KPBS AIRDATE: May 26, 2006
As Shakespeare reminded us, “What’s past is prologue.” Two productions based in history force us to re-examine our present. Each is rooted in the acts of a monstrous man. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was set against the backdrop of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” as it made its hideous way into Amsterdam. Lee Atwater is a modern-day fiend, the sinister spinmeister who worked for George Bush Senior, mentored Karl Rove, and made destructive campaigning into an artform.
“Atwater Fixin’ to Die” is his swansong, so to speak, a biographical buildup to his brain cancer death at age 40. The 1992 play, by Robert Myers, tells Atwater’s odious story, how he got his devious beginnings in high school, when he invented a fantasy candidate for school president, and he won. In college, as campus chairman of the Young Republicans, he reads the Great Books via Cliff Notes and takes as his motto an actor’s credo: ‘The most important thing is honesty; once you can fake that, you got it made.’ Ultimately, he’ll be remembered for killing the 1988 Presidential candidacy of Michael Dukakis, by linking him with the convicted rapist and murderer, Willie Horton.
The play tries to show the contradictory elements of this Southerner who loved and played the blues, and befriended BB King. Perhaps he was a multi-faceted person, and maybe he did make last-ditch apologies – to Dukakis and others – on his deathbed. But it’s hard to see him as a sympathetic character; he was a conniving automaton who’d stop at nothing, do anything, to win. Watching a play about him, no matter how well performed, and this one is, doesn’t make us like him one whit. We never understand what made him tick or motivated him to prevail at any cost; we just get a series of short scenes from his nefarious life. It’s a tour de force performance by charismatic Jeffrey Jones, who’s aptly wild, reckless and mono-maniacal. We don’t identify with him, we don’t grieve for his early death; it’s the brief fascination of watching a train-wreck, but it’s one that keeps haunting us in repeated incarnations.
We’re also still haunted by the specter of the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, wholesale killing continues in Darfur, racially motivated murder is rife in the Middle East and elsewhere. Eveoke Dance Theatre’s founder/choreographer Gina Angelique feels that her stirring, gut-wrenching Patté Award-winning production of “Soul of a Young Girl: Dances of Anne Frank,” needs to be reprised every six years. In aching, compelling stage pictures, she recreates incidents involving the eight Jewish Amsterdam exiles in hiding, periodically narrated by readings from the diary, framed, as are the audience seats, by confining cattle-car wooden siding.
Can we ever learn from the past? Here are two dramatic opportunities to try.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.