“LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” I heard this somewhat nauseating chant on the streets of New York City, where I had gone to join an anti-Vietnam War rally. Those were the 1960s, and no one wanted to be drafted and sent to fight in southeast Asia.
I bring up this anecdote apropos of The Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans After Katrina, Jose Torres-Tama’s original one-man show. Uncertainty has nothing to do with Vietnam, but Torres-Tama — like the Vietnam protesters — is virulently sarcastic about the American dream. The show may be shocking to audiences unaccustomed to such gritty rhetoric.
The stage is flanked by the American flag and the Confederate flag. The flag of the American Revolution is in the background. A table draped in a red cloth bears a variety of votive candles and Voodoo ceremony paraphernalia, and at times, Torres-Tama seems a shaman. He wears a black outfit with a silver vest, a red, white and blue neckerchief and a tight-fitting cap (he says he shaved his head in mourning for Hurricane Katrina).
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the products for which it stands …” So begins his assault on what he sees as the great lie of the American dream. During much of the show, he wears a black mask and gloves with bones painted on them. He shakes a bamboo rattle and, in both English and Spanish, chants “I am death, I am official death, I am the death of the poor.” He also informs us that all poets’ tongues will be ripped out. He taunts Americans for speaking only English. Finally (seeming to read the minds of his audience) he says, “I’m sick of this rattle.”
Torres-Tama was born in Ecuador and as a child immigrated to the U.S., but he espouses some Latino attitudes toward so-called American exceptionalism. U.S. involvement in Latin America has rarely been in support of freely elected democracies, for example, in Guatemala and Chile among other nations.
Torres-Tama performs intensely. He balances the death figure with offhand asides, like “You’ll get the jokes on your way home.” There are stretches of deep feeling, and one of the most suspenseful stories is about Torres-Tama’s escape from flooded New Orleans on a stolen Jefferson Parish school bus in the company of Allen Toussaint.
Uncertainty is worlds away from witty, smooth cabaret comedy. It will appeal to a different audience. With such certainty of his views, Torres-Tama occasionally overplays his point. Uncertainty at times seems to be searching for a place to end.
Excellent video footage taken immediately after the hurricane by William Sabourin O’Reilly is incorporated in the show, and Billy Atwell’s original music adds to the ominous ambience.
But, to go back to the comparison with Vietnam. We’re currently engaged in two prolonged bloody, expensive wars and there are no protests. Not a peep. Maybe we need more performance artists to arouse us from our uncertainty.
Cone of Uncertainty: New Orleans After Katrina
8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
Shadowbox Theatre, 2400 St. Claude Ave., 298-8676