The slogan of THEATRE ICARUS [ee-kah-roos] is: “We ascend on foolish, loving arms.” These words go to the heart of the theory and practice of the group founded by the playright/director William Pleasant in 2003. In Pleasant’s eyes, the foolishness lies in the original, African-based mission of the theatre artform. The object of theatre, actually an ancient art of socialized worship, has always been to extricate the audience from the mundane and deposit it, though briefly, on a misfit landscape, another world. Thus the job of theatre is to make the REAL–the oppressive, the mind-numbingly cruel and the hopeless–ridiculous. Likewise for Pleasant, theatre must be motivated by love for the audience-co-conspirators, a sense of progressive social purpose that does not cease once the final curtain falls.
The theory and practice of Theatre Icarus originated in the stage explorations of the writer William Pleasant and the Austrian theatre expert Eva Brenner. Together on stage, Brenner and Pleasant explored how 20th century avant garde theatre practices and content could be applied to the needs of impoverished, culturally underdeveloped and politically oppressed populations in New York City, i.e., Black folks and Puerto Ricans. In 1985, they established the Castillo Theater with a motley crew of amateur and professional theatre workers who were committed to independently bringing erstwhile revolutionary themes and performance forms to the ‘hood.
Despite many political nay sayers and slaves of vulgar American made-for-TV realism, Castillo Theater was a stunning success, so much so that in 1989 it was literally hijacked by a gang of poverty pimps and converted into a politically denuded swine trough for local, state and federal grant monies.
Undaunted by the political demolition of Castillo Theater, Brenner and Pleasant went on to form a new group called PROJEKT THEATER. Like Castillo, Projekt Theater embraced a progressive social vision and a dedication to bringing people from the streets into the theatre experience as both audiences and producers of art. Projekt Theatre thrived on hatching new productions in New York City and then primarily selling the work to government-sponsored venues in Europe. But as the European political landscape tilted ever so much in a neo-liberal and xenophobic direction, official amusement with the plight and political aspirations of Blacks and Latinos from the US evaporated along with funding for the onstage “multi-cultural” experience.
In 1993, sensing the futiliy of chasing dwindling liberal dollars in Europe, Pleasant bid his cherished colleague Brenner a political and artistic farewell. Today, Eva Brenner continues to carry out the original Projekt Theater mission in Vienna, Austria.
By 1993, Pleasant began to explore how classic theatre literature could be redeveloped and staged in a way that disalienated a culturally diverse, primarily working class and non-white audience. At that time, he hooked up with the the anarchist-led theatre troop known as Tribeca Lab/Collective Unconsciousness.
TEXT EXCERPT FROM FLEET:
[The bodies of FLEET and FLANNERY O’Connor are brought into the cathedral or county courthouse or whites-only country club on a single hospital gurney
by two pallbearers. Filthy white sheets cover the two cadavers.
The ARCHBISHOP leads the procession. Once the gurney is hidden in a “secret garden” the two pallbearers leave the page and take seats beside the reader. They smoke and discuss trashy tabloid magazines,
as if OBLIVIOUS to the remainder of the poem…The ARCHBISOP (of Savannah?)
addresses the reader. As he speaks, FLEET and FLANNERY copulate
and slowly emerge from their blood-splattered shrouds. [This is a book you are reading.]
Lo! A nightingale of paradise singeth upon a twig of the tree of
paradise in a clear voice, proclaiming, the gladtidings of our nearness
Here lies the great southern author FLANNERY O’Connor and her
nigger lover, who took himself and her from this earth.
As wicked as the lust between them.
FLANNERY, my sister.
The nigger FLEET, sullen bastard too good to be a nigger…
Under the leadership of the Filipino director Al Ramos, Collective Unconsciousness rattled the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a nightly menu of formally and politically outrageous musical and stage performances. From his alliance with Ramos, Pleasant constructed a team of 20 actors–amateur, professional and etnically diverse–to explore what he called the “Modern Poetic-Political Theatre”.
With history–mythic and actual–as his building blocks, Pleasant wrote a series of theatre texts that explored the the social and psychological damage in the 3rd World induced by the collective experience of colonial domination and underdevelopment. Underdevelopment is a process and not a status, Pleasant has always insisted. And it did not end by the mid 1970s when most Black nations were “freed” and given a flag and theme song.
The most successful of the seven Poetic-Political plays were GINNY [1994-95], a version of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone set in a Central African nation that readily passed for Zaire (Congo) under the boot of the ruthless dictator Mobutu, and WHISPERS NOW: THE REVOLUTION , a biography of the Black revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon as he lay dying in a Washington, DC hotel room under the interogation of the CIA….
TEXT EXCERPT FROM REV. CAESAR:
Rev. Caesar paces across the floor of his suburban palace. He is terrified. His wife California sits at the dinning room table clipping her toenails.
REV. CAESAR: I smell treason in the deacon box. The AMEN CORNER is festering with witches. I tell you, California!
CALIFORNIA: Chill papi. Chill!… (seductively) Lemme blow yo’ HORN OF JACOB. Lemme give you some song.
REV. CAESAR: That’s no good now. It’s too late now. Lawdamercy! I don’t wanna go back to the projects!…
William Pleasant’s 2017 documentary tribute to Baltimore’s famed ROYAL THEATRE. (26 mins.)