Museums are institutions of context, repositories of displaced objects and information about where they belong. The Field Museum holds a hall of taxidermied animals in glass cases, configured in imitation of their natural environments. We understand that the animals are the stuffed dead and that their habitats are as inanimate without missing the point: this is a matter of preservation and presentation, not dynamism. There is no illusion of the Tsavo Man-Eaters being alive and surviving in middle America.
The first act of “A Blue Island in the Red Sea” is historical reenactment. Uday Joshi plays the executive director of the Chicago Racism Museum and we are possibly the first visitors. Spectacles of violence, racist policies and police brutality skirt across the stage. Dates and names are projected above the stage; the information is cursory and condensed. It’s only there to contextualize the pain suffered by people of color in one of the most diverse and segregated cities in the country. The second act drops the fictional museum, instead staging the first rehearsal of “Blue Island.” This includes introductions, awkward jokes, theater games and uncomfortable conversations about privilege and white supremacy.
“Blue Island” has the best of intentions but fails to provide context. Even in Charlottesville-era America, the show does not make its urgency clear: each incident of the first act stands alone, never connected to our present-day Chicago. Meanwhile, it creates a mythology of its own process and never questions that mythology, instead relying on the idea that art is intrinsically valuable. It doesn’t acknowledge the messiness of racism and the hierarchy of oppression, instead opting for simple problem-solving that lets the show finish in one hour and forty-five minutes.
Museums are for the dead, the immobile. We need transformation and magical thinking to alchemize change. In our Chicago, the Man-Eaters are alive and our heads are in their mouths. What has transformed so integrally in this space that it warranted our gathering and communal imagining? What is the line between provocation and fetishizing pain? Who is the audience for this and how do we move past awareness and into social change? (Jay Van Ort)
Collaboraction at the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 North Milwaukee, (312)226-9633, collaboraction.org. $5-$30. Through May 20.