The Untitled play about art school: Art is the symptom
The art is a symptom
You are the disease!
If you are King, if you are a Hero
Then you will kill Narcissus.
In Nelle Tankus’ new work The Untitled Play About Art School, produced by Copious Love productions and directed by L. Nicol Cabe, a young woman of color struggling with mental illness re-purposes the sentimental myth of Echo and Narcissus into a feminist weapon/senior thesis while trying to graduate from a white, liberal performing arts school that does not want her to succeed. Weaving together a contemporary setting, an other-worldly Grecian parallel, and a group of complex, hilariously rendered characters, Tankus disrupts the idea that art is the cure for world’s injustices and says instead that art is the symptom while the white institutions and the constructs that protect them are the disease.
Amy Antonia is a senior who has deliberately not shown up for her senior thesis presentation at Whetmore’s College of the Performing Arts, an institution that is rapidly losing funding and faculty. Running the school are Rhett Whetmore, a white man who has given up; and Wilhemina Rosemary, a black woman and Amy’s personal champion. Amy reveals that she has gone off her anxiety and depression meds in order to make better art but without the necessary academic infrastructure and support system, she begins a downward spiral. The only person who really knows her is Echo, the heroine of her senior thesis play. Traditionally, Echo is the hapless mountain nymph whose voice has been cursed by Hera-she can only repeat other people’s words and never her own. She falls in love with a handsome youth named Narcissus who doesn’t love her back. Narcissus dies, wasting away at the edge of a river because he has fallen in love with his own reflection and Echo wastes away as well, only her voice remaining. Through Amy, Echo--once the disembodied voice of a love struck nymph--becomes a prophet, a prisoner, a warrior. Narcissus is no longer a pretty faced jerk, he’s a man-eating monster who must be appeased with daily sacrifices and whose presence brings plague upon the land and King Chionides (played by the same actor who plays Rhett) is the king who is seemingly the only one who can stop the madness.
Scenic designer Reiko Huffman places the cast on a narrow, elevated cat-walk framed by two, massive white triangular structures meeting at a point high above the audience. The strong, simple lines of the set support the oscillating worlds of each scene and yet, when the cast engages in the frenetic staging by L. Nicol Cabe, the platforms groan and the pyramid frame trembles. This is a deliberate choice and a fitting one--even the strongest structures can be dismantled and sometimes what it takes, is the agitation of the masses. Lighting design by Zanna Paulson and sound by Chris Leher facilitate the moods of each scene, smoothly transitioning from reality to Grecian tragedy back to absurd melodrama.
The characters and setting can easily be seen as a stereotypical microcosm of liberal art school but do not be fooled. Tankus has not rendered her characters as “political check-boxes; make sure you have a brown person on the brochure of this art school”. No, these are complex people, ensconced in an institution that topically teaches them how to be ‘good’ artists but does not provide any training on how to be an artist in a white supremacist world if you’re not white, male, able-bodied, and hetero. Also, Tankus accomplishes what many larger theatres and art institutions, especially here in Seattle, are still struggling to comprehend: gender parity, sexual identity diversification, and racial diversity can be represented on stage in a way that is conscious, deliberate, is not tokenism and can in fact, make a narrative richer.