Have you ever looked back on some of the games you played as an elementary school child and thought, “What a terrible game for children! Whose idea was it to teach us such an unthinkingly cruel and inappropriate thing?” I’m not just talking about the viciously clotheslining brutality of Red Rover or the almost equally painful and demeaning ritual of choosing kickball teams. But the kinds of games we played or songs we were taught that, now, to a grown-up and socially aware person seem inherently exclusionary, outright racist, or suspiciously fascistic.
These kinds of games that form the seed of dog & pony dc’s newest participatory venture in Squares at Capital Fringe. It starts out innocently enough. The devisers* (*d&pdc almost always develops their shows in group settings; this one has a director Shannon Davies Mancus, assisted by 2 others and at least 5 contributors to scripting and development) spread out our ragtag group of theatergoers under a pavilion in a play space on Gallaudet University’s campus with simple childhood games. Jump rope, four square, jacks (in which dog & pony Ring Leader Rachel Grossman whipped me soundly), and, the holy grail of recess implements, the multi-colored parachute. All innocent games, right?
But after this seemingly carefree fun, the real show begins when the audience is gathered under the pavilion and taught some songs and signs very much in the style of summer camp learning. As the show develops, we the audience are asked to participate in darker and darker versions of children’s games and songs, like a singing retelling of American history sans elementary school whitewash or a game of “Indian Chief” that encourages audience members to imitate Native American stereotypes. These include “Time Out” sessions where the cast performs vignettes that drop all pretense and subtlety to directly criticize “the system,” which seems to consist of the entirety of education, social interaction, government, and history of America.
That’s a pretty broad range, but these performers can speak to many different kinds of discrimination. Most particularly Joey, played by brilliantly by James Caverly and whose deafness wasn’t apparent to me until fairly deep into the show, reveals discrimination against disability through these children’s games that rarely comes up in discussions of privilege. But one thing that Squares does very well is use (or build in) the unfairness of many children’s games to give privileged audience members the tiniest taste of what it feels like to not have their privileges.
In Joey’s case, audience members get thrown into a deaf-inclusive world. You’re taught to sign and if you fail, that makes you look bad, if you don’t try, it’s as good as an insult to the affable and likeable Joey, though he won’t take it that way. The look of exasperation and desperation on audience member’s faces as they tried (or didn’t) to communicate his way, even in the context of kindergarten-level simplicity and with an interpreter, was revealing in itself.
Chief Creative Minds: Rachel Grossman, Shannon Davies Mancus, Danielle Mohlman, Aaron Mosby with Tyrone Giordano
Directed by Rachel Grossman and Shannon Davies Mancus
Details and tickets
But Squares doesn’t only use childhood games to show an audience what it feels like to be underprivileged. dog & pony’s participatory style is great for getting an audience to feel implicated in the unfairness of the world, and that’s exactly what Squares does. I don’t have the numbers, but I think it would be fair to assume that most Fringe audiences will be able-bodied, middle-class White people; that was, at least, the makeup of the audience I was in for Squares. The games Squares asks you to reveal those and other privileges about each audience member as a prerequisite for playing them and will punish or reward with seeming arbitrariness based on the information you reveal about yourself. And then it will ask you to think about how you punish and reward others based on these factors.
Squares is still early in its development, and dog & pony shows can take months or years to find their feet, but this may be one of the best starts for a participatory show I’ve ever seen. The structure is solid and never seems out of control, but it is still alive and fluid. Almost any audience member has a touchstone of common experience with elementary school games. Even I, who was homeschooled for most of grade school felt that common bond. Connecting that common touchstone of play and fairness with the all too common experiences of discrimination and unfairness is a brilliant stroke.
There were other parts that didn’t work as well in the play context. Social criticism isn’t so much brushed on as pressurized into a spray rig and blasted at the audience. There were great moments of innocent playing until the unease from the game’s reality snuck up on me, and I would love more of that. Focus was a problem, too, and not just in terms of knowing where to be and getting lines right. “The system” is a huge target, and like with many huge targets, a play that aims that big will probably hit that target but won’t inflict too much damage. A more cohesive focus (and given the context, the most likely candidate is the educational system) might make this play really pop.
I’d recommend you check out Squares, especially if you are involved in social justice, but remember that this play is still a sapling, though I suspect it will grow into a mighty oak soon enough.
Two important notes. First, Squares is all about play: real play, recess play, child’s play. Consequently, you will be running around, moving and shvitzing in the sticky heat of DC. I wouldn’t recommend this show if you would have issues with that or with participating in the performance in an athletic and personal way. Second, though the play is based in childhood games, I don’t think that this is a good play for children. There was at least one young lady in the audience who seemed a bit bored or excluded at times, and the social justice and privilege messages seemed to go over her head. I could be wrong, since I didn’t have a chance to speak with her, but I’d say Squares is more for the child within us all than for actual children.