Meditations on Nationalism

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Nationalism as 1 : loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.  I’m a proud member of Team USA.  Born and raised under the red, white and blue.  I chant U-S-A when watching the Olympics or at the World Cup (except this year) and I support the United States above all other countries.  Does that make me a nationalist?  “Make America Great again” is a just return to nationalism right?  Meditations on Nationalism is not a lighthearted comedy or heart wrenching drama.  It is a devised piece using spoken word, historical references, images, music and performance art.  Meditations on Nationalism is a political punch in the throat.  I will try to tell you about it below, but Meditation on Nationalism is something you have to experience for yourself.  Strap in kids, this is going to be a raw and heavyride!

I knew I was in for an interesting night of theater when the Dramaturgical notes took up two pages and there was a works cited page.  Was this a college essay on nationalism or a theatrical performance?  Dramaturg Laura Holland (doing double duty as an ensemble member) did a lot of work in this play and it showed.  I applaud her!  Her work and research were the soul of the show and Director Ryan Clarks ability to bring the research together into a cohesive devised work was herculean.  This show was a fest for the eyes, the ears and the mind.  I’ve heard that some people come to the theater to escape reality and that never really made sense to me.  I go to theater to feel, to think, to question, to engage and to be entertained.  Theater is meant to be active and evoke something inside you.  There was no escaping reality in this show.  It was in your face the whole time.  Meditations on Nationalism served up a variety of punches, some soft hitting flesh and some hard hitting bone.  It made me curious, angry, frustrated, mournful and resolute.   Meditations on Nationalism was a fucking powerhouse!

The play was organized into six sections, each using movement, spoken text from actual documents, music, and visual projections to showcase six real-world instances of extreme nationalism. Interludes of speeches by President Trump were like sinews connecting the scenes to each other.  My favorite scenes were The Nazi flower, Year Zero, And Make America Great again but I found something in all of them that resonated with me.  If you go to see Meditation on Nationalism I urge you to read the dramaturgical notes before the lights go down.  Your eyes will thank me later.  

Let me tell you, it was so powerful to hear actual real-world accounts in this play (hence the two pages of works cited in the program).  The words came from President Trump’s speeches, an interview with a Khmer Rouge genocide survivor, a Hitler propaganda speech, an Amnesty international testimony from a Bosnian war survivor, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, Andrew Jackson’s speech on Native American removal, and biblical quotations.  This shit was real life, not imagined drama.  You can’t make this stuff up.  The ensemble embodied their character personas and weaved in and out of emotions expertly.  All of the dialogue explained who “deserves” to have the “homeland”.  “Us” versus “them” all for the sake of “preserving the culture”.  At what cost? Is the goal to extinguish “them” so that “the right people” are in charge of the land? Or is it to hold on so tightly to our “values” that we become numb to feelings of others around us?

I may be contradicting myself but the scenes where the actors said very little were slightly more effective in the play.  Laura Holland, Nora Long, Alexander Scally, and Andrew Wilkins were conduits for information whether verbally or visually.  Their movements, facial expressions and characterizations spoke volumes. It is crazy hard to show emotion without the benefit of words and this ensemble did an excellent job of displaying distinct characters and themes.  These silent scenes left the interpretation of what was going on up to the audience and I thought that was kind of cool.  The scenes with interviews or lengthy accounts of testimony were heavier and stagnant, butmaybe that was by design.  These scenes were graphic and disturbing and slowed the energy a little bit, but at the same time illustrated the point in a way that was clear and direct.  

Repitionof movement and spoken word also were key elements in Meditations on Nationalism.  The actors made intentional movements during the beginning of scenes and in some cases had dialogue to accompany the movement.  What really struck me was at the conclusion of some of the scenes when the actors overlapped their dialogue with the movement in a cyclical pattern.  The words becoming more intense and the movement more frantic as they weaved past each other to make their individual points, colliding into a cacophony of noise and wildness.  It was both dizzying and intriguing.  

Damn this play struck a nerve and left me wishing I took a date so that I could unload everything that I had seen!  I had so many questions.  My head and heart ached from the borage of information as did my eyes from trying to read the scenes in the program in the dark (see above recommendation to read the program beforehand).  I see endless Google searches in my future to better understand the historical references in this play.  

The technical elements of the play really came together to support the action on stage.  The music consisted of duo cellos (Chanel Whitehead and Nneka Lyn), viola (Lydia Gruber), drums (William Georg) and electroacoustic sounds via a Macbook.  The music gave me chills and that was thanks to the composer Patrick Alexander and the badass musicians.  The music was simplistic, but able to evoke emotion in the audience and support the emotion conveyed on stage.  The percussion between scenes broke me from the trace of what I was watching and the strings interlaced at just the right moment with a melancholy tone.  Also the electroacoustic sounds (which I read in the program were created by processing various sounds like string instruments, rustling paper and iron being struck) were ever present in the background teasing the ears.  Projections by Chris Ernst were boldly ethereal and ebbed and flowed seamlessly between images both haunting and familiar.  Theharsh lighting, whether general or a single spot, was effective and not overbearing.  The set consisted of a long table and three chairs moved around the stage by the actors to tell the story.  Technical designer Christopher Crostic did a good job of connecting the minimal technical aspects of the show with the dialogue, movement and direction.  

Meditations on Nationalism is a reflection of how the line of identity and nationalism, something which every person prides themselves in having for their country, can sometimes blur into the extreme allowing xenophobia to seep into conscientiousness.  We are all the tightrope walker, the scared loner, the excited patriot and the lost soul trying to make sense of our political and national landscape.  Themes of homeland, identity, protection of rights and preservation reverberated throughout the play.  With all the Red and Blue and the Right and Left, I was a little afraid that this play would be a liberal echo chamber.  Theater can sometimes adopt the left agenda.  But by using historical accounts and quotes from real people Meditations on Nationalism became less about a political side and more a mirror to ourselves.  Maybe even a cautionary tale on how the shiny, innocent veneer of nationalism can sometime hide a dark and sinister soul.  

Should I stay or should I go:  Go see this play before it’s over!  It’s only running for 2 more days!  See this play if you are a history buff, interested in politics, or if you are a believer that history is destined to repeat itself.  This play is just in time for the Maryland primaries.  See this play and then do your civic duty and vote!  Meditation on Nationalism is a thought-provoking, intriguing, bold and entertaining piece of devised theater.  Take a friend, have a drink after the show, and unload all the historical, political and emotional stuff in this play.  

Now playing June 22nd and June 23rd at Emmanuel Episcopal Church.  Running time: 1 hour and 10 mins with no intermission.

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