Thursday, April 12, 2018

Eliza Bent gets personal on race and cultural appropriation

Eliza Bent
(photo: Knud Adams)

It's far worse than you might think.

No, that's not my review of Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen, the new monologue written and performed by Eliza Bent, now at Abrons Arts Center. But that's what I believe Bent wants viewers to grasp.

The piece jumps off from the playwright's memories of a film on the 19th Century queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch--a school project Bent cooked up at age 13 with a friend and classmate. The young auteur cast her white affluent self as the indigenous queen and now looks back on it--as we get to do; the film is both cringe-worthy and just ridiculously audacious enough to kind of work, ya know?--with no small amount of shame. I can't gauge how completely woke today's Bent is but, as things unfold, you will definitely see she's got her eyes propped open.

She might have forgiven her teenaged self (and begged our forgiveness) for youthful indiscretion. But she does not stop there.

Surrounded, inexplicably but beautifully, by Elizabeth Chabot's rich, thick textile art and a row of fetching portraits--Bent resembles some combination of high-class talk show host and star monologist. Wearing a buttoned-up little black dress with A-line cut, she talks nonstop with well-practiced intensity that pegs her as facile, artificial, privileged, ready for PBS or an NPR podcast.

Frankly, even when self-revealing, she's off-putting. You take note when she utters something amusing. You note that amusement and yet stand clear of enjoying it. You definitely stand away from Bent, and maybe she means you to do so, because her delivery of text is noticeably, oddly driven, airless, leaving no room for her breathing or your own.

At some point, you get used to that. Which might mean an unseen internal change within her or--and this is really what it felt like--something shifting inside you, like when a climber gets more and more acclimated to lower levels of oxygen.

Maybe, though, Bent's the sort best positioned to lead us where we need to go and show us what we need to see--what she's done and what she's witnessed, particularly in the world of media and the arts. (In addition to her stage work, she served, for several years, as a senior editor at American Theatre magazine.) Deep into the play, she circles back to her own relationships and disconnections--refusing to absolve herself for what remains unresolved, tasking herself and the rest of us with acknowledging the pervasive breadth and durability of privilege and the damage wrought. Not a curious fossil from the ancestral past. Not a specimen of a problem that has not a thing on Earth to do with us now.

Direction: Knud Adams
Textile panel art: Elizabeth Chabot
Sound design/original composition: Jerome Ellis
Lighting: Kate McGee
Make up and styling: Naomi Miyoko Raddatz

Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen continues through April 21. For information and tickets, click here.

Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan

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