A leggy showgirl hides behind a scarlet veil, miming the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil signs. “In order for evil to triumph,” she proclaims, “all that is necessary, is that good people do nothing!”
A little soft shoe, an ode to Brecht, a warning note in minor key… And so begins A Cabaret on War, a collective evening of monologues, skits, satire, and classical edgy cabaret examining individuals’ shifting identities as American citizens on the brink of a war fought, not voluntarily, in their names. The piece was conceived and directed by none other than the leggy showgirl herself—actor and organizer Abigail Gampel.
But where it really began was a few days after September 11, 2001, when Gampel and a group of other New Yorkers met in (playwright) Eve Ensler’s living room, to talk about the situation and what they could do to understand it. So was born New Yorkers Say No to War, a group which has met weekly ever since (growing exponentially along the way). And so too was born Gampel’s own political awakening.
“It’s funny to me that I’m doing political theater, because I’ve never been political,” says Gampel. She confesses going to that first meeting wanting revenge, to “go get ’em.” But over the course of the meetings—which were sessions in self-education, discussion, and “learning learning learning”—she began to see, alongside other probing citizens, how the present situation was the result of a complex string of American policies abroad. "I can think I’m sitting in my own little world, but the truth is we affect each other, it’s all interrelated. What our government does on the other side of the world is going to have repercussions on you and I started to realize, it’s time to take responsibility.”
In many ways, the trauma of 9/11, which has caused so many people to back this unrelated war on Iraq, has also prepared the theater community with a new language to protest the war. After 9/11, there were meetings and discussions, various information-sharing groups, people banding together to see a new world, or perhaps just to find a new lens to view the same world in a more enlightened way. There was talk of political theater, but the nearest thing to it was The Guys, a sadly simple play that chose to minimize the tragedy of the firemen lost to the World Trade Center, instead aggrandizing the "humility" of the journalist/playwright who was donating her time to write their elegies. Its only real distinction was being the quickest show to hit the stage, and harnessing stars to enable it.
Quietly in the shadows, however, artists have been doing something very subversive: learning, questioning, and seeking a new theatrical language to express their new insights. When Theaters Against War (THAW) formed in late 2002, the group’s intent was to create a day (March 2, 2003) for everyone to do what they do best—diverse, yet not necessarily political, theater. The idea was, on this day, for theater companies around the city to carry on with their shows, but to acknowledge simultaneously their opposition to the then-impending war against Iraq. The result was somewhat different. Several theaters simply mentioned THAW or gave a speech in addition to their pre-planned programming. But several other groups planned special events in direct dialogue with war. It was at one such event, co-sponsored by the Women’s Project and New Georges theaters, that I came across Abigail Gampel’s piece. The Women’s Project was presenting carefully selected scenes from plays by writers Naomi Wallace, Lavonne Mueller, Emily Mann, Maria Irene Fornes, Carmen Rivera, and Andrea Lepcio; and New Georges was offering A Cabaret on War.
Perhaps what makes the form of a cabaret so well suited to political theater is its intentional makeshift aesthetic. Conventional theater can take agonizingly long to write and see performed—its ability to respond to current events thus has clear limitations. By contrast, the form of cabaret stitches together skits and monologues, little slots of commentary and reaction that can be changed and exchanged so as to respond to swiftly changing political events with the speed, nearly, at which they emerge.
WOMAN WITH SCARF
We bring in a tap dancer, a philosopher, a mother, a young lover, a father, an activist,
A singing chef, an actress, a lawyer, a man over 6’2"
(the individuals step forward from the darkness as they are mentioned)
Find the connections to the past.
And trust that the voices of human beings
Telling their stories
In this dark and sacred space
This cabaret is made particularly refreshing by the real people it includes, many of whom are not theater people by trade. Gampel met some collaborators through New Yorkers Say No to War, and the rest come from her life as a performer. She worked with the non-actor/writers to develop their stories into theatrical voices. Julissa Reynoldo (whose monologue is highlighted here) is a Dominican American activist and lawyer living in the Bronx. Carol Kaplan, who questions the many identities that might define her besides the blanket term “American,” is a Jewish South African lawyer, among other things. And yes, Jackie Gordon is indeed a singing chef.
Chris Cuomo, “the philosopher” (as in Ph.D.) and activist, delivers a scathingly “deep revision of lyrics written by Kid Rock.” Entitled “Headin’ to the White House,” and with the refrain “I want to be a cowboy, baby,” there’s little question as to who the piece is really about:
Well I’m a packin up my game, headin to the West Wing
The Supremes said that I could do the President thing
In a nest on the hill I’ll chill like Flynt
And let my big brother have a spot to pimp
building to and culminating in…
Walk like a sailor, fight like a mic
My only words of wisdom are "suck my dick"
I’m removing regulations up and down the coast and
I’ll keep on truckin till it falls in the oc-ean
With the top let back and the sunshine shinin
Don’t try to tell me that life ain’t fine
Na na na na nana nee na nay
I can smell your fear from a mile away…
By the time Cuomo builds to her character’s aptly inarticulate response to all naysayers: “suck my dick” (props to Kid Rock for the original lyrics), the irony of the testosterone-driven language of rap, merged with that of political power, is striking. Particularly as drawled by this formerly-unassuming, petite blonde professor of philosophy—who is now rocking her pelvis through the two long low syllables of "cowboy" like she’s riding out the slow thrust of a raging bull—the performance creates a moment of startling recognition, distanciation even, between the role she is playing and the person we assume she is.
Other highlights from the cabaret include Gampel’s torchy rendition of Brecht’s devastating poem “Ballad of the Dead Soldier,” tap-dancing, and even a spirited rendering of “Duck Soup” (yes, as in the Marx Brothers). The overall effect, however, is of individuals at a point of crisis, searching through their own histories amidst missives on the impact of wars past and present. As if to say: our personal and national histories are bound, and self-reflection on both fronts is the only key to resolution.
A Cabaret on War conceived and directed by Abigail Gampel, will be crop up in dark, bare spaces around New York. To find out about future performances, check in with www.NYSaynotowar.org.