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An Unaesthetic Disease

By Daniel Mufson

In the fall of 1988, the Los Angeles Theatre Center decided to let Reza Abdoh direct his first production on the mainstage. His only previous work at the theatre was on one of the secondary stages, where he directed two one-acts by David Henry Hwang, As the Crow Flies and The Sound of a Voice, in February of 1986. In 1987, he had was already been discussing a piece whose working title was Bogeyman with Mira-Lani Oglesby, with whom he had recently collaborated on for Peep Show, a site specific work that took its audience through a number or rooms in a downtown Hollywood hotel. Even in the earliest planning stages, it was clear that Bogeyman would cost more money than the LATC was at that point willing to give Abdoh. Instead, Abdoh and Oglesby chose to do a play based on a true story, an environmental catastrophe in Minamata, Japan.

Minamata would turn out to be one of the most important productions of Abdoh’s career in part because of its artistic qualities but more so as a turning point in his life—professionally and personally. With Minamata, Abdoh jettisoned many of the actors he had been relying on for the previous five years. Artson Hardison, Meg Kruszewska, Suraya Nobel, Irene Ujda, Ron Frank, and Carla-Maria von Wiegandt, all of whom had considered themselves part of Reza’s de facto company, suddenly found themselves out in the cold. With the exception of Kruszewska, who would have one final and unpleasant experience with Abdoh in Father Was a Peculiar Man, none of them would ever work with Abdoh again.

Abdoh’s professional decision came at significant personal cost. Most if not all of the above actors considered themselves Abdoh’s friends, and his decision to switch to more established professional actors was interpreted as egregious betrayal. Abdoh seemed to recognize how high the stakes were for his career and responded with a correspondingly dramatic action. In turn, the LATC’s decision to give a mainstage slot to a 25 year old director itself changed the nature of the Abdoh’s work—polishing it, intensifying it, making it far more reliant on technology and its variety of special effects. For a director inclined towards spectacle, the access to better sound, lighting, projections, and video allowed a reconsideration of what was possible; in technological terms, the productions would for the next few years sound and look increasingly baroque.

Along with the turmoil of switching actors and the sense of promise the came with directing on the mainstage, Abdoh also received at about this time the news that he was infected with HIV. Although sexual congress is indeed simulated at one point in Minamata, sexual issues are almost completely irrelevant to the play. This is the last production of which that could be said. After Minamata, which lasted about two hours and twenty minutes, Abdoh’s works grew shorter, seldom exceeding an hour and a half, and increased in intensity. This may have been related to the diagnosis, but LATC’s artistic director, Bill Bushnell, is said to have been urging Abdoh to trim and cut his work throughout Minamata’s production process. Although Abdoh resisted the advice during Minamata, in hindsight he may have realized that Bushnell’s objection had some validity and that Minamata would have benefited from Occam’s Razor. Something that takes even firmer root in Minamata is the incorporation of socio-political issues into a play text; in particular, Minamata begins to cast urban, industrial, capitalist society in a critical light and questions its claim on the notion of progress. Minamata may have been only a village, but it carries within it the seeds of the “ruined city.”

Minamata was Abdoh and Oglesby’s second collaboration, and already the relationship was beginning to show signs of strain. According to others involved in the production process, Abdoh frequently played with pieces of text Oglesby had written in ways that infuriated Oglesby. Oglesby consistently refused requests for an interview, so it is hard to know for certain who wrote what or how much or what the nature of their disagreements was.

There are darkly humorous moments that resonate with subsequent plays that Abdoh wrote alone, and the piece is richly choreographed with long dance numbers. The use of repetition to augment and alter the significance of a line or phrase is much in evidence: “Our lives are a continuing succession of opportunities for survival,” and “Quietly, death becomes a commodity,” and “We are trying to atone for our dead,” to name just a few. That said, the script lacks traits that Abdoh seemed to be honing at least as early as Rusty and which would grow ever more abundant from Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice onwards: lines that at first sound like non sequiturs but actually have a hidden relevance; an aversion to the prosaic; an intense stylization of speech that strives for the poetic but doesn’t sound as overwrought as much of Minamata’s text. Even the repeated phrases don’t have the sense of rhythm in language that typifies Abdoh’s later use of the device. The refrain, “Our lives are a continuing succession of opportunities for survival,” lacks the clipped, cutting quality that Abdoh would later perfect. Minamata is also the last play to use a narrator to help guide the play’s action and soothe or antagonize the audience. Finally, the dances in Minamata seem balanced between populist dance (from Hollywood musicals or folk traditions) and modern dance; after Minamata, the choreography would be confined to using only the former, but in increasingly alienated, or twisted, representations.

Death and Commodity

Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
King John, II, i., 597-598.

Beginning in 1932, the Tokyo-based Chisso Corporation began dumping chemical waste from the production of acetaldehyde into the bay of Minamata, a fishing village 560 miles southwest of Tokyo, on the island of Kyushu. Acetaldehyde is used in the production of plastics, drugs, perfumes, and photographic chemicals, and one of the chemicals required for its manufacture is mercury. Mercury, of course, is highly toxic; the origins of the English expression, “mad as a hatter,” lie in the (now obsolete) use of mercurous nitrate in the making of felt hats, which eventually induced neurological disorders in the hatters. In Minamata’s case, the mercury discharged from acetaldehyde production made its way into Minamata’s fish population, and the fish were in turn eaten by the inhabitants of Minamata. The so-called “strange disease,” would first affect the nervous system, causing numbness in the limbs and lips. Progressively, speech would grow slurred and vision, myopic. Fainting, spasms, and uncontrolled shouting were typical of some of the early, extreme cases. The rate of birth defects skyrocketed, as did the rate of mental illness induced by mercury poisoning. In the 1950s, Minamata’s population reached 50,000; by 1975, it had sunk to 36,000. It took time to figure out what the disease was. Not until early in 1956 did it become clear that something had gone seriously wrong. Amidst a campaign of denials, obfuscation, and egregious legal maneuverings by the Chisso Corporation, the dumping of mercury into the bay actually continued until 1968, at which time the mercury method of production for acetaldehyde finally became obsolete. The Chisso Corporation had realized it was responsible for the epidemic as early as 1959, but it continued to deny responsibility and actually negotiated a contract with victims that offered the sufferers token financial aid from the corporation in return for the victims’ waiving their right to sue for further compensation. The Minamata catastrophe received a great deal of publicity in 1975 as a result of a book of ghastly pictures taken by W. Eugene and Aileen M. Smith, some of which are projected upon the rear scrim in the LATC production. The final legal settlement of the case would not come until 1996, when about 2,400 of the surviving plaintiffs settled out-of-court for 2.6 million Yen each ($24,200), plus 3.8 billion Yen ($3,800,000) for the organization representing the plaintiffs. When Minamata went up at the LATC, the sordid affair was far from over; indeed, for the survivors, the repercussions continue to last beyond any court settlement. Abdoh and Oglesby used the story of Minamata as a base from which to launch a broader critique of capitalism, legal systems that protect corporations more than the populace, and industrialization in general. Although the narrator, who introduces himself as a lawyer (played by Mark Rosenblatt), gives a great deal of background information about the Minamata case, little effort is made to put the play in a Japanese context, in scenic terms or otherwise. Only one of the actors in the twelve-member cast is of Japanese descent; two others are black, and the rest are white. Occasionally, lines are repeated in Japanese, and there is a Japanese rendition of the “Beverly Hillbillies” song, but in general Abdoh and Oglesby make it easy to forget that the Minamata incident happened in Japan, not America. The only recognizable individual in Minamata is the Chisso Corporation’s doctor who worked honestly to discover the cause of the disease but then allowed his findings to be suppressed for years. The doctor’s name was Dr. Hajimé Hosokawa; in the play, he is played by a black man and given the name, Del. In reality and in the theater, however, the doctor is an avid fan of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. It turns out to be an anomaly in Abdoh’s career that he would co-write and stage a play so directly pre-occupied with an environmental catastrophe. In all of Abdoh’s other works, the focus of the writing is on an emotional struggle—produced by or producing dysfunctional or destructive behavior. The struggle in Minamata is not one of inner conflict. The tortured souls are tortured physically; their psychic anguish is a byproduct of their physical predicament, not vice versa. Although the Smiths’ book actually does talk about how the citizens of Minamata had divided feelings towards the Chisso Company, in Abdoh and Oglesby’s play there is no psychic division, no gray moral area. There is no grand conflict between dynamic forces. In Quotations from a Ruined City, Abdoh would again turn his attention to the cruelty intrinsic to capitalism, but the Puritan/entrepreneurial figures in Quotations seem at times to be victims of their own creation, and their rather inhuman dialogue is tempered by that of the gay lovers. In Minamata, except for a speech by Tom Fitzpatrick which presents a menacing vision of “creative destruction,” the phrase Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter used to describe capitalism, the villains are never seen, merely referred to by the Lawyer/Narrator. Nothing tempers the inevitable indictment of the Chisso Corporation’s behavior. There’s no complex weave of thought, however repugnant, which the audience is forced to explore, as was the case with Abdoh’s handling of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in The Law of Remains. In all these ways, Minamata is an atypical work for Abdoh. The closest thing to moral ambiguity comes when the Old Woman of Minamata asks, “Are five billion people living out a perfunctory existence in six hundred sixty six countries accessories to rape and pillage?” The notion that everyone on the planet is complicit in every crime committed on the planet is too devoid of credibility to have the threatening or shocking impact that Hip-Hop or Law of Remains would have. The moral exploration never transcends this type of superficial and immature rhetoric. Apropos of the Manichean nature of the Minamata story, Abdoh and Oglesby use devices that originated in the Living Newspaper productions as part of America’s Federal Theatre Project in the Great Depression. Slides of photos from Smith’s Minamata provide documentary evidence of the atrocity, while the Old Woman catalogues facts that indict the priorities of governments and corporations around the world:

One soldier for every 43 people. Check. One doctor for every 1,030 people. Check. 40% of our research and development devoted to developing weapons to make us better killers. Check. 60% of our physical scientists and engineers devoted to developing weapons to make us better killers.

And so forth. In such a production, the use of a narrator is almost a necessity; information, such as when a chemical factory opened or started producing acetaldehyde, tends to be difficult to integrate gracefully or poetically into dialogue. The script occasionally tries to compensate for the pedestrian recital of facts by leaping for rhetoric that often comes off as bloated. Shortly after finishing a series of lines such as, “The Antarctic stratosphere loses half its ozone every September,” the Old Woman continues, “Eternal verities couched in expedient slogans permeate the material world.” But the script is not comfortable with its own loftiness. Aptly, another character interrupts the Old Woman after the line about eternal verities and asks, “What does that mean?” Throughout the production, characters interrupt each other with wry remarks that undercut the highfalutin tenor. The Old Woman starts a speech, “The sky is red. The color of saffron,” but is immediately interrupted by another woman who says, “No, it’s not.” The Old Woman answers, defensively, “That’s what’s written. That’s what I’m gonna say.” Shrugging, the other woman says in a doubting tone, “Ok,” and the Old Woman continues on with her speech, “The earth seems wholly black. / The sea still and blue. / A humid rotten flower smell. / A musty dry smell of deserted forests: / The smell of mutation,” and so forth. Such apparent tensions between the urges toward flowery and hard speech are occasionally amusing, but they more often give a sense either of two authors ill at ease with each other’s style or of one or two authors ill at ease with their own. It is perhaps significant that, without exception, these interjections appear in the actual production but none of them appear in the extant script. It would be presumptuous to guess that Oglesby was responsible for the purple parts of the play while Abdoh was responsible for the attempts at deflation. Going back to the book of poetry Abdoh wrote and published at age 16, even its title, “The Sound of a Poet Breathing in an Imprisoned Air,” announces a tendency to the overblown. If we look at Abdoh’s other works, there is always a tension between the impulse towards flowery or “poetic” speech and the impulse to deflate, undermine, or mock what is lofty. Indeed, a key part of Abdoh’s maturation as a writer (or “creator,” if we are uncomfortable with using the word “writer” to refer to someone who cut and pasted excerpts from so many other sources) is that he began to find poetry in the profane, to become more concrete, hard-edged, and anti-pretentious in his attempts at writing something elevated.

Text versus Staging

More than the struggle between the people of Minamata and the Chisso Corporation, Minamata announces from the beginning the struggle between word and image. In the opening monologue, the Lawyer announces:

The play is about Minamata. Minamata is a fishing slash factory town in Japan. Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures. They involve mercury poisoning. Very aesthetic, I guess. Life magazine. Late sixties. [sic] But pictures are symbols. And through pictures information becomes symbols. Symbols are forgettable. This play wants to be more than aesthetic. It wants to be more than about some crazy diseased cats and Japanese people. It wants to be more.

Albeit vague, the Lawyer’s introduction outlines the course and strategy of Minamata. The entire script strives to make analogies between the factors leading up to the Japanese environmental disaster and aspects of modernization and industrialization throughout the world. None of these are particularly far-fetched. If one reads the two reviews that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Minamata sounds as if it laces together disparate elements in much the same way the later plays would. Not true. The boldness of interjection in Minamata is relatively tame. At one point, for example, the Old Woman has a monologue about how telephone operators adjusted to the change from cord-boards to computers. The relation to Minamata is far from direct, but both topics could certainly fit under the broad heading, “Modernization.” Compared to the next production that Abdoh would stage at LATC, Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, where references to Jacques Cousteau, Andy Gibb, proper table manners, and Citizen Kane are peppered into a monologue about the end of sensuality, the breadth of Minamata’s allusions seems narrow. Knowing Abdoh’s other works, it is hard to believe that a character in one of his plays could refer scornfully to the aesthetic and dismiss symbols as forgettable. There are in fact memorable images in Minamata, but they have a more disciplined correspondence to the script than usual. Minamata’s set changes, but not architecturally; the scrim changes color, slides are occasionally projected onto it. Almost all of the slides seem to depict in a fairly direct way the deformation of nature. The breadth of the visual imagery is limited—perhaps because of the parameters set by the Lawyer in his opening, or perhaps because Abdoh had not yet quite imagined the visual opulence that would characterize later shows. Certainly, Minamata is significant as the first show in which pre-recorded images—in this case, projected slides—play an important role. After Minamata, almost every production included pre-recorded images , but after Minamata projections are replaced by video. Judging from Minamata, the shift to video makes sense; the clumsy off-on-off-on nature of slides compromises their ability to work as a seamless counterpoint to the other events on stage, and the possibilities of manipulating images are much greater with video than they are with still photos. Abdoh’s main counterpoint to the banalities of the text in Minamata is song and dance. The production is saturated with dance numbers. As has already been mentioned, Abdoh’s interest in popular and folk dance forms begins to take mature form here, but he still maintains an interest in modern dance, most notably in the so-called “Factory Dance,” whose movements are meant to evoke Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Abdoh seems to have been aware that Minamata’s text is dry and that his central task would be to bring some life into a script that often bears a strong resemblance to a harangue. In part, he accomplishes this via the inserted quips mentioned above, or by allowing the actors leeway to ad-lib in a way he had never allowed before and would never allow after. Above all, though, he enlivens the play with song and dance. In several instances, an actor delivers a long speech from a peripheral position on the stage while the rest of the company dances. Two songs, the “Kentucky (Pigmy) Woman’s Song” and “Black Betty,” reflect Abdoh’s interest in Negro spirituals, an interest that will manifest itself repeatedly in later productions, particularly Tight Right White. The latter is a traditional Negro spiritual; the former, a Negro spiritual version of the song, “Kentucky Woman,” but its lyrics describe a woman losing her hair and shrinking in size to nothingness as a result of working at a nuclear plant. The song and dance numbers provide Abdoh’s actors with an opportunity to radiate the energy for which Abdoh’s subsequent productions are known.

The Haunting Pastoral

Minamata is perhaps also significant for introducing Abdoh’s signature half-gesture at redemption. The play ends, as so many of his subsequent works, with a disbelieving glance at the possibility of a salvaged world. Three trees, chopped down at the beginning of the show, stand again at the end. Soft music plays. The scene is suburban, peaceful. Lights glow in a house. A child swings on a swing. Responding to a question about this in his interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Sylvie Drake, Abdoh said, “I can’t completely succumb to the notion of paradise lost.” Not completely, perhaps. But consider the dialogue preceding the silent pastoral, where the character known as the “Expert Witness,” played by Tom Fitzpatrick, has a final few words with the Old Woman as the Lawyer looks on:

EXPERT WITNESS: The weather has been going very weird. Very peculiar. All over the world. It’s snowing, see how large the flakes are?
EXPERT WITNESS: There, over the hill. [It starts to snow.]
OLD WOMAN: It’s a miracle.
OLD WOMAN: Man’s sins are being washed away.
EXPERT WITNESS: I somehow doubt it. I somehow doubt it.
LAWYER: In 1968, the factor stopped using mercury to make acetaldehyde. The process was technologically outmoded.

The Lawyer proceeds to call out case numbers, presumably signifying the plaintiffs who, at the time of the production, were still locked in legal battles with the Chisso Corporation. As the polarizing figures of Minamata recede and leave behind the halcyon scene, one doubts, along with the Expert Witness, that “man’s sins” have been washed away and wonders instead if the quiet pastoral is in fact a symbol of the complacency and egocentrism that helped precipitate and prolong the Minamata crisis in the first place. The Smiths’ book is full of anecdotes that illustrate the division of the community, the impulse to deny that there was actually a problem or to blame or stigmatize the victims. Who sits in the quiet, softly lighted house at the end of the play? Dr. Hajimé Hosokawa (a.k.a. Dell), who sat for ten years on the knowledge that the Chisso Corporation caused the disease, not speaking up until he himself was on his deathbed? Is it a person poisoned and crippled by the acetaldehyde effluent? Or just one of the many people vaguely aware of environmental dangers but who assume they will remain problems for someone else in some other community? Do they carry the ruined city under their skin, and, if not, what have they done, or not done, to save others from the ruins?

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