‘The Dope Elf’ considers power

The Gawdafful National Theater visited Yale Union earlier this month for play about white supremacy that kept the audience in motion

By KYLE COHLMIA

“I am the dopest elf!” proclaimed Jacqueline Wright during the final monologue of her performance in The Dope Elf, written and directed by Asher Hartman and performed in three different plays by the Gawdafful National Theater at Yale Union in Portland, September 14–October 20. 

While seemingly humorous, her exclamation of identity wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t stated for the purpose of amusement or banter. It was a strong proclamation asserting power. This interactive live play/social experiment/art project is, after all, about power, specifically white supremacy, which Hartman described in the catalogue as “the underlying cause of all ills, loss, boredom, and perilous transformation.” 

The play itself experiments with elements of power between the performer and audience members. As the observer, you are not passively sitting in front of a stage, watching the actors from afar. Instead, The Dope Elf requires that the audience congregate around the actors, following them, sometimes unknowingly, from scene to scene, placing their bodies in a vulnerable position of proximity, inside the sets themselves.

Jacqueline Wright as The Dope Elf in Asher Hartman’s “The Dope Elf” for Gawdafful National Theater/Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber

Phillip Little, Gawdafful National Theater actor who plays the role of John in The Dope Elf, addresses this power dynamic in the play’s program: “If you occupy land, you occupy history, and that history talks back. Dreams, hauntings, visions are the mediums through which this history is transmitted. Personalities fragmented along spiritual fault lines. Inner landscapes are remade gradually or cataclysmically.”

His quote speaks to the “presumed safety” and privilege audience members usually hold  in traditionally white art spaces. In The Dope Elf our passive role as consumer is challenged and put into question, as we are now physically a part of the collective narrative.

The Dope Elf’s non-linear storyline of elves, trolls, ghosts, magicians, and animals, “questions popular culture’s fascination with mystical power as a substitute for political power,” as “each character grapples with their own unidentifiable psychic pain,” (Dena Beard, Curator, The Dope Elf program notes). With stage aesthetics resembling nostalgic ‘80s TV shows like “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” the actors walk the audience through overlapping narratives with complex dialogue that switches from recognizable to ambiguous language.

As an audience member of Play 2, the second iteration of the three-part, non-narrative but sequential performance, I was initially intrigued by the stage designs that were laid out across the gallery space. The performance started out in the center of Yale Union with the Dope Elf, an aging trans man/elf, and their troll neighbor Gingy as the central characters. The two converse about their identities, interactions and everyday absurdities, moving separately and together in rolling chairs that became like a dance, a duet of fluidity, where The Dope Elf exerts their power over Gingy, setting the tone for the rest of the play. 

We are then thrown into a scene between two lovers, John and Alfred, who dramatize their contentious but loving relationship. At the end of this interaction, John seemingly dies, and as we progress into the next scene, he slowly and methodically dresses, changing from his white t-shirt and “Lucky Charms” boxers into a man’s business suit while singing an Irish song, a poetic transition from queer lover to staunch businessman.

Once he is in his new costume, he confronts The Dope Elf about purchasing their home so that new businesses can occupy their property. We are then introduced to two new characters, The Magician, a white man who lives in a glass house, and a black man, Dirk, who comes out of the audience and into the performance. Dirk interacts with The Magician and successively Alfred and John, in two separate scenes, ostensibly meant to invoke the concept of white supremacy and dramatize race relations. At the end of the play we are reintroduced to John and Alfred who turn into a violent elf and hellhound, respectively, ending on a macabre note, leaving the fate of each character open-ended and up for interpretation.

While the poetic dialogue and overlapping stories brought me in and out of consciousness, creating a blurred perception of the characters and their relationships to one another, the overall theme of The Dope Elf was clear. This is about power. 

As The Dope Elf exclaims:

“This is about power. I will sacrifice myself to
the impulse for power. As actors do… Oh yes,
I am a magical system. An elf is a magical
system. I am that. I am a system. I rearrange.
people and things. Like that. Oh yes, what
you perceive of me is true. Whatever you
think. Oh, yes, there will be blood.”

The positioning of the audience alone indicates this theme—the awkwardness of where to sit or stand or how to interact with the performers strips away the power of passive consumption. I keep going back to Little’s quote on land occupation—as an audience member, I am not separate from the landscape of psychic pain and the structures of white supremacy. 

I am the you that occupies land. I am the you that occupies a history. And while I may not be the dopest elf, I am the you whose inner landscape is gradually and sometimes cataclysmically being remade.

Kyle Cohlmia was born in Stillwater, OK. She received a B.A. in Art History and Italian with a minor in English from the University of Kansas and an M.A. in Instruction and Curriculum at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Kyle has worked at various art museums and galleries including the Denver Art Museum, Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and most recently, as Curator of Exhibitions for the Melton Gallery at the University of Central Oklahoma. She is a previous fellow of Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition’s Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship and has written for various art publications including Art Focus, Art 365, and Art Discourse. Kyle is currently living in Portland, OR, working toward her second M.A. in Critical Studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art. 

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