In the theater, you’re safe assuming that everything is a lie. The dude in the doublet is not really a Danish prince, but by pretending to be one, his lie is converted into something useful, entertaining, even true. Theatrical mechanisms glide when they’ve been oiled with falsehood: It’s what the machine was designed for. But what happens when you get something real in the gears?
Two pieces opening this week stop the fiction-machine — mid-flow — with a jerk. In the middle of their play Suicide Forest, Haruna Lee derails a burlesque about a Japanese office worker by introducing the performer-writer’s actual mother to the audience. In Jillian Walker’s milder work SKiNFoLK, Walker keeps interrupting her experimental cabaret of black womanhood with a slideshow of her own ancestors. In each, the disruption-via-reality is the point; both plays get their charge from the makers’ biographies slamming into delicate theatrical cogs and wheels. Both plays are interested in identity and intergenerational communication; both are also full of cracks and fissures and disjunctions. In their case, smoothness would be the lie.
Suicide Forest begins with a visitation. A woman in red (Aoi Lee) with wild hair and a white-painted face — a Butoh ghost or spirit — crosses the stage, moaning. Pendulous bags hang at various heights from the ceiling like exaggerated teardrops, swinging, somehow viscous. She moves among them and then disappears behind the rudimentary set, a room with red and pink walls, which will sometimes be an office, sometimes a karaoke bar, sometimes a love hotel. For the first section of the play, in which the Tokyo Salaryman (Eddy Toru Ohno) suffers serial mortifications in all those locations, we know she’s back there behind everything, occasionally appearing on the other side of a two-way mirror, darkly.
Haruna Lee is playing a frightening comic game with Salaryman. He’s a wild-eyed traveler through a fraught landscape, where work — personified by his superior-slash-buddy (Keizo Kaji) and office lady (Yuki Kawahisa) — reduces him to a quivering wreck. He’s forced to contort himself into what others want from him, so Ohno assumes a half-bowing, half cringing crouch as he scampers through his scenes. His daughters (Ako and Dawn Akemi Saito) boss him too, and they burst into his office giggling and wearing Harajuku streetwear — the ruffles and pink-and-purple wigs of the “Lolita” style — and dragging their quasi-comatose sex-doll school-chum Azusa (the playwright, Haruna Lee) with them. After they leave, Azusa lies dead-eyed and limp on Salaryman’s office couch, and his face lights up, eager to dominate something of his very own.
Haruna Lee’s play plunges us directly into the nesting coils of fetish and assault and shame, and Lee places their own character right in the heart of it. Coughing and choking, Azusa wakes from her awful stupor and starts to demand things and develop desires too. Overmatched again, Salaryman refers yearningly to the “forest at the base of our national mountain,” and we begin to reinterpret those weird dangling bags as bodies, swaying slightly as performers move past them. At this point, Lee literally goes out the window.
Azusa finds a portal behind the mirror and flees through it, and the show breaks. Shock follows shock: We find ourselves on Mount Fuji in the fog, among gentle person-size goats; then the Butoh ghost emerges to terrify them. Haruna Lee suddenly drops character and starts talking to us about moving to Seattle from Japan in the ’90s; the other actors drop their pretense too. Lee asks the ghost questions in loving Japanese — Aoi Lee is, in actual fact, their mother. While we thought Suicide Forest was talking about the attraction and degradation that you find in both desire narratives and divided-identity stories, it turns out there was a mirror-project happening all along. The nature of that project stays deliberately shadowed: Aoi Lee’s own artistry is certainly part of it — all that dancing out of sight — but also Haruna Lee’s attempt to make a show in which they relinquish the control (as playwright, as American, as mother’s child) that they perceive at the core of so much damage.
Suicide Forest is superb. It was wonderful last year when it was at the Bushwick Starr (one of the year’s most thrilling shows), and we should all go see it again, now that the Ma-Yi Theater Company has transferred it uptown for a second run — away from that cursed weekend L train.
To my eye, the production hasn’t changed, which means that Jian Jung’s two-walled set seems a little rumpled and unsteady in its posh new digs; what looked homespun and sweet at the Starr can look a bit rickety in a crisp new black box. (Soak it in fog and let Jeanette Oi-suk Yew’s lights filter through the haze, though, and it goes back to looking like a million bucks.) The performances under director Aya Ogawa’s care are sharper and bigger than ever — the cast is a rogue’s gallery of comic artists — and, even having seen it last year, I found it still had surprises tucked away in its sleeves. A second time, for instance, you see the choreography of seemingly candid moments. But honesty from a stage isn’t only honesty — it’s been thickened and complicated by having been made into performance. Haruna Lee delivers a dense truth, a thick truth. It’s the kind of stuff that, once it gets into you, it sinks all the way to the bottom.
By comparison, Jillian Walker’s SKiNFoLK: An American Show is more buoyant, and, despite various doubts voiced by Walker herself, less existentially fearsome. The theater at the Bushwick Starr has been changed into an underground juke joint — literally underground. In You-Shin Chen’s set, roots dangle from the ceiling, and light seems to peer through from a single crack in a concrete slab overhead.
SKiNFoLK is also about roots of the other sort. The bulk of the choreopoetic show is monologue, dance (choreographed by nicHi douglas) and songwork (co-composed by Kasaun Henry) for Tsebiyah Mishael Derry, Lori Sinclair Minor, and Walker. The logic is dream-association, so one moment Minor will be playing Richard Nixon (I can not tell you why, for my life), in another the electric Derry will be a chanteuse with hypnotic powers. Walker, though, talks in elliptical phrases about her family: The particular shade of her skin, she tells us, is a record, but she can’t be sure of what. She laughs about a putative Cherokee ancestor (every black family has one, she says, mock-seriously); she imagines a life for a single photo of a black great-grandmother; she talks more critically of the images of whiteness she saw in her grandmother’s house — the white Jesuses, the white cherubs with white hands folded in prayer.
The music is always good, always propulsive, but Walker’s musings turn so far inward the show loses a sense of forward motion. Mei Ann Teo’s direction and dramaturgy stay so loose that SKiNFoLK sometimes just drifts — tethered to Walker’s interest in her background, but needing a further sense of direction to carry us through its 100 minutes. The best moments were unscripted breaks, in which Walker’s actual charisma showed suddenly bright. For instance, the night I saw it, there was a little microphone snafu. Walker stopped the show and called down the appropriate person to fix it. She looked out at us while we waited. “Everybody doing all right?” she asked. She was easy in command, casually powerful.
Also that night, Walker mentioned that she was a bit nervous: Her grandmother was with us in the audience. In that instant, a line of force was established, between Walker in her fawn-colored dress and the lady sitting high up in the top row. That line-of-contact stayed consistent throughout the night, and you could almost see sparks running along it. Those references to her grandmother’s white Jesus pictures froze your blood, and a poem in which Walker talked about what her grandmother “really” meant when she said she was proud had us checking in with that back row. How did the actual living woman feel about her granddaughter putting words in her mouth? Suddenly, SKiNFoLK had skin in the game.
So why is it so exciting when an artist doesn’t simply talk about a mother or grandmother, but actually brings her somehow into the performance? Comedy clearly likes that danger (David Letterman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Gary Gulman have all done it); it’s turned up in music-theater (Ahamefule Oluo had his mother sing “Send in the Clowns” in Susan) and the avant-garde has plumbed it since Spalding Gray and the Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road. The mother-child boundary is still the hardest envelope to push: Mothers smash into their children’s artifice each time — comets with slightly disappointed eyes. In our oversharing, constantly documented age, mere autofiction doesn’t seem brave. You’re talking about your first masturbation experience, as Haruna Lee does? Beginner stuff. You note the oppressive whiteness of your grandmother’s faith? Bush league. But facing your mother or grandma while you say those things feels truly transgressive and thrilling. Our skin sizzles when we see these mega-real moments: That’s an actual relationship up there, we think, full of judgment and risk — it’s harder to confess to your mom than to strangers. So if you want to find the theater with the keenest cutting edge, check the cast list. Look for a mother. Cherchez la femme.
Suicide Forest is at the A.R.T./New York Theatre through March 21.
SKiNFoLK: An American Show is at the Bushwick Starr through March 21.