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I have to admit, I didn’t understand the title until the talk-back. Once I found out that Nacirema is American spelled backwards, I felt really dumb. Like, the kind of person who was in awe of James Cameron’s choice to name a very-hard-to-obtain substance unobtanium in Avatar.
Obviously inspired by 1984 and every other novel, television show, and movie about the man holding the people down, Nacirema isn’t for everyone. I can see enjoying this if you want a revolution and are unhappy with most, if not all, governments.
At least Nacirema is great for the space. The artists obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how to utilize something smaller than a grade-school classroom. People enter to a fully lit room. There are IDs on some chairs. There are three walls the audience could sit against and a clump of chairs in the middle of the room. Within moments you feel claustrophobic. A security comes around asking for IDs. Thankfully, this is the end of the audience participation. A vibraphone, computer monitor, projector, PA, full lighting rig, bongos, cymbals, hand blocks, and two full-sized mirrors hanging horizontally help tell the story. So what is the story?
Is it against gentrification? An unjust criminal justice system? Net neutrality? Big brother as an idea (because government organizations are super well-run and seamless and never have problems with internal communication)? Immigration? Sure, why not? It kinda covers all of these things while never actually saying anything. All the dialogue, all one monologue, is actually just a speech with vague references to freedom. There are some “news” reports and music videos occasionally played on the monitor and projector, but they’re opaque as well. Also, why are things always spelled incorrectly in dystopian futures? It’s not like the English language changes with every new form of government.
The piece ends with that always-relevant question, “Who are you?” I’m the guy in the theater that is supported by the Cultural Development Corporation which is a nonprofit that is partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, and I just sat through an artistic blind date by three people with drastically different cultural backgrounds wondering why being American is a bad thing? Then I remember I have a lot of liberal guilt and everything makes sense.
Nacirema did reinforce my belief in one universal truth: Security guards can be real dicks.
“Nacirema” runs June 18 at 6 p.m., June 26 at 3 p.m., and July 3 at 6 p.m. at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. $10.