“Could we have a pause before you become giant prehistoric animals?” Director Joanna Russo inquired of perspiring actors Nick Slie and Hannah Pepper-Cunningham. They had just finished rehearsing a lively action scene from Mondo Bizarro’s upcoming production, The Way at Midnight, in a spacious Marigny warehouse. The multidisciplinary performance, debuting at the Contemporary Art Center in mid September, catapults the two actors into seven different characters, entangles them in the Unknown, and asks them to unravel a multigenerational quest for absolution.
Tell me about Mondo Bizarro, the theater company behind The Way at Midnight.
Nick Slie: When we came out of the performance studies department at LSU, we all knew we didn’t want to go down the route of graduate school at the time. Although that ended up happening in some ways, we wanted to make a group so that we could have freedom over what we chose to create and not be subject to the whims of what might happen if we just went to auditions as performers, or just sought out hired work. It started as a simple desire to be in control of the means and modes of production.
Hannah Pepper-Cunningham: [When I joined Mondo Bizarro in 2008], I saw a deep commitment to the belief that you could do art and social justice without splitting yourself.
NS: We situated ourselves in the city two years or so before Katrina happened. All we’ve been doing is following the footsteps of people like Junebug Productions, ArtSpot Productions, and at the time, Dog and Pony Productions, that were part of an organization called Alternate ROOTS. We got schooled up by the people who were already doing this work around the idea that you don’t have to bifurcate yourself; you can be about what’s right in the world and make awesome art.
Your performance incorporates animation, sound design, and theater performance. Why this multidisciplinary approach to art production?
HPC: I think a lot of our work is about making space—or exploding space—to witness things in multiple ways, in previously unimagined ways that you might not experience just going through your day-to-day life. Having designers and artists with different sensibilities really creates that multidimensionality.
Joanna Russo: There are a lot of ways to tell stories. Different people in the audience are going to respond differently. Some may be more able to grasp a story through movement, while some may be more able to grasp a story through dialogue. Some people are very sound-oriented. When you combine those elements in a way that’s comprehensive, that’s working towards telling a whole story and providing a whole experience. It allows the person who’s a dancer and who really responds to that into the story, as well as the person who’s an English major who’s listening for the dialogue. Also, how can you make art in this city and not have music? [laughs] That’s a pretty big component of it.
Your production takes two actors through several different characters: “Young anarcho-punks with a band and a scheme to hack collective memory, a dead conquistador haunted by his past, a gay Korean War veteran hilariously righting the lies told about him in death, and a grandmother’s ghost.” What connects these people?
JR: So, we’ve got this conquistador, right, who comes out of Spain to map the New World, because only when the New World is mapped can it be owned, and only when it’s owned and converted will he be a big man, will he receive his just reward in Spain. So, he’s been sent to the New World to do this exploration—mapping and domination—which ultimately ends in these horrific acts of subjugation of native peoples and of the land. Then later, there’s this band of young punk hackers who are obsessed with destroying maps. They feel like maps cover up that history, and they feel themselves to be living in the legacy of that violence. They feel it in their bodies, they feel it in their ancestry, they feel it is their obligation to reckon with—to help us all reckon with—that past so that we can move into a more just and equitable future. They have schemes to try to take down the maps. There’s a line from the production: our bodies remember, even when maps don’t. If our ancestors are present in us, in our DNA, in our genetics, we’re carrying that history with us, and we’re carrying with us what they did or what was done to them. If we can make that live again, and we can be in conversation with it together, we can reckon with it and maybe we’ll have a chance of getting free. The hackers are like, 19 years-old and passionate and they think they’re changing everything. [laughs] At the center of those plots are these two old men, Izzy and Renaud. They’ve been summoned into the middle of the woods to officiate a funeral. It’s only when they get there that they realize they don’t know who the guy is that they’re supposed to bury.
NS: It seems so simple, but they’re all seeking some form of absolution. They’re seeking a confrontation with that which they can’t move on without doing something about. So whether that be freedom or forgiveness of the past wrongs or sins they’ve committed, they’re all seeking a release.
Is the plot specific to New Orleans?
JR: The piece is set in Louisiana, though I would say that, overall, it’s not about New Orleans. I think these questions really play out in New Orleans, though. As someone who came to this city a little less than two years after Katrina, I think we face this question of: are we going to open to what’s been here all along—the histories and cultures that have been here—as the city rapidly gentrifies? Or are we going to come in and say, you know, back in New York, this is the way that we do things? Do we try to change this to what we want it to be? To what we liked about where we came from? Or do we embrace what’s already here?
HPC: I think another relevance for the city right now is thinking about what do we remember, how do we remember it, and what histories are told—and how does that influence how we move forward? I think the city, and the country, right now is grappling with the legacies of white supremacy, colonialism, and genocide. The city is asking itself those questions with the removal of Confederate monuments—and not just the Confederate monuments, but also Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, even the people who are seen across the country as moderate. All of the characters in our show are white or white-passing. They’re grappling with the extent to which these really violent legacies of domination are embedded in who they are and what they’ve inherited. What do they do with that? I hope that these characters, through their journeys, can open a space for people to be able to do that as well.
All of the history in you is going to cough itself up
What’s the anarcho-punks’ scheme to hack collective memory?
HPC: You have to come to the show to see!
NS: If we give it away they’re probably gonna shut us down before we open, but I do think we can tell you the name of his band. It’s Gentry Vacation.
JR: The name of their band [laughs]
NS: I don’t think it can be said enough. Hopefully we get some gigs out of Siberia out of this.
What are your thoughts on time travel?
HPC: We gotta do more of it! [laughs] Seriously! Especially in a society of people who can’t be in the moment. We need to be in conversation with the people who came before us and we need to be in conversation with the people who are going to come after us, because otherwise we’re just flailing around in a vacuum. We really do need to time travel more.
NS: Even the notion of past-present-future gets us into these situations where people feel as though they can use time to control our daily lives, our histories. Multiple times can exist; I don’t have to travel to them, they just come here to me. So I can be both me right here and I can be the me that’s the Mississippi River and I can be the me that’s my trip to Mars, you know, whatever it may be. I’ve been really inspired by that notion, of letting go of those categories.
JR: None of the characters in our piece time travel; they don’t experience themselves time traveling. But people who lived at different times encounter each other in the present.
The Korean War is an often overlooked chapter in American history. Why reference it here?
NS: Here’s how mystery works: we didn’t go seeking one thing, but then the Korean War popped into the room. It’s another hidden history; it’s one we’ve overlooked. It fits right into these other hidden histories that appear in the piece.
HPC: And it’s like, weirdly and terrifyingly relevant to now.
JR: As we’re on the verge of conflict with Korea, it’s suddenly like, huh. We didn’t anticipate that when we brought the Korean War into rehearsal, but it seems particularly relevant now. We still haven’t fully acknowledged or made recompense for the war crimes that the U.S. committed. It was only in researching it that we really learned about that. I had only heard about the use of napalm in Vietnam, but the first time we actually used it in war was in Korea.
You mention disorientation and discovery as prominent themes in the production. What of that?
JR: When we enter the unknown, there’s a way in which we can be receptive to it and actually reckon with what’s happening. Or, there’s another response: to clench, to try and convert the unknown into the known. I think it comes back to this state of the unknown; when you’re in that place, whether it’s a new space, a new time, or a new relationship, or circumstance you’re dealing with, it’s incredibly disorienting—but it’s about what you do with that disorientation. Do you stay open enough that you can make discoveries within it? Or are you so afraid of not knowing that you’re unable to discover what’s there? When the conquistador encounters the unknown, he does this clenching. When these old men come to encounter death, which is the ultimate unknown, I think a big question of the piece is: will they clench or will they open?
NS: Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, was a huge inspiration as well. I always come back to this one: she says, “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” One thing that’s really clear here is that once you truly open yourself up to the kind of discovery Joanna is talking about, then you’re not in control anymore of all the things that are going to come out. All of the history in you is going to cough itself up and it’s yet to be seen what will happen.
Art is necessarily a product of its time. What connections do you see between The Way at Midnight and our current societal milieu?
NS: The character Noise has this thing that’s really relevant to this country right now. He says, all of us were born with blood on our hands. I think the sooner we come to reckon with that kind of grief, and the journey through that that is needed for us to accept it, the sooner we can get to some kind of healing. I don’t think the piece is doing that just to get in your face. I think the piece is asking for some really honest reckoning. Can we start the work of honestly saying, I’m sorry? We gotta start somewhere. And until white-embodied people decide that we can even say those words out loud, how the hell are we gonna get to any of the other stuff? Politics simplifies things and bifurcates things. I think our job is to complicate narratives. This piece doesn’t let you sit on one side; you really have to think about where you’re situated in the world.
What stake does art have in times of chaos—in times troubled by threats of nuclear war, implosions of racism, environmental perdition?
NS: When you have to bring objectionable characters into the room—the people that you don’t want to hang out with—you have to learn how to love them. You can’t accurately portray anything, at the bottom of you, if you don’t learn how to have compassion for them. That’s one of my big takeaways here: I was fighting this conquistador character so much because I was so scared to find if I had some compassion there. And inevitably, I’m just facing myself. What of him is in me? Because I’m part of that same long line in my blood, of people who have enacted things like this in my name. I think this Trump moment intentionally confuses your love. It intentionally confuses the most powerful thing at your core so that you run away from it. At the bottom of it, we have to learn compassion if we want to have dialogue with people we don’t agree with. The effect of not having that is being seen clearly right now.
What’s next for Mondo Bizarro?
NS: With any luck, Gentry Vacation takes over the punk scene in New Orleans and fuckin’ rides away.
photos ZACK SMITH