Making documentary theatre takes great discipline and a touch of innovative genius. The Civilians and Anna Deavere Smith are exemplars of how to do it. With its new work, America Is Hard To See, Life Jacket Theatre has proven itself to be a strong new practitioner in this genre.
Writer and director Travis Russ certainly hasn’t made it easy for himself. His foray into this demanding genre takes on a doozy of a subject that requires viewers to undertake Herculean feats of empathy, particularly viewed in the context of today’s political climate.
At a moment when sexual offenders of various stripes are being exposed and berated on a daily basis, Life Jacket introduces us to the residents of Miracle Village, a community for sex offenders in the sugarcane fields of Southern Florida— and asks us to give them a fair shake. It’s a tall order and some viewers will likely find the timing simply too inauspicious to meet it.
Russ used hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 70 of the residents (recorded between 2015 and 2016) as well as hundreds of pages of field notes to craft the narrative. Original songs—also crafted with words spoken by real people— come courtesy of Priscilla Holbrook.
The theater makers are active participants in the story, and we see the impact of that on their subjects, who are anxious about the presence of these outsiders. A particularly explosive scene happens early on in the show: a monthly therapy session quickly degenerates in large part because of the presence of a tape recorder in the room. One character accuses the others of putting on a show for the visitors.
The play depicts those characters with empathy, but also honesty. They are introduced as normal human beings, as opposed to “criminals” or “monsters.” However, the audience is also made aware that those characters can be unreliable narrators because of their desire to portray themselves in a favorable light. And the show raises profound questions worth pondering: Is there a clear line between punishment and rehabilitation? How do you measure guilt? Is there an expiration date for redemption?
One of the first things made clear by Russ, in full Brechtian fashion, is that audiences should have more questions after seeing the play than they had coming in to the theater. And the show delivers what it promises. Owing perhaps to the fact that the characters are based on real people, they are successfully portrayed as nuanced individuals embroiled in complex situations. Cast members prove adept at switching between multiple roles—and in some cases, between multiple genders— and accessing the humor and pain in deeply flawed characters that audiences are inclined to dislike instinctually. They also sing together quite nicely, particularly during the traditional Methodist hymns that are woven into the narrative.
We follow the daily routines of the community as well as the histories of each of the characters, but ultimately their stories converge into the main thrust of the plot, which concerns a pastor (Amy Gaither Hayes) from a nearby town, who ends up taking in a number of the residents and allowing them to attend her religious services. Much of the conflict arises because people from the surrounding community resist the presence of the Miracle Village residents.
At that point, the central concern of the play becomes the reintegration of this isolated community to normalcy. It’s about how they are able to start new lives, new relationships and to a certain extent, how they reckon with the things they’ve done in the past.
Music plays a crucial role in this production. While some of the songs work better than others, the musical part of the show often elevates the dramatic tension and direct the audience’s attention to significant moments. The music also serves a function in the plot itself, as it ultimately becomes a means of communication between the two communities.
Although the narrative is certainly sympathetic toward the plight of the Miracle Village residents, Russ manages to present a multitude of perspectives that complicate our feelings about them. One character in his 20s, Chris (David Spadora), claims he wasn’t aware that his girlfriend at the time of his arrest was a 14 year old. Later, however, we get to hear her testimony in court, in which she says Chris abused her. At the same time, we see Chris find new, healthy love with the pastor’s daughter. Audiences, however, are challenged to make up their own minds about cases like this, and to not simply take things at face value.
It’s not easy to craft a nuanced story about a population so routinely and swiftly demonized. But Life Jacket Theatre makes the case that such an exercise is not just possible, but necessary.
America Is Hard to See runs to February 24th. More production info can be found here.