To create Panorama, a reflection on identity that is defined here as nomadic and post-nationalistic, by Italy’s boundary-defying Motus Theatre, the company came to the right place: New York City. Few places on earth rival it for ethnic and cultural diversity. The city boasts the largest population of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, West Indians and Chinese outside of those countries and that region, and it is said that close to 170 languages are spoken just in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens. Indeed, the actors of La MaMa’s resident company, the Great Jones Repertory, who lent their stories to the show, reflect that mix, with roots in the DR, Ireland, Vietnam, Korea, China, Africa and Turkey.
However, Motus’ founders Enrico Casagrande and Daniela Nicolò came to New York with a more pressing reason in mind: the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants to this country. As Casagrande and Nicolò write in the publicity materials for the show’s premiere in the Under the Radar festival this week: “It would be almost trite to highlight the relevance of this project within the context of the nefarious victory of President Trump and his first legislative acts. Panorama rubs salt into one of the deepest – and never healed – wounds of the ‘land of the free,’ namely its relationship with borders and those who cross them.”
This 80-minute show doesn’t give itself much time to unpack some very large issues and consequently seems constrained to explore these tensions indirectly. The Trump administration’s travel ban is never explicitly mentioned, and restrictions on Asian migration in the first half of the 20th century (which ended with the Immigration Act of 1965) are alluded to briefly, insomuch as they influenced how and when some of the actors’ families came to the US. But the differences between current and historical policy are quickly felt; spectators who remember their history will easily draw a contrast between current immigration policy and the welcome extended to Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon through the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which played a role in the resettlement in the US of the family of an actress in the show. Panorama makes a muted statement about how US immigration policy has evolved, and very quickly, of late.
But if policy is the impetus for the show, identities – or rather an aspirational movement beyond identity and its usually limiting parameters – are its focus. Panorama is structured first as a series of interviews of members of the Great Jones troupe on the ostensibly simple (in practice, far more complicated) question of “who are you?” and secondly as a suite of devised vignettes that go deeper into that question as it relates to the personal journeys of the six performers in the show: Maria Nguyen Donahue, eugene the poogene, John Gutierrez, Valois Marie Mickens, Zishan Ugurlu and Perry Yung. These sections tell of road trips and head trips, of separated and reunited families, of moves and displacements, of intentional and unintentional name changes, of conflicts and discoveries on the journey to self-acceptance as an “other” in mainstream white America. In somewhat the same way as the Algerian-born French writer Albert Camus claimed allegiance not to France but to the French language, the six actors of Panorama answer the question “who are you” not by defining themselves as Americans or Chinese or any other nationality or ethnicity, but as artists, first and foremost (and as members of the resident company of La MaMa, whose founder, Ellen Stewart, insisted on creating a theater “of all nations and cultures” in New York).
Yet, where Panorama is the most effective in answering the question as to how “borders and those who cross them” are defined in a country both created by immigrants and stubbornly forgetful of that fact, is in the show’s opening interviews, in which the actors swap biographical information, telling each others’ stories in the first person. It’s a simple ruse but one that effectively challenges stereotypes of what it means to be Dominican or Korean or any ethnicity in America, and what those identities “look” like to those who do not share those backgrounds. This opening also carries an emotional authenticity that felt lacking in the devised skits, notwithstanding the simultaneous projection in those sections of personal photos of the actors at different stages of their lives (perhaps as an attempt to fill the affective void). Live-streamed video provides close-ups of the real authors of those biographical interviews, reacting as their lives are narrated by their fellow actors. Competing emotions of surprise, laughter and restlessness played over their faces to capture with an eloquent immediacy the vulnerability that must be allowed in the act of articulating oneself in semantics, and then handing those semantics to someone else. It reminds us, too, of what immigrants face every day that they walk into society and are held in the gaze of their “native” counterparts.
Casagrande and Nicolò take their inspiration for Panorama from a fellow Italian, the philosopher Rosa Braidotti, but do not cite the larger conceptual framework from which her ideas derive, notably Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, and its remarkable expression in the fiction and philosophical treatises of the Martinican Edouard Glissant, whose “poetics of relation” inform Motus’ project, even if they are unaware of it. The “nomadic identities” the project seeks are largely a construct of academia and are even more rarely referenced in the US than in Europe, where the concept at least has a toehold in the collective unconscious of the borderless Schengen Area.
Panorama opens a window into an artistic community above all, one that appears here to be as grounded, even rooted, in the Deleuzian sense, in the space/time of early 21st century America as anywhere else. Not exactly nomadic, but a vibrant celebration of what really makes America great: the quality of its people, from every corner of the world, and inspired to create beauty in whatever they do.
Panorama runs to January 21 in Under the Radar. More production info can be found here.