“People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”
– Lillian Smith
Transcontinental sailing voyages, rafts crossing the Pacific, submarine voyages to the ocean depths, treks to the North and South Poles, and now the space program. Some people in every society seem to want to explore, escape, head off somewhere else in the hope of finding something better, or at least something new and different.
However, wherever we go, we bring ourselves. Our unspoken assumptions, values, hopes and dreams about how the world should be. So, with that, how can we create a better society that is more welcoming, kinder and fairer to each of its members? Is there really something ‘else’ out there we can find or build?
The two lead characters of Ragged Wing Ensemble’s new play Multiverse, Yin and Zee, head off in spacesuits towards many alternate universes in search of a better world.
As shown by an encounter in the subway between a well-dressed woman and a homeless man asking for change, the people in the society they leave behind continually harm each other through misunderstanding and prejudice. When the characters freeze, a voice-over reveals their thoughts, and we see that the woman assumes the man is merely lazy and the man assumes the woman has no struggles since she’s housed, although she’s deep in student loan debt.
Illuminating the internal thoughts and assumptions of each character is done effectively throughout the entire production, one of this play’s great strengths. Telling dialogue, body language as characters turn away or toward each other, and side conversations that begin among the minor characters in a scene show a more complex picture of what happens and how people are treated in each encounter and each society.
As Zee and Yin travel, we observe highlights of a few of their destinations. The first ‘universe’ assigns people status in society based on their performance on a test administered to all citizens. While some citizens believe this is fair, as everyone has the chance to take the test and they are supposedly being judged on merit, the universal system imposes one single standard of merit on everyone and definitely designates have-nots who are less rewarded. They include one of the staff members welcoming our voyagers, who gets defensive at the very mention of her score. Her anger, and the other official’s violent reaction to it, provoke Zee and Yin to take off for elsewhere.
They next encounter a world where activists explicitly combat social injustice and exclusion through a traveling theater show where they enjoy themselves, singing and dancing as they proclaim enlightened-sounding words of inclusion. However, glitter and positive thinking seem inadequate to combat intergenerational cycles of poverty and violence, and Zee and Yin again decide to look elsewhere.
While this scene offers a nuanced, and valid, satirical perspective, it could have been enhanced by including some kind of specific interaction similar to the woman’s shame over her low score in the previous society to show as well as tell its message. The physical aspects of the scene – the huge gestures and over-the-top facial expressions, and the way the performers take up the entire stage with their show and talk over the oppressed whom they’re supposedly helping – convey the message in a humorous way that’s enjoyable to watch. Yet, some sort of encounter, spoken or nonverbal, that demonstrated the weakness of this sort of approach to fostering human understanding, would have brought home the point more directly.
The show returns to Earth for another spare-change encounter, this time with two people of color who also misinterpret each other due to racial and gender stereotypes. This one caught my attention a little more than the first as it brought up some issues I hadn’t yet considered.
Then the lights dim and the characters walk across the stage in white spacesuits in firm, determined lines, while narrators read out lists of scientific and psychological/sociological terminology. Accretion disks, the floating space debris that comes together to form a planet, and saudade, the Portuguese term for the grief induced by nostalgia and longing, may never have been used before in the same poem. Here, the juxtaposition mostly works, as an effort to link humanity’s physical and psychological wanderings, although the writers could have worked the scientific and space motifs elsewhere into the piece to highlight this connection and make the thematic linkage seem more natural.
Next, in a very thoughtful, complex turning point, Zee and Yin reach a place with a dimly lit painted background evocative of the American West. Here on this frontier, though, there are no people, wildlife or objects, but our travelers have the ability to create facsimiles of anything and anyone through the power of their imaginations.
Zee loves this new world, seeing it as a way to finally fully express himself without others’ control or oppression. Yin, however, considers the place lonely and empty, and misses the company of her childhood books and real, although imperfect, people. As Zee chides her for her lack of imagination, the two debate for awhile before the final scene, a vibrant memory of Yin’s of talking with her abuelo (grandfather) under the dappled light from the trees in his yard.
This contrast brought to mind some modern parallels: the freedom and innovation of Bay Area startup culture versus the isolation induced by the long work hours, the tension between using social media to create one’s own social echo chamber versus grappling with perspectives different from one’s own, the concept of creating a better world from scratch versus looking to one’s past and history for inspiration.
Overall, Multiverse has potential, both in terms of its production values and its social commentary. I would recommend that thoughtful audiences see the show!
Multiverse … beyond the broken universe is created and performed by the ensemble cast of Rachel Brown, Fenner, Tatiana Chaterji, Inocente Po Guizar, Emmy Pierce, Julius Rea, and Ryan Takemiya. Amy Sass is the dramaturg.
Multiverse runs Oct 27-November 11th at the Flight Deck in downtown Oakland. Tickets are available here.