Obama’s America. But in fact, these events took place just a couple miles up the road, three decades ago, in the predominantly black community that inspired the title of Thompson’s riveting one-woman show, Liberty City.
Thompson and co-writer and director Jessica Blank conceived this award-winning production in New York; it premiered at New York Theatre Workshop last year. But it came home to Thompson’s birth city for a two-week run in February, and drew crowds of both those who came to Miami long after the McDuffie riots tore the city apart and were shocked by the play’s depiction of how blatant ‘70s corruption and racism were, and those who lived through that era – and remember it ever so well. Thompson slips into the skin of the various family members she portrays, from her sexy aunt who succumbs to crack to her sometimes hard-headed activist father. Liberty City is a well-written, skillfully performed show that deserves an extended run, at either the Studio, or better yet at the Caleb Center, the community center in the middle of Liberty City itself. This is history Miamians need to see.
The next weekend (March 5-8), the Studio hosted another important performance: the Miami Light Project’s annual Here & Now festival of newly commissioned performance art. Choreographers Alexey Puig Taran and Rosie Herrera presented one work each. In Symbol, Taran and two female dancers moved energetically and frantically around the stage, at one point swinging on platforms hanging by ropes, seemingly in a constant battle to survive. The energy was impressive, but the movements were just not convincing/breathtaking enough. Herrera’s Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, on the other hand, was funny and insightful. Her cast of drag queens, a little girl, gay lovers, a gamine, etc., were like a rococo photographic tableau by Miami Beach artist Carlos Betancourt brought to life. Repeatedly, women were humiliated in their performances of femininity, while the trannies were triumphant in theirs: It’s easier to act like a woman than to suffer the oppression of actually being one, Herrera seemed to be saying.
The Friday and Saturday performances were followed by a special presentation by Here & Now alum Natasha Tsakos. The creator of Up Wake gave the lecture she delivered at the TED conference earlier this year; in its wide-eyed, wow-I’m-a-benighted-liberal-intellectual sincerity, it came across a bit as a parody of a TED lecture. Tsakos rambled about the importance of the marriage of technology and theater, as if Laurie Anderson hadn’t already done that back around the same time Liberty City was burning. But the overall point of the evening was crucial: Theater has the ability to make us aware of our everyday lives in radical new ways. “Through your mask, people let theirs go,” Tsakos put it poetically.
The Arsht center has struggled financially and aesthetically. But these two shows, along with the commission of Camposition’s 1000 Homosexuals last fall, demonstrate the important role the Studio can play in housing risky new works by Miami’s growing cadre of creative performers and their producing organizations (like Camposition and MLP). Encore!