Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Bringing it all back home

November 19, 2006

Elia Arce
Photo: Lawrence K Ho/LA Times 2006

In case you didn’t know, the 5th Annual International Latino Theater Festival of Los Angeles is taking place all over town this Fall with a wide variety of events in both English and Spanish. The REDCAT contributed to the festival by sponsoring a performance art piece by Elia Arce entitled “The Fifth Commandment,” supposedly concerning the ethics of killing in war and the current war in Iraq from the eyes of members of the American military and their families. The piece was developed with the participation of two Iraq war veterans, Cameron White and Matthew Howard, as well as Nadia McCaffrey, the mother of a soldier killed in the conflict. The piece is a loose association of monologues and character sketches. Arce has repeated scenes throughout as a character involved with many servicemen as they come and go from the "theater" allowing her to reflect on the nature of war and the American military’s relevance in her own past in Central America. The rest of the show is a hodgepodge of mildly dramatized personal accounts from servicemen and women including some first-had accounts from Howard and McCaffrey.

Charles McNulty wrote a nice piece about the performance in the LA Times this weekend, and while he is right that there is much to think about in the piece, he gets the reasoning backward. Actually, the most compelling thing about the work is Arce’s monologues. Delivered in a come-hither rasp, the overtly sexualized character she plays directly draws into the light some of the ways we in America live with the contradictions inherent in sanctioned killing during wartime. Here, we constantly try to convince ourselves that it is all about sex: being men, being women, appearing heroic, appearing vulnerable, being strong, and preserving our “way of life.” This conflagration of sex and violence is key and has been taken up in a uniquely American way over our history. Arce's performance was riveting and contained a certain ambivalence that at times made it unclear whether she was speaking about Iraq or WWII.

On the other hand, the personal first hand monologues from McCaffrey and the veterans seemed awkward and out of place. They are certainly moving, important, meaningful and desperately need to be heard by a much wider audience than the half-full already-converted choir present on Friday. But the problem is this: Are these first-hand accounts really art? Political speech, yes. Documentary reportage, yes. But performance, no. The only way they might be construed in the artistic sense is in the way that “found objects” have been construed as art for decades now: by their juxtaposition with unfamiliar, incongruent, or otherwise unrelated elements that provide some commentary on one another. I don’t believe the piece made a cohesive argument about the relation between these elements and the fabricated ones. Instead the evening felt like everyone sat around and said, “What else can we throw in that would have to do with the horrors of war?” Perhaps these segments would have worked better if they were extrapolated in some way or performed by actors. The recent London performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” come to mind as a possible template.

There were a number of good ideas in the piece that could have been developed more like the religious overtones of the war and our tolerance of killing or the cultural implications for the young men and women who are in the American military but are themselves immigrants or recently descended from immigrants (a theme oddly less present than one might expect in the context of an International Latino Theater Festival). But I suppose half a good-idea is better than a bad one.

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