If you’re looking for the cutting edge of DC theater, look for the groups who are interrogating the boundaries of what it means to even be a theater. From Forum’s actor-less The State to TBD’s immersive wonderlands to The Tarot Reading’s ‘theater without lies’* to the variety of groups making plays in bars, houses, hotel rooms, the list goes on of local companies who create some of the most exciting and controversial art in the area. Now, an Oscar-winning film director, Alejandro Iñárritu, has brought national attention to DC’s paratheatrical scene by adding Carne y Arena [Flesh and Sand] to the mix.
Iñárritu’s blend of virtual reality, sensory stimulation theater, and art exhibit blows audience’s minds a half hour at a time in the former Trinidad Baptist Church just off of Northeast’s H Street Corridor. Carne y Arena puts you in the shoes (or rather the lack of shoes) of immigrants making the deadly desert crossing from Mexico to the United States.
The experience is regimented, as bureaucratized as the lives of immigrants are, documented or not. You start in a bright and horribly sterile waiting room adorned with psuedosucculents. Then, when you are called, you go back outside to re-enter the building via the front door, then sign your waiver in darkness.
You read that right, given the intense nature of Carne y Arena and the physical vulnerability of wearing a backpack-style VR rig, you indemnify the creators beforehand and sit on a bench with your back to the rusty corrugated steel that used to be part of the US/Mexico border fence. [I was able to get the full experience even though I have recently had surgery, so don’t be too discouraged on that front.] Once you’re inside, you receive one of the most harrowing and haunting depictions of the human condition I’ve ever seen.
Beginning in an antiseptic recreation of a detention cell of an immigration facility scattered with the real artifacts of those who have braved the border crossing, the theme of Carne y Arena is true stories from survivors. But once you remove your shoes as instructed and move on, there’s no more sterility. The main sanctuary of the former church has been converted into an almost-blank temple to twin gods of technology and the struggle of those yearning to be free.
The sandy grit that covers the sanctuary floor rankles your toes and the massive black box, illuminated only by an ominous red light, strikes awe as the technicians suit you into VR gear. But nothing could be as awe-striking as the world of the desert border that fills your vision when the machines come to life. Most stunning are the people, modeled after real survivors, that you walk among while there. No description can do justice to the brief windows into their stories shown in that sanctuary. What I can say is that no one with even a trickle of empathetic blood in their veins who experiences what I experienced can leave that dusty, black room without tremendous respect for those who have dared and survived that desert crossing in search of freedom.
Carne y Asada
closes August 31, 2018
Details and tickets
In the final chamber, you meet those survivors in video portraiture with their stories laid out sentence by sentence over their intense gazes. The instructions say that you can stay in this portrait gallery for as long as you want, and recognizing their stories from the immersion I just experienced compelled me to turn this 15 minute experience into a half hour. Every story is deeply moving, and made more so by the knowledge that there are thousands of others left untold.
This will be the premiere experience to have in Washington over the next few months. My advice to you regarding Carne y Arena is twofold. First, set an alarm for the next ticket release (which will happen here). The experience runs through August, but tickets for each block have sold out when released.
The second piece of advice I have is to recognize that these stories are not so distant from your life. Coming out of the post-experience waiting room, I got to talk with a young Latino man who had also gone through Carne y Arena much earlier.
“What did you think?” I asked him.
“It was tight!” he said with a bright smile. “Really intense.”
“Tell me,” I asked, feeling like a jerk for asking, “do you know anyone with experiences like that?”
His face became suddenly serious. “My mom. She…sacrificed a lot to get here.”
“Gotta respect that,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.
Carne y Arena does exactly what the best theater does: use stories and bodies in space to help us recognize the humanity in one another. So, please, after you get your ticket and have this wondrous experience, try to remember that these aren’t just hardship tales from far away. These experiences have shaped the lives of people all around you. If you can do that, you can do what Carne y Arena and the best theater does: change the world.
Carne y Arena, written and directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (aka Chivo) in collaboration with ILMxLAB. Music by Alva Noto. Produced and Financed by Legendary Entertainment, Fondazione Prada and Emerson Collective. Reviewed by Alan Katz.
- * Alan Katz is co-founder of the experiential theatre company The Tarot Reading mentioned above.