To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, playwright Benjamin Benne shares his perspective on Leila’s Death by Ali Chahrour, a work copresented by the Walker and the Guthrie on November 11, 2017.
I attended Leila’s Death blindly—without any context for the performance or the performers; something I do rarely but rather enjoy. I would like to think it allows me to enter an experience with an open mind and fewer preconceived notions. The following are the impressions, images, and thoughts that remained with me after the performance.
The first image of the performance is three men staring straight into the audience. It’s immediately striking and absorbing and recalled for me the opening of Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show. It was an invitation for the audience to absorb the bodies on stage and breathe with them. And that position is sustained for, what felt like, a long time. A few minutes. Then a voice is heard singing. At first, I thought it was some disembodied sound effect. Then as more voices were added, I realized they were coming from the performers on stage. It certainly hinted at the pace of the show to follow, where elements were singularly and slowly introduced in a slow burn fashion—a voice, an instrument, a movement—then these elements meet and collide in a cacophonous manner. Each addition is calculated, elegant, and builds to a higher level of absorption into performance.
At the performance’s heart is, of course, Leila. She’s a strong presence from the moment she stepped on stage and took a seat in front of the three still male figures standing and staring at the audience. When she began to sing, her voice commanded the space. Her voice then took on a gentler quality, yet equally powerful, when she moved to the corner of the stage and spoke into a microphone and recounted a number of deaths in her family. The list continued with rarely a pause or description to devastating emotional effect.
More and more, it seems audiences are craving (and even demanding) authenticity from the art they engage with; because Leila’s Death combines ritual song and movement along with what seems like Leila’s personal account, the performance held a greater sense of weight among this audience than any of the plays I’ve seen at The Guthrie in the past year (that wasn’t in the Dowling). This brings me to the key critical question I left with: was this the right venue for this piece? (This is a question I’ve been asking more and more when attending performances.)
Because of its content, the piece seemed like it wanted a more immersive experience where the audience was closer in proximity to its action rather than removed from it by a classic proscenium. I’m certain that choice was made because of the logistics of the limited engagement (in terms of the run) and audience capacity, but I wonder if that choice did the piece a disservice. That sense of remove can have an alienating effect or create just enough distance from the piece to allow for true engagement, which I think may become problematic when a culturally specific story is being presented for an overwhelmingly white audience. I’ve learned that Ali Chahrour sought to create a very specific portrait of a singular woman’s experience of grief (Leila’s), with the piece originally intended for audiences in Beirut. But I do wonder how many audience members at The Guthrie interpreted the performance as a typical Lebanese experience of grief and if that interpretation undermines its creator’s intent.
Regardless, one of the most striking things about the performance was how that, even in such a cavernous and impersonal theater space, slight gestures—like a hand being raised or a handful of flower petals being tossed—had such dramatic impact. The performance ends with a final image of Leila seated, as in the opening, this time with the bodies of the three men lying in front of her. It’s a poignant image and echo of the opening, with variation, that sums up the journey of the piece beautifully and will forever be burned into my memory.