Walls, obstructions and the various ways they can be defiled are the subjects of We Fight We Die, a new play presented from Junesong Arts that dives into the moral dilemmas of those who make the city their canvas. The play finds a stand on which to hang its loud, mythic and often garbled emotions in the story of Q, a fly-by-night graffiti artist dragged into the light when he’s forced to choose between going to jail and completing a public art project.
Playwright Timothy J. Guillot is a white Catholic University graduate from the suburbs of Long Island who has never worked in graffiti before. Neither has director Alvin Ford, Jr., but it’s to both of the men’s credit that we never doubt the authenticity of their characters or the messages they preach. These are people who love the art form, who know where it came from and where it’s going.
Certainly graffiti seems to be now coming of age as an art form, helped by the expanded media presence of folks like Banksy, Invader and Shepard Fairey. But the medium’s in that awkward pubescent stage where the older forms of art will still occasionally point and laugh at its zits. In that sense, I suppose, it’s good to have well-meaning friends in the theatre world who can tag graffiti (sorry, couldn’t resist) as worthy of serious discussion.
The play finds strength in its brevity, distilling its central man-vs.-establishment conflict down to 75 minutes of one basic, angry thesis — that blunt-force truism in the title. When the four-member Greek chorus first storms on stage to rap out a blistering call to arms, we pay attention. And when they anoint Q as their paint-stained martyr, we believe in the power of the man’s aerosol spray.
In fact, the spoken-word chorus is so good — forceful, vengeful, boiling over with frenzied wordplay and the occasional rhythm break — that most of the “real” characters suffer by comparison. Q (Jeff Kirkman III, looking rather glum), whose persona as built up in the prologue suggests a firebrand, comes across instead as mopey and moribound. And his nemesis, the prim, orderly and very white Mayor Fishman (a stilted Sarah Stephens), is written as a clunky expository vehicle prone to overlong speeches about how much she despises Q’s brand of art. That said, Stanley Andrew Jackson III’s manic performance as Q’s loopy brother Wits (so named “cause he got none”) is a standout, crazed yet tender in the right doses.
Guillot lacks confidence in his own story’s power. Instead of letting his audience reach unique conclusions about art and public defiance via the narrative’s progression, he has his characters — particularly the mayor — lay the morals out, real nice and easy-like. Q is verbally compared to a Greek tragic hero at one point, in case the presence of the chorus was too subtle.
That said, there’s a lot to get excited about in We Fight We Die, not least of which is the small, intimate setting of the Flashpoint space where it’s staged (there are only a few dozen seats, stackable chairs placed on risers inches from the action). The cast acts to us instead of to an unresolved black space, and the result feels more immediate, instantly responsive, like a slam poetry/ performance art hybrid. Taking this responsiveness even further, the producers invited DC-area street artists to decorate the walls and floors of Flashpoint’s performance space, creating one sprawling mural of vivid, often disturbing imagination that threatens to upstage the actors blocking its view.
I wish Guillot and Ford would have pushed the experimentation even further. The dialogue loses its zest and pop in the second half as the production barrels through its climactic sequences, head down, racing to reach the finale in record time even if it has to sacrifice its aesthetic for speech after speech. If nothing else, the compulsion to tell instead of show seems an admission of over-ambition.
We Fight We Die, though a simple parable, still floats far too many unrealized themes for a mere 75 minutes of theatre — we want to see the characters simmer longer, to let Q and Wits and their fellow underpass-dwellers exert more of their visual influence on the streets. And more of the chorus certainly wouldn’t have hurt, either.
But you know what? For all its flaws, the production, like graffiti itself, has a lot of fight in it.
We Fight We Die runs thru Nov 15, 2011 at Flashpoint Gallery’s Mead Theatre Lab, 918 G St NW, Washington, DC.
We Fight We Die
By Timothy J. Guillot
Directed by Alvin Ford, Jr.
Produced by Junesong Arts
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission