Nicole Serratore: US shows at Edinburgh assess the state of a divided nation
Making theatre about US politics is fraught. Whether he is deliberately snubbed or consciously included, shades of Trump abound in narrative injustices, narcissistic characters, and abuses of power.
Some artists heading to Edinburgh are embracing his presence: as well as in the Shakespearean satire terms of Trump Lear at Pleasance Courtyard and the comedy Trump’d at C Venues, the President is parodied in Trump the Musical at the same venue.
Beyond Trump, several American artists are wrestling with long-time divisive issues in the US in their fringe shows including race, immigration and guns, though it’s worth pointing out these disputes have only become more tumultuous since Trump’s election.
Gun culture is one aspect of the US that baffles foreigners. Martin Zimmerman’s On the Exhale, playing at the Traverse, examines how it is ‘normal’ for American schoolchildren to practise active-shooter drills as if this were an acceptable consequence of the right to bear arms. Zimmerman’s play focuses on a university professor who worries about guns on campus but is blindsided by gun violence. In response to her trauma, she ponders the lure of guns, politicians beholden to the gun lobby and how to process senseless tragedy.
Sometimes a metaphorical approach to politics is best. So a couch-surfing beaver in Jean Ann Douglass’ The Providence of Neighboring Bodies at Underbelly Cowgate speaks to more than just the travails of a semi-aquatic rodent. Jane, the beaver, is a chipper tourist visiting the state of Rhode Island. Historically, beavers were trapped and released outside state borders as it was illegal to kill them. Douglass uses female friendship, loneliness, and the tedium of disconnected modern life to tease out unspoken tensions in this dark satire of outsiders and immigration.
If you think a school game where children play out the two sides of the American Civil War while saving or capturing runaway slaves for points is an abominable prospect, then strap in for a bumpy ride with Underground Railroad Game at the Traverse. Moving beyond historical reenactments, this self-aware devised work uses meta-theatrics, sex games, and light audience interaction to confront race, power, racism and unconscious biases.
Our Country at Summerhall depicts the US battleground between politics and family. Artist Annie Saunders, a California liberal, finds herself at philosophical odds with her “outlaw weed-farmer” brother, a libertarian. This movement-driven piece uses fragments of Antigone, audio recordings of Saunders and her brother, discussions of their childhood memories and the California marijuana ‘gold rush’. It examines this increasingly unfamiliar nation where divisions between us appear more insurmountable every day.
These theatrical works will hopefully illuminate our balkanised American culture for UK audiences, and take it beyond our contemptible president.