By Collin Kelley
The Alliance Theatre’s adaptation of former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection “Native Guard” is not a play. It’s also not a poetry reading. The words that came up again and again on Friday night during the Act II talk back (more on that in a moment) are “art installation.” In reality, “Native Guard” is a play, a poetry reading, an art installation, a film, a diorama and an immersive experience for the audience inside the Alliance’s intimate Hertz Theatre.
Upon entering the space, audience members are given a hang-tag with the word “Remember” printed at the top. During the intermission, the audience is invited to walk onto the set and pin their remembrance (a name, a moment and idea) on the floor to ceiling canvas wall that is also used as a massive screen for the stunning video projection created by Adam Larsen. The simple set evokes the sandy Mississippi beach where so many of Trethewey’s poems reside. A simple bench, boardwalk, a pebble-filled pool of water and rocks that appear to have washed-up on the stage become crucial way-markers as the poems are brought to life. Anne Patterson’s set is like good poetry – less is more. As the sand sifts beneath your feat as you find a seat, you can’t help but be transported to the Gulf Coast.
Perched in the upper reaches of the house left seating area are vocalist Nicole Banks Long and pianist Tyrone Jackson, who provide the stirring gospel and jazz notes that punctuate the evening, as well as bring Trethewey’s epigraphs to life. Long’s take on the Civil Rights-era classic “Mississippi Goddamn” would make Nina Simone proud.
That leaves the “play” part of this installation. Trethewey’s “Native Guard” is hybrid of confessional poetry about the interracial marriage of her parents (illegal in Mississippi at the time), her early childhood in the segregated South and her mother’s murder at the hands of her abusive stepfather. The collection is also a lyrical meditation on the Louisiana Native Guard, freed slaves who became the Union’s first regiment of black soldiers. Despite their perceived freedom, the men were horribly mistreated by their fellow soldiers. After battle, their bodies were left behind without burial. The intersection of history, scarred landscapes and how you can be an expatriate – a “native in my native land” – in your own birthplace are deep at the heart of Trethewey’s work.
January LaVoy transforms herself so convincingly into “The Poet” named Natasha that I had to remind myself that the real Trethewey was sitting across from me on the opposite side of the set. As one audience member in the talk back section said, LaVoy “took us there.”
Cross over the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand dumped on the mangrove swamp – buried terrain of the past. Bring only what you must carry – tome of memory, its random blank pages.
Thomas Neal Antwon Ghant, dressed in casual street clothes, rises unexpectedly from the audience and sings a spiritual before transforming himself into one of the Native Guard soldiers. Ghant brings the haunted soldier to life in fully realized fear, anguish and resignation that even after the Civil War ends, his brothers and sisters are still in bondage.
After a short intermission, Act II is a conversation with the audience guided by a different special guest for each performance (some of the prominent guides include poet Alice Lovelace, director Freddie Ashley and Center for Civil and Human Rights director Doug Shipman). The themes of the poetry, the production and the chance to speak to the actors (and Trethewey for some performances) are part of the experience.
Susan V. Booth, who conceived the idea of turning Trethewey’s work into an installation, has assembled a stellar cast and crew. The ultimate compliment I can offer Booth is that “Native Guard” doesn’t feel “directed” at all. It lives and breaths so organically that it does feel as if you stumbled onto a beach and are being taken on a harrowing, beautiful and elegiac journey. Booth has succeeded beautifully in her mission to bend theatrical form to serve poetry.
Back in 2006, Trethewey (who happens to be a friend as well as fellow poet) inscribed my copy of “Native Guard” with this reminder: These words against forgetting.
I promise you, “Native Guard” will stay with you long after you leave the Alliance.