New play revises history

History textbooks dictate what we know and the way we are supposed to learn about America’s past. But who makes them the authority to determine how we see or understand history? Director, choreographer and co-creator Dayna Hanson poses this question in Gloria’s Cause, a play at Downtown Los Angeles’ REDCAT.

Gloria’s Cause delves into the various aspects of American history as it explores performance art. It takes the audience to a place that is strange and almost unrelated to the chapters of our textbooks or what we perceive to be “true” history.

Stated in the audience program notes, the production of this fractured tale is “inspired as much by America’s maddening inequalities as by what we really, truly love about this country.” This statement holds true as all the play’s occurrences seem to take place at the same time, offering a fractured view that is at times almost incoherent and makes for a confusing but compelling retelling of the American Revolution.

And what exactly is Gloria’s Cause?

“The revolution,” Hanson explained in an interview with The Seattle Times in 2010, “was called the ‘glorious cause’ in the rhetoric of the day. For me, Gloria is a specific name for the anonymous forgotten player of the time, female or not. Whose cause was it, really? It’s the question that interests me more than the answer.”

This play was not conceived blindly. Research for Gloria’s Cause was conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with American history scholars who guided the creators through Revolutionary War-era documents and artifacts and advised them on race and class relations of that period.

Through monologue and narration, dance and music, singing and the exploration of sexuality, Gloria’s Cause utilizes performance art. It takes a satirical approach to social commentary. It even becomes a rock musical as the cast takes turns impressively playing instruments, singing and dancing.

Despite a video montage at the end of the production, most of the play focuses on the American Revolution’s forgotten players. It questions the ideas our forefathers fought for by unlocking what might have been their personal insights into what became the America we know today.

For instance, the play explores iconic moments of American history, such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which is presented with the actors hunched over with only the top of their heads available for the audience to see; the audience, then, must rely on the actors’ voices and dialogue to examine the backroom debates over the wording of the document. This play seems to suggest that these ideas have become versions infused with more modernistic viewpoints.

For example, a Revolutionary soldier recounts the hardships he endured while fighting the war and the incompetence of his commanding officer in a way that revamps history and the heroic moments we know of the war.

The soldier confronts his officer, George Washington, who stumbles into the scene as a drunken mess, exemplifying his shortcomings. The scene forces the viewer to wonder how Washington led thousands of men into war with the English to fight for our country’s freedom.

Washington and the soldier even wind up fistfighting until a security guard tears them apart. This is one of many scenes where the audience is inserted into a time machine to view history in a modern setting. Even as the players remaster the events that put our country in motion, it is difficult to connect the dance movement to the performance’s overall narration and message.

This production stands apart as an atypical play. It doesn’t follow a consistent time or storyline, nor does it follow any particular pattern. There is no rising action, climax or falling action, yet it sucks the viewer in. Even the way the director chose to have the actors use microphones in some scenes and not in others forces the audience to pay close attention. Moreover, the audience cannot tell whether the play has concluded because of the ending’s ambiguity.

Like a drug-induced haze, the audience is inserted into the scattered minds of these nine artists through a retelling of history, even if it is not always one that everyone will understand.

The production shines in the way that it engages, informs and questions our history through art. How do we, the people who live in this country of liberty, justice and freedom, judge the way in which our rights were obtained? If given just the facts, unbiased and straight forward, how would we really appreciate history? What other stories about history could we form in our own minds?

The concepts are great, but the play could stand to have someone other than its creator serve as the director; it often feels like the audience is subjected to the artists’ stream of consciousness. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where Gloria’s Cause goes as its concepts are further refined.

View Roundup 04-09 in a larger map