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Where do we talk about it?: A Reflection on Complicité’s “Can I Live?”

Fehinti Balogun in Complicite's Can I Live © David Hewitt

I hold Complicité’s Can I Live? very close to my performance-maker heart, alongside all other new hybrid works that take on climate change not as a mystic phenomenon divorced from our daily lives, but located even in our very bodies and relationships.

My father is also an environmental activist and folk songwriter whose music takes inspiration from the variety of life that he encounters--often endangered--in the mountains of Sierra Madre which surround our province. This is why I knew early on that all the craftsmanship and formal methodologies in art fall second to passion, and that the pursuit of passion makes noble the difficult tasks that lie ahead of us. I felt this in Can I Live? and deeply respect it. Underneath all the animated statistics, studio sleights of hand, and music gig simulations, show writer and central performer Fehinti Balogun repeatedly grounded himself in love for his mother, grandmother, and his homeland.

Many will jump to discussions about the show’s clever use of form, which does merit praise for its use of filmed theatre as a strength rather than a temporary crutch until the stages fully reopen. However, that would jump over what I believe to be the real central forces behind all the aesthetic decisions made in the show, which are Balogun’s mother figures, including the main mother from which we all come, Mother Earth.

As a woman of my generation, I never lose sight of the fact that the journey towards a more climate crisis-responsive society is ultimately a journey back home to our mothers--to the womb where we are no longer reluctant contributors to profit-driven scarcity-based systems but simpler life forms stripped of ego, identity, and ambition. As someone who experiences care and simultaneously sees how little care other people and life forms receive, I feel the urgency of relocating our spiritual cord to Mother Earth. I feel that the ego, identity, and ambition, as the heteropatriarchy would have it, have severed that cord and left us destructive, boxed, and rigid. In the same manner, I feel that the insistence of several theatre scholars and practitioners on what constitutes a theatrical work and what doesn’t is driven by a similar ego, identity, and ambition. I say this because these impositions have power over which stories get to be seen and financially supported, and which ones belong in the margins. Where is the plot? Where is the direct encounter with the audience? So what is the difference between digital arts and theatre arts now? Both Ash J. Woodward’s projections and Balogun’s tense and toughened stance as he navigates the space and the visual effects will tell us that in the face of steadily rising global emissions, state inaction, and police brutality, those are not the questions we should be asking.

Perhaps we ought to take on a similar attitude in the Philippine context, where a macho-feudal leadership has enabled a crisis in care and exacerbated the violence experienced by women, the agricultural sector, and the indigenous peoples protecting our natural environment. Perhaps in our efforts to meaningfully represent those struggles on stage and on screen, we would do well to exercise the same apathy to definitions and disciplines as Can I Live? did. To put it in a more imperative tone, relinquish the urge to concern ourselves with the boundaries between film, theatre, and digital arts; allow the pursuit of passion to take on whatever form deems fit, and welcome our mothers to interrupt and remind us of the things we may not be seeing.

I believe this humility and sensitivity is why the artistic team of Can I Live? managed to coherently interweave rap, spoken word, science lecture, and theatre, extended powerfully by self-presentation--an awareness of performance and the conceit of it. By this, I refer to moments the show would shift from realistic depictions of life (e.g. house-bound Balogun reflecting on his displacement, roundtable conversations between an impassioned Balogun and his less concerned friends) to the signals that point out that the audiences are merely watching a show (e.g. the line “I’m actually not at home, I’m at a studio,” the presence of PAR light stands on screen, the phone calls that interrupt the show, etc.) From the beginning, Can I Live? signaled its commitment to metatextual discourse, inviting its audiences to constantly re-situate themselves, an exercise also necessitated by interwovenness of social justice issues like racism, classism, and ableism in the first place. This is where I invoke my appreciation for the show not just as the daughter of my father or of the Earth, but as a theatre practitioner in community development work.

In writing this, I’m reminded of a quote from Malgorzata Sugier’s definition of postdramatic theatre, which enriches my reflection on this particular work and the challenges it poses:

[T]exts written for the theatre [are] no longer understood as a reflection upon theatre as a domain of artistic activity or as an extensive metaphor of human life, but rather as a means of inducing the audience to watch themselves as subjects which perceive, acquire knowledge, and partly create the objects of their cognition.

Can I Live? puts its audience in a special relationship with the material conditions of the performance and the performance space. It moves beyond the familiarity and comforts of self-contained absolute drama and takes the necessary steps to tackle the socio-political, economic, and philosophical subjects that necessitated its performance in the first place.

Though Can I Live? I was able to better appreciate the power that postdramatic movements afford important conversations on the climate crisis. By extension, I see the power that theatre for advocacy and community development, which happens outside of the dominant spaces of dialogue and four-walled stadiums and buildings but on the streets and public classrooms, can hold. When we dramturgically move away from the dominant ideologies of “performance needs dramatic text,” or “theatre is only theatre when there is plot and live audiences,” we empower audiences to question the conditions of life that impose gender inequality, capitalist modes of production, and technological dependence.

Can I Live? showed me the power of performance to destabilize our construction of identity, as in my struggle versus their struggle. It taught that we can talk about issues everywhere and in all forms necessary, even if it displeases and disrupts drama as we predominantly understand and experience it.


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