Exorcising Our Demons
By Tom Wachunas
“To insult someone we call him ‘bestial.’ For deliberate cruelty and nature, ‘human’ might be the greater insult.” –Isaac Asimov-
“Cruelty is a mystery and a waste of pain.” –Annie Dillard-
“…And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” -1 Kings 19:12-
Let me take off the formal critic’s hat for a bit and unashamedly tend to the heart on my sleeve. Voices From Hurt Street isn’t a conventional “play.” Physical scenery is minimal, though the production has seared vivid images into my consciousness. There is no linear story line or “plot,” but rather a plight - the plight of demoralized victims and perpetrators locked in a savage dance of sorts, caught up in the throbbing rhythms of human cruelty.
The multi-genre production, directed by Brian Newberg, was written by students from the Theatre Department at Kent State University Stark, and consists of true, personal stories of bullying, domestic violence and other manifestations of abusive relationships. For my part, a further description of what transpires on stage would be tantamount to a blow-by-blow account of relentless assaults, both literal and symbolic, physical and spiritual. Dramaturg Robert Miltner characterizes the production in his program note as, among other things, a fusion of “… cuttings, dialogues, monologues, memoirs, lyrical essays, short fictions, parodies, social statements, prose poems, found poems, formal or free verse poems, performance pieces and choral recitations.”
Yikes. This stage event, then, is a daunting journey through anguished utterances. While the 12 members of the cast perform their multiple roles with wholly believable and poignant urgency, some theater goers may be put off by the gritty sexual content and strong “adult” language. Putting aside for the moment the cast’s artful delivery of heartrending drama, those seeking the pleasantries of escapist entertainment would not be well-served.
Willingly or not, we as audience members are participants in this work if only to the extent that by now we’re all acutely aware of the maladies it addresses. Like countless other works of stage literature that present the tragedy of damaged or destroyed lives, this one does an admirable job of identifying (here, like an emotional battering ram) the havoc sown and reaped by corrupted human hearts. A gruesome inventory indeed. But awareness alone, or a litany of traumas in this context, no matter how powerfully presented, can be unsatisfying if not meaningless unless it invokes lasting change or, at the very least, the possibility of healing.
Can art do that? Can art be that cathartic? Should it be? This is where things get really personal. “Drama has the power to do so many positive things,” director Brian Newberg tells us in the conclusion of his program note, “and one of those things is to change lives.” I think it’s crucial to remember that the maladies illustrated in this play are indicative of not only our physical, mental and emotional dysfunctions, but also compelling evidence of the terrible spiritual malaise that increasingly afflicts our culture. It’s an affliction effectively symbolized in one scene wherein an angry, arrogant man asserts that through all the hurt and turmoil in his life, he sees God as detached and laughing at us. For him in this story, and many like him outside the story, that’s a perceived truth, and a sad world view which for me is far from The Truth.
That said, the production merits our thoughtful attention to its unflinching declaration of brutalized life experiences. Even as its vision of hope amid unspeakable suffering is understated, it nonetheless conveys a palpable solidarity among determined survivors, a community bound together in its pain.
In the end I was reminded that really meaningful healing starts with Christ-like compassion for both the victims and those who torment them. Do unto others…Compassion isn’t a feeling. It’s a verb.
Voices From Hurt Street, at Kent State Stark Theatre (located in the Fine Arts building), 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Shows are Friday, April 19 and Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21 at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $10 for adults and $7 for non-Kent State students, children under 17 and senior citizens. All Kent State students are admitted free of charge with current student ID. Reserve tickets online at www.stark.kent.edu/theatre or call the Kent State Stark Theatre Box Office at 330-244-3348, Mondays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m.