Crucible of extremes

This is theater that slaps you in the face as it hugs you. Eye-Mouth Graffiti Body Shop, written and directed by Ron Allen, is now playing at the Metropolitan Center for the Creative Arts and it should not be missed. For an hour and a half, it literally looks you in the eye and demands that you perceive Detroit from another angle, somewhere underneath and through what’s immediately visible and understood.

Detroit is composed of extremes, and I’m not just talking about the weather. Allen has boiled its contents down into an assemblage of vital elements, communicated by intensified and exotic word combinations that somehow manage to capture the primal substances that we’re all made of. Any poet would kill to compose a handful of these word masterpieces: “I want to split the air with questions,” “A birth of eye in the concrete maze of art,” “You cry every time you talk to me because you are the city.”

As if building it out of a Lego set, Allen has pieced together a representation of this town out of poetry, using rhythm and movement as its glue.

The Thick Knot Rhythm Ensemble portrays the play’s four characters that move and act as if constantly facing unseen, unfriendly winds. Shift Shape, played by Dave Syfax, places the weight of an entire city on the shoulders of one man, Mouth, played by Nelson Jones. As tools to build his city, Mouth is given a table full of refined white sugar, a Bible, miscellaneous drugs, a gun, etc., and a woman: Eye, played by Sandra D. Hines. And Shadow, Sherie Williams, is there throughout, sometimes mimicking, sometimes reacting, sometimes obliviously lost in her own dance.

Kudos to the Detroit Repertory Theatre for providing the Eye-Mouth cast with three well-trained graduates (Jones, Williams and Syfax). But the entire cast deserves to be recognized for pulling impossible words together and holding them in place within a gestural and emotional context — most especially Jones and Syfax who seamlessly shoot from terror to ecstasy, and seem to give their audience everything inside of them except their blood.

Eye-Mouth Graffiti Body Shop marks the debut of that infamous creator of the Heidelberg Project, artist Tyree Guyton, into the world of theater. Guyton designed the Eye-Mouth set using a potpourri of political posters and propaganda, neon beer signs, unknown Xeroxed faces and magnified lips over a large video screen which mirrors, freezes and focuses on the ongoing action, following the performance around like a shadow. The dynamic Detroit duo of Guyton and Allen is an artistic collaboration that this city needs to see more of.

In his own words, Allen describes his work for stage as a “theatrical journey of language, image and movement that examines urban culture as a text for absurd and surreal representation.” He reduces the city to its poetic essences: objects, tastes, emotions, sex and addictions that work the same as weapons. Eye-Mouth Graffiti Body Shop deconstructs and dehumanizes conventional narrative and thinking in order to expose the human inside. It’s a portrait of Detroit built with remarkable poetic bricks, then pulled apart by death, in order to make room for the resurrection.

“Death like a wicked kiss in the matrix./Death tasting like God./The wall is Detroit.”

Anita Schmaltz writes about theater and performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]
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