“Sea of Common Catastrophe” is a wonderful, superb, and unique offering, playing now from June 15th to June 30th at the Irondale Arts Center at 85 Oxford Street. This play is from New Orleans based theater group and was conceived, directed, and designed by Jeff Becker, and created and performed by Kathy Randels, Lisa Moraschi Shattuck, Mahalia Abeo Tibbs and Jeffrey Gunshol, with a special appearance by Adella Gautier, and special effects by an incredible supporting staff including the Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble.
This play tells the story using dance about the discovery of the New World. As per the controversies nationwide about the Christopher Columbus statues in the past year, not least of which including the Columbus Circle in Manhattan, this play considers the processes of exploration and the consequences of colonialism. The play begins with two “sleeping” main characters, a man and a woman, and slowly reenacts their meeting on the world’s stage in the Caribbean. This means an act in the first parts of the play – where islanders engage in trade happily, and a corresponding later act in the play whereupon the man character introduces himself on the island. The play closes with the male character donning a deep-sea diver’s outfit in order to explore the ocean depths.
The set is clever. It consists of three rolling cubes about thirteen feet high. These cubes have upper floors, which are used to communicate the present day and also the decks of ships travelling to the islands. The facades of the cubes are made of boxes painted a soot color. At one point, the boxes open in order to give the lead actor Mahalia Abeo Tibbs a dress. This dress looks like a beautiful gossamer mixture of bubble wrap and seaweed that she wore for the rest of the play. In the middle of the play, the boxes are lowered and become windows showing two people talking nonchalantly on the phone. This scene serves to reinforce the fact the issues of colonialism are all but buried by day-to-day activities in the present.
The play benefits from an innovative design and often Tibbs interacted with the background scenery. In one scene, she danced while Gunshols mimed swimming on the upper-level tier of the stage above her. As the two danced, the wall of the scene slowly fell forward toward the lower-level dancer. The effect is the audience becomes concerned with the safety of the dancers instead of the dancing.
In the next prolonged scene, three of the main characters run a trading outpost. A hat, which symbolizes trade moved across stage. An intricate dance then portrays the progression of time representing trade, which had been going on in the Caribbean for hundreds of years before colonialists landed. This scene appears in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, because Diamond talked about how indigenous communities existed before the discovery of the New World in the 15th century. Here, the play forgives the pre-colonial trading because there is no issue with the repetitive actions of trade the three dancers engage in.
The lead male role, Jeffrey Gunshol, as an antagonist, then joins the dance. At this point, musical "rounds" begin: different actors sing different parts and sing over each other. In highbrow culture this appears in Handel’s, “Hallelujah” chorus. In popular culture this appears as Billy Joel’s song, “For the Longest Time.”
Ah, the waters of emotion! In one example the band Interpol’s song, “Stella Was a Diver and She Was Always Down,” details its narrator being with an emotional girlfriend. Being underwater has connotations of having emotional walls, which cannot be bridged because they are not said out loud. More generally, when classical Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo painted centaurs with fins and tridents, he changed the meaning of a classical tradition, which held the sadness of the times could not be understood in the present. The waters of each and every fountain are thus in effect meditations on the flowing nature of life and past lives. It is left to future generations, and in this case the audience of the play, to figure out what it all means.
Mahalia Abeo Tibbs is similar to education activist Jonathan Kozol. Kozol effectively used moral assertions to dramatize his realist observations about inequalities in the American educational system. In this play, stylized motions – including dancing and song – are used to convey brooding undercurrents. One is forced to question the roles of who helps whom. Ultimately, the old woman in the play’s second act is the one who signs over the island paradise to Gunshol’s explorer. There appears no sense of tragedy or mistake to the characters because the mistake can only be seen in an historical perspective, which belongs to the audience. The play says the traders wanted to increase their trade, and the explorer, wearing a colorful Hawaiian shirt, just wanted a vacation.
Ultimately, behind every evil act is evil intention, and behind every evil intention, in a perverse sense, is a desire for good, because at the very least every gangster wants what’s good for himself. This is a fundamental innocence of every human being and “Sea of Common Catastrophe” addresses this fallibility in a few ways. For example, the play works hard at showing, as mentioned above, that bartering and trade had been established long before colonists invaded. When the colonists do arrive, it is not clear who is to blame for what happens. A stylized dance ends with the signing of parchment, and the participants pass around a quill to sign the treaty like a game of musical chairs. Likewise, the gravity of the scene is mitigated by a peace pipe that looks like a saxophone – and blows bubbles.
When the colonist finally buys the land, one of the last scenes of the play shows him in a dance sequence in a 19th-century deep sea diver’s suit. The first-order symbolism is a sort of purgatory for the diver, that the loss the audience feels is the diver-colonist's well-deserved alienation from his culture and higher self. However, the fact that the colonist is lost may be seen to be the unfair consequences of his innocent misdeeds. Explorers, in a word, could not have been intentionally wicked because they did not know anything else. This may be the case, that Henry Hudson may in fact have been less violent than Christopher Columbus, but this play is working to defend Christopher Columbus as a foolish criminal as a way of mitigating crime and evil as a sacred cow that can’t be understood or comprehended.
The centaur of the sea, or the sea-goat, is common in Renaissance art, such as Piero di Cosimo, and ancient fountains. At random times, the seas of emotion behind people's actions are revealed to show, in Proust’s quotation, “…great upheavals of thought,” such that heretofore inexplicable actions can be understood. Nevertheless, as said before, the thinking behind both small actions and great events can only be truly understood in retrospect. Were the explorers and colonists of the 1500’s and 1600’s wrong and evil? Absolutely, that’s clear now -- and that is an excellent critical lens by which to write a thesis, or to speak out against social injustices perpetrated by the powerful against the vulnerable. A second way would be to exonerate the colonists because they really thought like we do, that is, rationalizing our attitudes and behaviors as being generally beneficent. Again, it’s horrific to justify Columbus and all other colonists. Nevertheless, their frame of reference is worth examining because it requires us to see the colonists like Columbus in their place and time and encourages the audience, to consider how people today can perhaps act in like circumstances and work to make this world a better place. Historical perspective can those who take these perspectives better, and this play gives a helping hand.