A Review of “Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia”

Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia
By L.M. Bogad
Published 2021 by Routledge, a Taylor and Francis Group, London, New York. 

As creatively engaged citizens, we can find metaphorical pressure points on the body politic, where, with a symbolically powerful creative intervention, we can have a surprisingly high impact on public dialogue without any big support or funding.

– L.M. Bogad

What can art do? For decades, I’ve worked with artists whose practice has been driven by this question. In a time of corporate domination, of ideas and images chosen and relentlessly broadcast by the few to the many, of a social order that runs on mechanization and quantification, how can artists use their gifts to shine a light on truth and possibility? Some artists paint collaborative community murals, others create and perform plays or dances that unearth buried history or express perspectives of marginalized communities; others make music, videos, or poems. 

L.M. Bogad has captured their common intention perfectly by describing such work as finding “pressure points on the body politic,” and using them to incite awareness and action, in his case through performances, spectacles, and demonstrations. Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia collects nearly 25 years of scripts by Bogad. His work has been presented in a huge range of venues here and abroad, from the Austrian Cultural Forum to the Marsh Theater, from the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics to Rega, Latvia, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires to the street outside the Annual General Meeting of the world’s largest investment firm, BlackRock, in New York. 

This mirrors the breadth of Bogad’s work, which is remarkably diverse as to form and approach. Three threads tie it together for me: his humor, which is fresh and surprising and very welcome in pieces that deal with life and death, oppression, exploitation, and obfuscation; the friendliness of his approach to both the reader and audience member; and his coherent understanding of just what we are up against in 21st-century America. 

For Bogad, we are living in a time of “fasctasia,” which he defines

“…not as classic fascism itself, but as the post-truth, racist, xenophobic, and double thinking media and cultural environment in which nativist, authoritarian movements are nurtured, sustained, and mobilized. Fasctasia deploys elements of Debord’s spectacle, Orwell’s doublethink, and Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit in service of white supremacy and authoritarianism, and seeks to replace what is left of our oligarchical republic with open kleptocracy and xenophobic dictatorship. Other elements of the reverie of fasctasia include the usual maladies of the far right: anti-intellectual know-nothingism, phony “populism,” and a nostalgia and longing for a mythical “better time” that belies a preference for white supremacy, sexism, and transphobia. Fasctasia’s mythos cribs liberally from early Disney fantasies, reactionary interpretations of segments of the Bible, and the infamous anti-Semitic Czarist forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Bogad is the author of Performing Truth, but the book is so lively and invites our participation so enthusiastically, I think of him as the emcee. As our host, Bogad is erudite but not condescending; gracious but by no means obsequious. Most scripts in this volume are accompanied by user-friendly notes that invite us to adapt the work to our circumstances, whether mounting a simple staged reading or a full-scale production. When he lists props, he offers a range of options for flexibility. 

Last spring, I tuned into a Zoom performance of excerpts from the first script in the book, COINTELSHOW: A Patriot Act, presented by Mondo Bizarro Productions in New Orleans; a complete production was presented there in December. (Full disclosure: I first met Larry Bogad through theater friends when he came to California to teach at U.C. Davis in 2004 and we’ve kept in touch ever since.)

COINTELSHOW focuses on COINTELPRO (the FBI’s COunter INTELligence PROgram), which began to discredit progressive leaders beginning in the 1950s and 60s. Bogad plays Special Agent Christian White, by turns chummy, ingratiating, frightening, and losing his grip. COINTELSHOW was first performed at Northwestern University in 1997, and while the script has been repeatedly refreshed to reflect the Zeitgeist, the way it captures attention proves that some social problems seem unfortunately evergreen. As Bogad says in his introduction to the play, “much to my dismay, this play has become more relevant since I first wrote it.” 

As with many of Bogad’s scripts, COINTELSHOW includes a kind of induction experience for audience members in which they are invited to share information that may come back to haunt them—sometimes a fake retina scan, sometimes their cell numbers to receive instructive texts during the performance. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered by the FBI in 1969, makes a catalytic appearance. So do a huge variety of FBI documents laying out mostly buffoonish schemes to disgrace heroes of the left: a letter advising Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to commit suicide; another laying out a plan to spark violence between the Communist Party USA and the Cosa Nostra, with unions as the vehicle; a plan to pit Black Nationalist groups against the Jewish Defense League; even a document so heavily redacted that only rows of thick black lines are visible. These are real. They are also hilarious, stupid, and appalling. I imagine they leave every script reader or audience member as they did me, marveling at our national tolerance for publicly sanctioned viciousness and wondering what’s next. 

Bogad’s scripts treat a remarkable range of subjects. Economusic musicalizes data that is otherwise hard to grasp, such as trends in income of the top one percent, in union membership, and in rates of unemployment. Possible Pasts/Forgotten Futures offers a game-based framework that can be applied to many historic moments. Bogad calls it “interactive improvisation,” wherein audience members are assigned roles derived from real and well-documented events. The main example offered centers the experience of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile, focusing on four residents of an apartment complex near the Presidential Palace on the day of the coup: how will they respond? In the introduction, theater director and professor Carlos Barón describes being invited to a performance, billed as a “game,” and sitting before the show started with his discomfort that an earthshaking experience he had lived through would be trivialized. But he came away embracing the experience,  remembering his friends on September 11, 1973, feeling that this performance would give anyone a truly illuminating sense of the life-and-death choices such moments pose.

Two of Bogad’s scripts in this volume use the frame of multiplayer games: Possible Pasts/Forgotten Futures and Glamorgeddon: Limonauts Gamble for Oakland-land™, which takes tourists from the future (audience members dress as members of “a futuristic interstellar oligarchical elite”) on a limousine tour of the theme park which the former city of Oakland, California, has become. 

Is Dungeons and Dragons in Bogad’s past? Perhaps, but he describes his tendency to hijack such games into epics of class struggle, as with these two scripts. It must be generational, but I’ve never played any of these games, and it was hard for me to imagine precisely how the participatory performance would unfold, with actions dictated by random draws from a pack of cards created for the purpose. Some cards award fantastic sums of money, others gain value by being matched with companion cards (e.g., “Drug Smuggling: Requires a Loyal Senator Card, then worth 30 Trillion”); some direct the holder to interact with other players in a specific way (e.g., “Ask the Host for the microphone and tell us all why you are the best oligarch”). The fact that Glamorgeddon takes place in a pink stretch Humvee limo with disco interior made it a little easier to imagine. But I think I’d have to play to really get it. 

The script that sticks most strongly with me is the most personal, Fair Fight. One of my pet peeves as a first-generation American Jew is the widespread tendency to conflate being Jewish with being educated, prosperous, and law-abiding. My forbears were house-painters and salesmen, most of whom ruined their lives with gambling and petty crime. In Fair Fight, Bogad plays three generations of tough Jews: his great-grandfather Morris, grandfather Lou, and father Walter. He also plays himself as a bookish, arty kid, an apple that fell a bit farther from the tree than previous generations. 

The Bogads had a fierce loyalty based in blood and a keen understanding of the simple ways to make bullies back down (throw a punch, bullies are cowards). Here’s a note from Bogad’s Great-Uncle Chickie (his grandfather’s brother), at his height a massively successful boxing promoter, who heard a rumor that someone might be picking on the boy:

Hope you do great with your theatre play. That would be the icing on the cake. As for this night shift guy, it is my understanding that he is physically larger than you. Keep a roll of coins in your pocket. Should he try to mess with you, place it in your fist? Hit him once and he will go down. That should straighten him out. Have fun with the theatre play. Break a leg ha ha, love, Chickie.

The social and personal trauma shaping this stance comes across powerfully, as through the accounts of Grandpa Lou having to fight his way to school and back through the Irish neighborhood his father had made their home. Great Grandpa Morris was an enforcer, the guy who guards a rich man’s life and possessions, and when he wanted something steadier to do, he bought a bar.

I moved the family to the Irish part because there was an open saloon. And besides, the Irish drink! Jews don’t drink enough to make a living. So the children had to be strong.

I hit them. I hit every one. Equal opportunity in America.

I punched a horse once and killed it. Nobody knows why, and I didn’t explain….

But without my koyach … (pointing to Lou’s spot on stage) this one dies in a pogrom, or the Great War, or the Revolution, or the Civil War, or from famine, or from Stalin. And if not? Lucky. Then this one (pointing at Walter’s spot on stage) is eight years old when the Germans come to Minsk, and they shoot him and burn his body. And this one (pointing at Narrator’s spot on the stage), this strange professor person, my great-grandson, is never born. Nothingness. Nichto.

Bogad himself has morphed into someone who teaches creative nonviolence. He offers many vivid vignettes of the violence it took to brave the antisemitism and anti-immigrant fervor that tried to smother his forbears. He shares some of their values but not their methods. Lou gives him life advice: 

“Don’t let ’em play you against the ones who just got here. They’re just trying to eat too.”

“Got it. No kids in cages. No deportations.”

“You got it, don’t let ’em split you up – ’cause they’ll do anything, there’s no bottom to these bastards. They got no nishumma. Understand? But … hey, you’ll be fine … you’re with us. (Pause). Just be as tough as you need to be to live. No more. Or it’s poison.” 

The final section of Performing Truth offers a collection of street theater scripts, including the aforementioned one performed on the occasion of BlackRock’s 2018 annual meeting, at the invitation of protestors who are blockading the event. BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink, a major influencer in the investment world, had used words like “climate change” and “social responsibility” in his letter to shareholders. That suggested a slim opening that made him rare among CEOs. The climate justice groups (such as Friends of The Earth and the Sunrise Project) who’d invited this performance hoped it might further open Fink’s mind. 

Impersonating Fink (or at least a CEO named Larry), Bogad handed out copies of the CEO’s statement augmented and updated with additions and edits suggesting Fink had seen the light of climate disaster and was ready to accede to demands to divest from fossil fuels and deforestation, investing instead in renewable energy and the like. Fink took a copy himself and read excerpts aloud at the meeting. It may have been one reason he and other executives remained after the meeting to talk with activists about their demands. This performance was part of a series of such actions. It’s impossible to draw a straight line between interventions like these and real-world consequences, but this section of the book does note that something has changed. 

In January 2020, BlackRock announced it would divest its $1.8 trillion in active funds of any companies that generate more than 25% of their revenue from coal. Given BlackRock’s enormous size, this is the largest fossil fuel divestment so far, ever. A year later, they announced they would demand that companies they invest in, including oil companies, commit to going carbon-free by 2050 (too late to save us from extinction, but a concept date to push earlier with continued pressure). 

The last chapter ends with a wise 12-point program for people staging street theater. Bogad bills this as “a few humble suggestions on staging performative interventions in public space,” and that’s accurate. But many of them apply equally well to demonstrations that aren’t conceived as theater, to anytime you or I might step into public space with a message that feels urgent and necessary. Whether or not theater is your thing, this book feels like a useful guide to staying awake and testing the limits of possibility in a time of fasctasia. And for performance people, it’s a must. 

These are times when reality stretches the limits of satire to what might be a breaking-point, but I admire how intact and elastic Bogad’s sense of humor remains. I wonder what he’d do with U.S. elections, January 6th, and voting rights. 

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