Seth Rue

Love & loss in the time of coronavirus

With stages shut down, the work's stopped cold. Bobby Bermea asks his fellow performance artists: Can the fire be relighted post-pandemic?

It’s weird when you wake up one day and realize that everything is different. 

For me, just how different hasn’t fully hit me yet, not even more than a month later. I still feel insulated, like I’m in a bubble where time has become elastic, amorphous. It takes an enormous effort just to intentionally shape the course of a given day. How many times already have I eaten at 11 at night or woken up at 11 in the morning? As violinist Michelle Alany puts it, the struggle is “trying to find some kind of rhythm and structure so I don’t lose the art and creativity.” 

In thirty years as a professional theater artist, I had never rehearsed a show for four weeks only to have it cancelled right before we opened. PassinArt’s Seven Guitars, which was scheduled to open in March, was the first. By that time, I think we’d all seen the handwriting on the wall. I remember the morning the call came that it was over: It felt like I’d woken up in another dimension. It wasn’t the last time I was going to feel that way. 

Since that day I have heard innumerous people describe this moment in history as “crazy” or “surreal” or “like science fiction.” Except, it’s not like science fiction. Face masks. Rubber gloves. Zoom. Science fiction is now real life.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


As I write this, about 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, about 420 a day since the first confirmed U.S. case on Jan. 21 (the first known U.S. death came five weeks later, on Feb. 28). That might not seem like much, considering that about 8,000 people die every day in the U.S. But the numbers are rapidly escalating. On April 16 alone, nearly 4,600 people in the U.S. died from coronavirus. That feels different. 

I have one friend who came down with COVID-19. She’s 70 years old and was my first harmonica teacher when I was working on Seven Guitars. She spent two weeks in the hospital. She has nothing but great things to say about the medical professionals who took care of her. But the disease is no joke, and she felt like hell most of the time she was there. While she was in the hospital we stayed in contact via text (talking took too much out of her). One of the times I checked in to see how she was doing, she texted back, “Feeling shitty! Everything pisses me off!” I suspect that anger helped get her through it. She’s home now. A nurse visits her three times a week. Only today she was told that she can go outside if she wears a mask and practices social distancing. It’s an incredible victory. 

Author Bobby Bermea in CoHo Theatre/Beirut Wedding World Theatre Projects’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”: “If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist.” Photo: Owen Carey/2019

When the proverbial feces came into contact with the rotating blades of the proverbial air circulation device, I called my parents and offered to come down to where they live in Southern California. I could do my job at Profile Theatre remotely, and I could help them by buying their groceries and taking care of whatever other needs they might have that took place outside of the house. My parents declined my offer, saying they were perfectly okay. 

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“Fires” in a crowded theater

Anna Deavere Smith's incendiary "Fires in the Mirror" packs dozens of characters into a one-person show about ethnic strife in 1990s Brooklyn.

At one point, amid the mosaic of testimonials and commentaries that make up Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, Leonard Jeffries, a professor of African American studies at City University of New York, talks about his tangential involvement in Alex Haley’s novel turned TV miniseries Roots, one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 1970s. “Isn’t Roots wonderful?!,” Jeffries recalls the actor Lorne Greene saying to him. “It’s everyone’s history!”

Jeffries doesn’t even have to voice his disgust with Greene’s statement. As a scholar with an Afrocentric worldview, he’s invested in the particulars of Roots as a story about Africans; to claim that experience as common property is both a whitewashing and a theft. And of course he’s right.

But then, Lorne Greene — despite being best known as a paragon of mainstream American whiteness on Bonanzawas the son of Russian Jews. A story of slavery and of a distressed diaspora is his history. And considering that the history of slavery is the indissoluble contaminant of the American democratic experiment, a ghost haunting the entire American experience, maybe Greene was right in the larger sense as well.

Fires in the Mirroronstage through Oct. 21 in a riveting production by Profile Theatre —  doesn’t make these pretzels of perspective explicit, but they’re there. Confirming expectations one moment, challenging prejudices the next, confounding certitude throughout, the play is an exercise in compulsory open-mindedness. Which might not be empathy, exactly, but it helps.

Seth Rue as physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, one of 26 characters he portrays in “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: David Kinder

Smith’s subject isn’t slavery or persecution; rather it is the contrasts, contradictions and confluence of black and Jewish experience, as seen through the prism of the Crown Heights riot, which convulsed that Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991. A car in the motorcade of a Hasidic Jewish leader veered onto the sidewalk, killing a seven-year-old boy, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Confusion and rumors helped ignite long-simmering frustrations between blacks and Jews in the area. Three days of riots resulted, including the killing of a Jewish doctoral student visiting from Australia.

Smith interviewed dozens of area residents to create the verbatim monologues that make up Fires in the Mirror, a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama (losing to Angels in America). We hear from poets and professors, rappers and rabbis, teachers and teenagers, all portrayed by a single actor, in this case Seth Rue, performing with a remarkable blend of plasticity and heart.

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