The responsibility of telling the stories of domestic violence is no simple task, but neither is it insurmountable. Wise Fool's two-year project, Baggage, may be the model of responsible ***image1***social theater. The genesis of the project was at forums in Albuquerque and at the San Juan Pueblo, where women of color told their stories of survival of domestic violence. The specificity was deliberate, says Wise Fool founder Amy Christian: "We wanted more stories of women of color." If you wonder how to justly interpret the story of a woman's suffering, you needn't. Director Cynthia Ruffin explains, "These stories are actually pretty direct retellings. We just kind of shaped the soup they exist in." Simmering, rethinking, removing and replacing ingredients of that soup took the remaining two years of Baggage's production and several community rehearsals and open feedback. A thoughtful construction, but how does the creation taste?
Open casting calls for women of color yielded four fiery actresses with very little traditional theatrical experience. The women were poets and storytellers, diviners; Ruffin started with basic ensemble building and encouraged an emotional bond to their characters, so that they weren't so much performing these stories as inhabiting them. The successful or flat delivery of individual lines isn't as resonant as the conviction these players carry through each performance. Hyda Maria Dougherty is as frail and gentle and terrified as her Maria Helena, the subjugated wife of a violent and jealous Mexican national. And Amaryllis DeJesus Moletski's Adina, a tagger with no family and a terrific terror of her father, is informed beautifully by the actress's own absorption in slam poetry and hip-hop culture.
Wise Fool's traditional mask-wearing, dancing, shadow-boxing fare is employed in Baggage, mostly successfully. The actresses use puppets as ancillary cast members, as ***image2***embodiments of concepts (entitlement, sexual abuse, economic disadvantage, etc) or as re-enactments of memories. The domestic violence, where re-enacted, is visually arresting and highly stylized, conveying the terror of the moment without devolving into sensationalism.
The theatrics do not always cohere with the mood and design of the piece, however. The four stories, told in neat before-and-after halves, are broken up at random intervals by the donning of double-faced white masks that enable them to explore all the horrific stereotypes and cultural misconceptions that cloud domestic violence. It is not so much the intention of these interludes, it's their strange orchestration, some delivered in newsflash! style, some darkly ironic, some bawdy as a middle-schooler, that seem very out of step with the straightforward, heartfelt intention of the rest of the play. Why depart from the immediacy of those true stories? Why editorialize a fraught issue that is otherwise so justly treated?
The set is simple and intimate-just a stack of baggage and four stools before it-and the players make full use of its meager boundaries, even managing, in a few square feet, to demonstrate a little capoeira, a daring Brazilian dance that incorporates fantastical self-defense maneuvers.
If you expect you'll be going to the Wise Fool Studios to watch as a cast of characters unpack their baggage, think again. At the end of the show, director Cynthia Ruffin asks the audience to participate in a visual survey, each member voluntarily standing in response to direct questions about the influence of domestic violence in their daily lives. Then she asks audience members to look around and remember that they are part of a community traumatized by and complicit in domestic violence. Go to Baggage as an audience member, but expect to delve into some of your own effects by the show's end.