There is no one I know who is neutral about Sarah Palin – it’s either enthusiastically supportive or strong ly opposed, so it was fitting that the performance called The Tea Party Project began with an image of Palin: the Tea Party provokes similarly divisive reactions.
The great – and not so great – thing about The Tea Party Project is that it answers all three questions. It begins with an image of Palin and Jenny Lynn Towns recounting her relief that the former governor of Alaska is not a heartbeat away from being our president, and ends with the statement: “Tea Party candidates are running for office in all 50 states – there’s a tea partier out there who wants to represent you.”
The Tea Party Project was created by Towns and Brent Stansell who founded the DC Theatre Collective. The show excels at presenting the meteor-like rise of the party, and the fuel that drives its growth. The piece is thoroughly researched, as the program explains “all facts, quotations and data came from the following sources” (then there’s a list of more than 10 newspapers and websites including Newsweek, The New Yorker, HuffingtonPost.com and TeaPartyPatriots.org). Performed by Towns, Stansell, Valerie Fenton, Rose McConnell, and Michael Rodriguez, the show teems with facts and data, woven together with the necessary names and events so that the hour flows smoothly and quickly.
Palin is an interesting figure to start with: in spite of her 2008 campaign defeat, she sells a phenomenal number of books, is a sought-after speaker, and has become something of an icon for the Tea Party. Most Tea Partiers are white, conservative, Republican and registered, and seem to thrive on emotionally-driven (rather than ideologically-driven) strategies. The signs displayed at tea party rallies range from viscous to nauseating: “American Taxpayers are the Jews for Obama’s ovens.” Political discussions with this group appear to escalate quickly into name-calling and comparisons with horrific historical events. A common slogan of the party is “I want my country back.”
The five actors impersonate the people who lead and follow tea partiers, including Pam Stout and Diana Reimer. It is effective – and shocking – to hear their own words. The actors dress simply – pedestrian clothes – and the set consists of some chairs and boxes used as platforms. There are slide shows of Tea Party rallies, and a funny video of animated characters depicts the Tea Party events of 1773.
One of my favorite elements was a survey distributed to the audience prior to the show that asked simply: What do you see in the Tea Party? These were collected before the show began and several were read about half way into the performance. Responses spanned from “Intolerance” to “Decline of democracy” to “People who have confused tea with Kool-Aid.”
A lot of theater companies and artists say they want to make work about social issues and be agents of change. The Tea Party Project is an event that accomplishes this. It borders on didactic because the creators are invested in stopping a wave of hysteria that seems to oppose nearly all their values. As we were leaving the theater, Stansell was distributing flyers with quotes from Tea Party politicians and ways to get involved in stopping the spread of misinformation.
Afterwards, I saw a couple I recognized from the audience and we struck up a conversation about the show. We were still talking a half hour later. They said they felt it was more documentary than performance, but liked the way it showed the demographics of the party and its rise. We got to talking about how the harsh economic realities contributed to the fears that drive the movement, but it was interesting to hear how many wealthy and educated people are within this party.
Excellent performances do this: they instigate dialogue, new ways of thinking, and action.
The Tea Party Project
by Brent Stansell and Jenny Lynn Towns
produced by DC Theatre Collective
reviewed by Kate Mattingly
Running time: 60 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?