Do you ever watch an experimental film and think it’s pretentious? Everyone tells you that it was great and that it was supposed to make you feel something. You walk out of the theater with apathy and confusion at which part you were supposed to cry about.
I’m happy to say that is not the case for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s “Food for the Gods,” which ended its run at the Nafe Katter Theatre on Dec. 12. Directed and written by Nehprii Amenii, the show uses unconventional storytelling and narrative techniques to explore the history and tragedy of Black men who were killed. The play’s running time was one hour, which means that no punches were pulled. Every minute was effectively used to explore the topic.
The first act consisted of a video montage projected onto a white wall. Pictures of Black men who have been murdered flashed by. Family pictures, newspaper clippings and mugshots created the chaotic archive. As the montage picked up speed, Casey Wortham (credited as GIRL on the playbill) appeared and grabbed at the wall. Her vain attempt to grasp at the disappearing faces was the first thematic hint to the audience about the futility of the tragedy at hand.
Suddenly, Wortham abruptly shouted at the audience. As she moved about the small room, some of us were forced to move to accommodate her. At one point, Wortham jumped onto a wooden tree stump, and I had to silently move my notebook further down the railing. The choice for Wortham to be located so close to the audience forced us to look in her eyes and confront the grim reality of the situation. She even spoke about how she was like us — how we tried to shut ourselves off from the news and from the world around us, but tragedy still finds us.
“Because in those days of the Greek, Black people were considered gods, and it was just that simple,” Wortham said. “There was no shame about it or reasons to hide it … Oh my, Sophocles, I bet you would have never imagined that one day your God would never get to take a stroll in the evening sun.”
Wortham’s fury and confusion burned in the audience’s faces as she then introduced the mythological nature of the play. The suffocating intimacy blurs the line between actor and spectator, engaging the audience’s attention.
For the second act, we were crammed into a black room with seemingly no ceiling in sight. Bodies were strewn across the floor, outlined in chalk like a massive crime scene (played by SAILORS). The scene was warmly lit by a few spotlights further contributing to the crime scene appearance.
The room’s acoustics, bolstered by the unusually tall ceiling, lent itself well to the sounds and speeches of the actors. For example, Kiera Prusmack (credited as SAILOR 1) appeared dressed in red and pounded a big bamboo stick into the ground. With each pound, the dead sailors rose and fell in harmony while taking deep breaths. The breaths reverberated around the walls as the sailors moved around and unfurled sails attached to other bamboo sticks. The dead Black men’s breaths provided life and “wind” to the sails, literally and figuratively becoming the foundation for a historical movement. As the audience sailed through time, the breaths served as a background to the sailors reading out the brutal fates of Black men over the past centuries. Slowly, their voices overrode one another to become a cacophonous tapestry of tragedy. The absence of music in this part of the act centered the voices and narratives. The conscious use of dynamics in the first act and the second act elevated the play. It also reminded us of what is important: the narratives.
Color is also subtly used to tell the stories in the show. As we walked through the maze that was formed after the monologues, we were handed red roses. After that, we were privy to another uncomfortably closed space, in which the intimacy allowed the audience to experience the actor’s raw emotions. Zoe Eklund (credited as MOTHER) played a queen clad in red royal garb, who made her way down to us, carrying a baby. What ensued was a heartbreaking conversation in which a mother teaches her child how to survive in a White world.
This part of the show offered the question of extending your life, but at what cost? Eklund implied that it costs one’s individuality, power and freedom. The theme of disappearing into the background of the world and becoming invisible reoccurred, compounded by the music. A mix of spoken word and hip-hop was performed, in which a deep voice boomed out the words “I am an invisible man.”
The mother wiled in sadness, doused in red light. The “baby” dropped to the floor, where red rose petals poured out of the bundle. Red is the color of love, anger and blood. In one way, the “blood” that spilled from the baby could represent the potential and terrifying fate of all Black babies. The performers giving the roses to the audience could also mean that we too are actors — with the tradition of spectators tossing flowers at the stage at the end of a performance — in the sense that we are compliant with the tragic reality. It is also worth mentioning that the prominent colors in “Food for the Gods” were red, white and blue, suggesting that the issues are uniquely American.
Another facet of the transmedia performance was the use of puppetry, prominently featured in the second and third act. As each sailor read out the obituaries, they waved and passed around a brown ancient mask. The mask is also prominently featured in the third act.In the third act, we descended from the stage (are we the actors?) and sat in the center of the theater. In front of us was a feast, fit for the gods and reminiscent of Jesus’ last supper, with Tony King (playing TROY DAVIS) at front and center. Instead of people filling in the remaining seats, actors behind the chairs commandeered wooden hands and the masks from earlier in the show. The decision to use puppetry to represent dead Black men at the table suggested that society defies tradition by letting these Black gods be murdered. The masks represented those who have been murdered and were another symbol of the facade that Black men wear to survive in an alien world. King’s voice dominated the room, captivating the audience with a quote from a slave owner who described how to torture and subdue a Black man.
While King’s performance was captivating, the play lost some steam at that point in the play. The puppet of Madam Coal Belly, a furnace with hands and a head adorned with African regalia, was awesome, but its purpose in the grand scheme of the play was obtuse and vague. Otherwise, the preceding act in which King called forward and baptized Black men who were missing from the table was a clever allusion to Christanity. Given that Christianity was historically used to justify slavery, there was a hint of irony under the baptism of these men. However, Black people later reclaimed Christianity to empower themselves. The play’s extensive use of metaphors and allusions to explore a heavy and complex topic is commendable.
A good work of art uses its medium to drive home its message. “Food for the Gods” intentionally defied established rules of the theater medium to explore the dehumanization of Black men throughout history. A great work of art will not leave you confused, but will invite complex interpretations. It makes you think. For example, I’m not entirely sure what Madam Coal Belly — a furnace with a head and springy arms — was supposed to symbolize in the third act. The choice to use certain names over others was interesting to me. Why was Troy Davis at the head of the table? Why were Tamir Race and George Floyd the Black men who were missing and called forward? Is it because of their social relevance? Is making the audience stand a statement in and of itself? Why was half of the audience perpendicular to the actors in the second act? That small point of contention meant that some of the momentum of the obituary speeches was lost on those who were facing the actors’ sides. But, I digress. I wholeheartedly encourage you to see the play in future runs, and I am excited to see what else Nehprii Amenii has in store.