Let me begin to say this: art is not supposed to provide a safe space for anyone. Art is a reflection of society, theater its stage mirror. I say this not only because of recent events, but because it does fit with this review. You see, on Friday night an audience came to see a show billed as “No Man’s Land,” the story of Jeremiah Heaton, a father from Virginia who plants a flag in a land on Africa to claim it as his and make his daughter’s dream of becoming a princess a reality. Just reading that makes you go “awww” in your head, I know, we all did. It also mentions that they will explore racism and white privilege…those two things somehow do not go together yet they make everything much more interesting. How will they combine a Disney-like story with the real turmoil we are living in nowadays? How they did it is a perfect example of why the theater is not and should not be safe.
Written and directed by Melissa Moschitto, from an idea the company itself developed together, this play starts by showing how edgy it can be. It wants us to know it’s trying to be controversial and baits us into thinking this play is one of the sanctimonious plays that will use any cheap trick to feel relevant. I mean, they have a black man playing a white man to expose the obvious hypocrisy of the man’s action and that’s not something new. It has been used effectively for so long it’s starting to lose its luster. In most cases, it feels like a gimmick.
Then, we get a diverse cast of players to come in and join him on stage, with cheap cardboard costumes and ridiculous dialogue. The whole thing was starting to feel like one of those plays people sit down and write while they sing “Kumbaya” and pat each other’s back for how they are going to save the world. Then the wool was pull from over our eyes, and the whole evening turned, stripping everything we’ve seen and starting a topical conversation where there was none to begin with. Not just any topical conversation, but the one of our individual roles in this America. What comes next is a trip across the different feelings we all own and the guilt that comes with them.
But that’s not all — each actor gets to represent their own perspectives on how to tell Jeremiah’s story. In the process, we learn about the Native American struggle, the inherent racism in the heart of this country, the place in which white allies in this climate can exist, and more importantly, the confusion of the new communal laws that are being created. And it’s not heavy handed, it feels like a real conversation between people. Their criticism of Disney as a company is done with such class, yet such anger, that it resonates. And they call it out for creating images in which people’s action are justified because of a cute goal. The exposition of these actions was not only sharp, but it is the most important discussion they had. Disney’s power over youth could very well be altering our sense of truth.
I do not want to say much about the plot, it would be a disservice to you and to them. It is a disservice because this play is everything I love about going to the theater. The danger, the conversations, the fact that art can make you think beyond the laughter and cheap entertainment. A day before this one I saw a show that encapsulated everything I dislike about the theater scene nowadays, the over reliance on old work and the lack of care about what you can say. “No Man’s Land” is the opposite. We are asked to sit down and see a show, but what we are given is something more precious. The play itself may not be perfect, but the outcome of its study elevates it. TheaterLab’s production of “No Man’s Land” will be running until December 11. Don’t miss it, this is a relevant show.
Out of four stars:
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