TheatreFirst's 'Between Us' Explores Complicity, Social Justice and Art

General Smedley Butler (Aaron Murphy) is haunted by what he knows. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

How could you have let that happen? How could you have watched? Why didn’t you intervene?

These days, when complicity has become such a potent, possibly criminal question (in our government, businesses, and private lives), TheatreFirst’s two-program collection of seven one-act monologues, Between Us, presents a group of men and women who got in the way. After witnessing the hardships they endure -- psychological, familial, economic, and social -- it’s hard to blame anyone who turns a blind eye and goes on their way.

It’s a fascinating experiment in social justice activism and art, made more so by the variety of people testifying. Two of the seven are everywoman composites, while the other five are or concern real people -- renowned 19th century Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau; Philippine labor organizer Larry Itliong; a Uruguayan literature student Nibia Sabalsagaray; Aiko Herziog-Yoshinaga, an activist who uncovered crucial documents on the Japanese internment; and Major General Smedley Butler, who stymied a plot by American business interests to overthrow President Franklin Roosevelt.

Voo Doo Priestess Marie Laveau (Dezi Solèy) conjures us some spells in the past and for our future present.
Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau (Dezi Solèy) conjures us some spells in the past and for our future present. (Photo: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

As information, both programs are terrific. You get a kind of running commentary on what it means to actually take a stand, to dedicate your life to not caving in under pressure. Unfortunately, as drama, five of the seven one-acts fail to come to theatrical life. The other two, though somewhat successful, are still shaky.

Playwrights such as Wallace Shawn (The Fever and The Designated Mourner) and Adrienne Kennedy (The Ohio St. Murders) have used the one-person lecture format to devastating ends. Yet none of the plays of Between Us have either the formal sophistication or the political and social vision necessary to testify against the world. Noelle Viñas’ La Profesora and Jeanne Sakata’s Turning the Page are prime examples of how difficult it is to dramatize what is essentially information.

Tachi (Virginia Blanco) lectures the audience on South American geography.
Tachi (Virginia Blanco) lectures the audience on South American geography. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

In La Profesora, Tachi, a young teacher, is fired for a lesson she gives to her class on the Uruguayan government’s summary execution of a university student. As a fact, U.S.-backed 1970s South American death squads are a depressing commonplace. It’s hard to imagine in 2018 someone hired to bring a “South American perspective in a Literature of Human Rights class” and then fired for talking about such things.

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It’s possible, I guess, but the drama seems ginned up to give Nibia Sabalsagaray’s story greater contemporary relevance than it has. This is not to say that mining the history of cases like these isn't important, just that Viñas hasn’t found a way to give this case or the general situation dramatic shape. We care about the situation as an abstraction, but nothing more. You can’t compel engagement simply by declaring importance.

Turning the Page suffers a similar fate. Without doubting the tremendous hardships of Aiko Herziog-Yoshinaga’s life -- one moment she was anticipating her senior prom and the next she was in an interment camp in Manzanar -- Jeanne Sakata hasn’t found a way to give her life, her research, or her work as a political activist any sense of occasion.

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (Heidi Kobra) makes a discovery that throws new light on the injustices of the Japanese internment.
Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (Heidi Kobra) makes a discovery that throws new light on the injustices of the Japanese internment. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

Herziopg-Yoshinaga’s discovery of early drafts of internment policy, proving that there was never a military justification for the internment, is a significant achievement. It was one of the major factors that lead to an official U.S. apology and financial reparations for the injustices inflicted on the Japanese-American community. Yet, Sakata’s writing never rises above the facts of the matter, and so what should be revelatory comes off as a dry lecture, a reenactment of something we already know.

The two most successful plays of each program -- Jeffrey Lo’s Seven Fingers and James Tracy and Jon Tracy’s The Racket -- come to life in the vibrancy of their characters and a sense of the tremendous stakes they faced. In thinking of what TheatreFirst is trying to achieve with Between Us, they’re interesting models for the future.

Seven Fingers tells the story of Larry Itliong’s quest to organize Philippine farm workers, his conflicts with Cesar Chavez, and how he managed to convince Chavez and his own people to join forces. There’s no other way to say it: Lo’s Itliong is fun. Here is a man who revels in the minutiae of union politics and gets his kicks from maneuvering through them.

Larry Itliong explains the ins and outs of his union organizing with Cesar Chavez.
Larry Itliong explains the ins and outs of his union organizing with Cesar Chavez. (Photo: Randy Wong-Westbrooke)

Unlike much of Between Us, we’re in a complex world and under the guidance of a daffy and quite human guide who seems perpetually unperturbed (“I got the ability to make you think I’m pretty,” he says at one point). When Itliong finally achieves a deal with Chavez and they form the United Farm Workers of America, you’re caught in another person’s vision of the world -- and that has a real weight to it.

One shared goal of political activism and the theater is the demand to feel the pain and triumph of others. When the goofy Itliong finally says in a moment of reflection, “We got tired. We got hungry. We got beaten. We got abused. But… We stayed brave. Five long years” -- you pay attention to that five years, realize the immense struggle he’s been describing, and feel the sting of having to fight for so long for such basic rights. There’s nothing abstract about it, especially since over the course of 25 minutes Itliong has been entertaining and become something of a friend.

These are not successful evenings of theater overall, but I would hate for TheaterFirst to give up on the notion of trying something like this again -- just with better scripts.

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'Between Us’ runs through Saturday March 10 at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.

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