8/6/2022 SQUARE BLUES Horizon Theatre
ART, ACTIVISM, AND FOCUS
It is a truth, (not so) universally recognized, that the same obsessions and passions that create great art once inspired political activism. In today’s world of social media and knee-jerk political punditry, activism has been taken over by “slacktivism,” the quick and easy adoption of memes and images and slogans you can artlessly input onto your phone from the comfort of your toilet. These days, Art and Activism are non-overlapping magisteria.
Which is my own knee-jerk way to introduce you to Shay Youngblood’s Square Blues, an almost nostalgic look at the 1990’s, when the internet was desk-top bound and any sort of political commitment involved going out, being outrageous, risking arrest, and fighting for change.
Does such activism yield results? The cynic in me wants to say “not as often as we’d like,” but the truth seems to be that change does happen. I suspect it can be better described as an evolution and not a revolution, but that’s neither here nor there,
But Art! Ah, Art! Art that appeals to emotion, that explores areas “outside the box,” that exploits discomfort, that dares to be outrageous! IMHO, that is what spurs “social evolution,” that is what leads to all the “from within” efforts at progress. That is activism that just might work.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been floundering in my efforts to write about Square Blues, currently on stage at Horizon Theatre. I like and appreciate its vivid and compelling passion, its characters and beautifully honed dialogue, its roster of talented actors and designers. I like that the prism of a 1990’s period
setting does not diminish the urgency of the causes, even those that the intervening years have moved onto the “back burner” (reparations), the same years that moved then-fringe causes to the forefront (LGBTQ rights). But my cynical side nodded and smiled at the scattershot focus, at the various causes different characters espoused. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more effective the activism would be if they ALL wanted the same results.
But about halfway through the second act, it struck me that the causes are not the point, not the driving force behind the play. It is activism itself, the process of taking a stand, of risking it all for something ardently believed. And, in the final analysis the play is about the process of not letting differences break up family, about using Art to give your activism direction and spine.
We meet three generations of the Blue family. Matriarch Odessa is a widow trying to get her Atlanta café open and running. Son Square is helping her by painting a mural on the café wall. His daughter Karma is an artist whose work involves public nudity and performance art. At one point (long since past) Odessa was involved in the civil rights struggle. Square is obsessed with reparations (“I want my 40 acres and a mule! And I want interest!”). Karma is fighting for her right to love a woman (Lola) even as she fights for a gay friend to get the AIDS treatment he so desperately needs. Their causes don’t always mesh and sometimes clash at a from-the-heart level.
To add to the mix of issues, Square has received an “accidental refund” from the IRS, an IRS demanding the immediate return of the funds under threat of arrest. He finds that his “windfall” is gradually being eroded by his constant bailouts of Karma from the results of her “public nuisance” performances. Karma and Lola have their own issues, particularly the fact that Lola comes from money and is never arrested, probably because she is white.
Scattered throughout are interludes of music and bickering and affection and art and multi-focused activism.
Maybe one of the reasons the play left me in “Meh” territory was its conclusion, the passion displayed in a final demonstration that seemed undeserved – it’s hard to dredge up enthusiasm for a cause that seems so, well, so shallow, I’ll leave it to you to discover that cause, but my only thought was, “Well what did you expect from the IRS?”
OTOH, I DID respond to the outpourings of familial love and acceptance, and, perhaps I wish the play had ended on that note, As it is now, it seems to me anti-climactic and much ado about not much at all.
On a technical level, Isabel and Moriah Curley Clay have put together an intriguing set that, at first glance, looks like a Tudor-inspired panoramic wall, but is soon revealed to be a screen on which Square’s mural slowly takes shape, along with other projections that establish different scenes and moods, all of which are excellently designed, excellently realized. (BTW, I love the irony of a character named Square existing in a curved space). Acting spaces behind the walls are also well-conceived, well-lit (kudos to lighting designer Mary Parker), and well used. I especially like how the “ghost” of Odessa’s late husband dances in the moonlight, then, with a quick shift of posture and hat, becomes a policeman. Scenes away from the café are created with simple adjustments of furnishings and lights, segueing seamlessly from one to the next.
The cast is universally excellent. Jay Jones (Square), Olivia Dawson (Odessa), and Chantal Maurice (Karma) bring a real family bond to their interactions, smoothing over most of the play’s rough edges. As Lola, Patty de la Garza continues the series of smart and effective characterizations she brought to earlier roles at Georgia Ensemble and the Shakespeare Tavern. And Marliss Amiea brings to Miss Tuesday (Karma’s mother and Square’s on-again off-again partner) a passion and mystery that is extraordinarily compelling.
To bring a note of autobiography into the theme of this review, I was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA, and was 26 when the Three Mile Accident brought the world’s media to the Capital City. Two years after that, there was a demonstration and concert against nuclear energy and against the reopening of the damaged reactor, an event I joyfully attended, hoping to at least get a good hike from City Island to the Capitol Park, To my surprise, the crowd wasn’t focused on that one issue. There was an anti-nuclear weapons group, a group protesting US involvement in El Salvador, the Communist Party passing out free copies of the latest “Daily Worker,” and dozens of smaller groups with their own beefs and signs and slogans and agendas and chants. There was some unity in the appreciation of the speeches and the music, but, again, the causes (and speakers) were all over the political map (at least its left side).
So, apparently, even in 1981, protest and activism could be as unfocused as those depicted in Square Blues, as diverse as those found in the BLM and #MeToo protests. It’s why I find it difficult to get enthused about getting out for causes near and dear to my heart, or maybe it’s because there are few (if any) causes that are “near and dear” enough to get me out of the house to fight (for or against). Election Day excepted.
Square Blues is a play easy to appreciate and respect, but hard to get enthusiastic over or (perhaps) even like. It has some excellent design choices, an excellently designed Square Blue mural, and a group of likeable characters (played by talented and likeable artists) who make hard choices in support of what they believe.
What is easy to get enthusiastic over is their devotion to art and to their commitment to using it to change their worlds.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #htcSquareBlues)