Akiko Aizawa, Barney O’Hanlon, Stephen Duff Webber, Eric Berryman,
Gian-Murray Gianino and Patrice Johnson Chevannes in Steel Hammer.
Photo – Michael Brosilowy
The Steel Hammer
Performed and created by SITI Company.
Directed by Anne Bogart.
Music and Lyrics by Julia Wolfe.
Original Text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
This was my first experience with a SITI performance and it was a fascinating, at times almost overwhelming experience. Not that reputation does not adequately precede them, but I daresay any written explanation would struggle to fully appreciate what occurs onstage. The training and work involved must be incredibly demanding, yet the result is an organic blend of theatrical disciplines that masterfully blur the lines of expectation. Oral storytelling that conjures a notion of tradition and repetitive movement that is balletic enough to qualify as dance are juggled with complex narrative delivery by a six-person ensemble.
It is all in the service of a rich exploration of the folk legend of John Henry, the hammer slinger who died in competition to the steam drill. If you have never heard some variation of the song (and this show makes it clear there are far more iterations than I had ever imagined) the non-linear and often expressionistic storytelling spells it out for you plainly enough, but the human vs. machine theme is given such breathtaking nuance and grippingly visceral translation here that it touches upon so many threads: immigrant labor, slavery, the coming of the industrial age, that it is a veritable history lesson.
There is a deeply personal side to the story as well, with John Henry’s wife, Polly Ann (in most versions) remembered for perhaps picking up that steel-driving hammer and finishing the contest for him. This is a tight, TIGHT ensemble, but the nature of the story cannot help but throw these two characters into the forefront, and Eric Berryman and Patrice Johnson Chevannes vividly connect with the audience bringing them to life. An extended monologue at the mid-point for Ms. Chevannes was an especially memorable turn into more traditional forms. The other members of the ensemble are Akiko Aizawa, Gian-Murray Gianino, Barney O’ Hanlon and Stephen Duff Weber.
Overall, the approach and technique are a bravura performance on so many levels – except emotionally. This is where the concentration on character pays off in reaching out to audience members who may be put off by the modern techniques. Personally, I found some of these moments the most compelling, as dedication to physicality married to a superb musical score by Julia Wolfe proved entrancing. Repetition of action sounds like a negative, but put into practice with such purpose, there was beauty and pain in equal measure.
In the final moments, the themes of injustice and the devaluation of humanity are assuredly delivered, but without the formulaic construction of building to a climax. The extended tableaux we witness at the end is forceful, but there have been several strong climaxes along the way that have made considerable impact, and these barely lit summations presented by actor’s bodies in graceful yet dynamic arrangement pull us from the center with just enough comfort to allow us reentry to the real world awaiting us outside the theatre.
It is estimable modern technique explicating a venerable folk legend. This is not the first trip to Humana for Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, and their inclusion is an antidote for anyone who is reluctant to welcome such non-traditional forms. Still, this group has been practicing this type of theatre for more than a generation, so why is this not considered traditional by now?
The Steel Hammer
Part of the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
March 19 -April 6, 2014
Actors Theatre of Louisville
315 East Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202