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In Performance: Kaneza Schaal, Jack & (Out There)

Kaneza Schaal in collaboration with Cornell Alston and Christopher Myers
January 2019
Walker Art Center

A goldfish swims in circles in its tiny bowl at center stage, a prisoner whose inner life, if it has any, we cannot access. It will stay in its bowl, captive and on display, for the duration of the three-part performance in which we delve into the dream life of our recently incarcerated protagonist, Jack. In Part I, “The Monologues,” Cornell Alston’s Jack comes to us with just stories, a monologue about life in the community room of a prison, with larger-than-life characters sharing confident but ill-informed opinions over any topic that comes their way. We hear of the difficulty of proving to a parole board that theatre is gainful employment, and we can laugh, because of course here he is, free to perform for us. But what is set up in this first segment is a sense of limitation: a reminder that the life of a formerly incarcerated person is tightly proscribed not only in their movements, but also in their aspirations and their dreams.

Part II, “The Sitcom,” ushers in an entirely different world, one with more sound, light, and color, but also with completely different rules and customs. After so long confined to the world of isolated monologue, the high sitcom style punctuated by a laugh track is a jarring new environment, one into which Jack doesn’t quite fit. There’s a sense of aspiration here, of The American Dream held up as an unattainable goal. Jack’s attempts to make the TV-perfect Jill a beautiful cake meet with obstacle after obstacle, the type of alienating crises that frequently occur in dreams. For example, a grocery run nets only substitute ingredients: vinegar instead of eggs. Jack has to work with the sub-par material at hand, and it’s clear from early on that this cake will never have the opportunity to succeed.The goldfish, symbol of the ongoing effects of Jack’s incarceration, remains on the shelf, an observer of Jack’s baking foibles.

The ill-fated cake’s placement in the oven marks a transition into an even more dreamlike state. Part III, “The Cotillion,” is a fusion of rituals, a movement melange of ceremonies that mark coming of age, entering society, and celebration of victory. Further abstracted and fragmented, we see that even Jack’s dreams are overshadowed by the effects of his incarceration in the form of a live feed of our goldfish friend projected as a beautiful backdrop to the action. However, there is hope. Though aspirations go up in literal smoke as the cake burns in the oven, ultimately what emerges is the big, beautiful cake of Jack’s dreams, for once made real.

Ultimately, JACK & provides a picture into how the systems of incarceration can warp and compress the inner life of those it encounters. Says  collaborating artist Christopher Myers, “The thing that gets lost in all of the conversation about social good and the arts is that all trauma affects your dreaming, affects your fantasies of who you can be, affects your fantasies of who you want to be and who you will be.” Goldfish kept in small bowls will develop deformities, suffer from stress-related diseases, and die many years before they reach average life expectancy. And for humans, damage can remain long after confinement ends.

Photo by Christopher Myers.

See JACK & this spring:

New York Live Arts
New York, NY
April 17 – 27, 2019
Tickets here.

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