Just a couple of days before Election Day, the Skirball will be presenting Ameryka. A meditation on democracy, this work-in-progress seemed to me a thought-provoking program to present in association with Creating the United States. Ameryka is written and directed by multidisciplinary artist and 2011 USA Hoi Fellow Nancy Keystone, working in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group.
I recently had a chance to ask Nancy a few questions about the work… and I found out that an election poster in Poland was what first inspired it.
What sparked the idea for Ameryka?
I was in Poland in 2009, which was the twentieth anniversary of the “Solidarity” election. Solidarity was the free trade union in Poland, which sparked the modern democracy movement in Eastern Europe, the first semi-free elections in Poland, and the eventual fall of Communism.
It was during that trip in 2009 that I saw the famous Solidarity election poster. It features a picture of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane, from the 1950s Western High Noon. He’s wearing a Solidarity badge above his sheriff star, and instead of a gun he’s holding an election ballot. At the bottom of the poster, it says, “It’s High Noon, 4 June, 1989.” I was really taken by this collision of cultures, by the use of this very American image to rally people to vote, by what this meant about the relationship between the United States and Poland. What I found was a vast universe of associations between our two countries going back to the American Revolution, and that’s what sparked the idea for Ameryka.
Your work addresses 200+ years of American history. How did you even begin to tackle this massive span of time and how have you chosen which eras to explore?
I’m obsessed with history and finding unusual connections between different people, eras, and events. That Solidarity poster presented two particular periods of time, right off the bat: first, the post-WWII Cold War period (High Noon was released in the U.S. in 1952 and in Poland in 1959); and second, the 1980s period of the rise, suppression, and resurrection of the Solidarity movement. There are many very strong connections between the U.S. and Poland during those two eras.
And then I went back to the beginning of this relationship, which was the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence and all the ideas swirling around our Revolution were big news in Poland, and several Polish military officers came over to help fight for American independence. Arguably the most famous among them was General Tadeusz Kosciuszko (there’s a little street downtown, near MOCA, called Kosciuszko Way!). Kosciuszko was a brilliant military engineer, designed the fortifications at West Point (the plans for which Benedict Arnold tried to steal), and was responsible for several important victories during the war. He was very good friends with Thomas Jefferson, and his orderly was a free black man, named Agrippa Hull. These facts led to many more really astonishing and exciting discoveries that have become the core of Ameryka. We have stayed mainly with those three eras, though the piece has expanded a bit to include some events in the current post-9/11 era.
Through all these eras, in many different ways, the United States and Poland have supported each other in struggles for freedom and independence.
Ameryka seems to pick up on themes explored in your previous work, particularly civil rights. Can you talk about your interest in the civil rights era and how you see Thomas Jefferson playing a role?
The civil rights movement is a direct continuation of the issue of slavery and the struggle of African Americans for freedom and equality. I think it is at the center of our dilemma as a nation—from the very beginning, through the present day. I don’t think it has yet been resolved, and the core political conflict, which this issue has amplified—strong central government vs. states rights—is being played out now, as vociferously as ever. I’m interested in that dilemma, both in the broad strokes as well as in the details of events, policies, and especially people who have grappled with it for centuries.
The United States was founded and is based on profound and radical principles of liberty and equality which, perhaps, have been too ahead of our evolution as a people/species. We have achieved extraordinary power as a nation and made every sort of progress at the expense of those principles, in every case by exploiting and oppressing a large portion of the population. At the same time, there is a relentless struggle and movement towards alignment with those founding principles even by infinitesimal degrees. I am continually fascinated and inspired by the people (thinking about the civil rights movement in particular here) who put their bodies and lives on the line to stand up for what is right and to force America to live up to her most sacred ideals.
Thomas Jefferson is the absolute embodiment of this conflict. He was a strong advocate for abolition, tried very hard to abolish slavery for several years, but was beaten down by his colleagues and eventually gave up. He also seemed to be a genuine racist (his “Notes on the State of Virginia” give pretty strong evidence of this), so his desire to end slavery was primarily a self-serving, philosophical one. In Ameryka, we tell a little-known story about Jefferson, which exemplifies his contortions—both personal and political—of this issue.
For me one of the most memorable scenes in the workshop production of Ameryka that I saw was the opening story of the Polish worker. How do you see her narrative relating to American history as a whole?
Anna Walentynowicz was a crane operator at the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk for thirty years. She was a model worker who came to understand the lies and oppression of the Communist system, and she became an activist—first in very small ways, like trying to plant flowers at the shipyard, and later in very bold ways, like helping to lead, with Lech Walesa and others, the efforts of to create free trade unions in Poland. As part of a long harassment campaign against her, she was fired on trumped-up charges. Her dismissal set off the first big strike at the shipyard in 1980, which led to the official formation and legalization of the Solidarity union. Her story is very Polish, but also articulates her and Poland’s very strong connection to ideas of liberty and independence, which are inspired and supported by the United States.
You’re known for creating your work in a lab-like setting, with the work in process while you test it out on stage. What do you feel is achieved by working in this way?
First of all, when we (Critical Mass Performance Group) generate a project like Ameryka, we begin only with an idea and growing piles of research, from which we eventually build a performance. So, there’s no script, no characters, nothing, really at the beginning. The “writing” of the piece entails much more than text on a page. We develop the work on our feet, through ensemble collaboration, over several years. This allows us to sketch layers of ideas, which gain complexity and depth through multiple workshops, and we present the work-in-progress throughout the development process in order to learn how the piece works (or doesn’t) and to see it through fresh eyes. We are interested in doing what can only be done in the theatre, to explode the poetic and intellectual potential of the medium and the ideas. Therefore, our process supports the questioning, digging, experimentation, risk-taking, and evaluation, which (hopefully) help us discover the most compelling ways of telling the story, and the rigor required to perform it. All of this takes a long time! (We also have a lot of fun doing it!)