Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Gregory Geffrard. Photo by Jonathan L. Green.
By Sheri Flanders
Some might argue that the subject of race has been addressed ad nauseam in art lately, and that there are few stones left unturned. TILIKUM’s playwright Kristiana Rae Colón blows that opinion out of the water, successfully arguing that we have barely scratched the surface of the subject.
Communication is a tricky thing; even when words are clearly understood between two persons, the deeper meaning is often misconstrued or missed completely. TILIKUM examines this disconnect in a unique and clever extended metaphor about race through the lens of a mighty sea creature and his captors.
The story unfolds against a stark, simple swimming pool with shimmeringly elegant lighting design, smartly conceived by Jared Gooding for an unusual tale set largely underwater. A scrim across the back houses an ensemble of drummers, obscuring their faces. If you’ve ever been diving, the sheer divider perfectly emulates the uncertain foreboding of peering at an object through the haze of deep water; one cannot be too sure what is friend or foe until it is far too close for comfort. The role of the drummers is integral to the storytelling. I won’t spoil the surprise, but their presence elevates TILIKUM from a mere story to a delightful, magical, haunting experience.
Gregory Geffrard gives a profoundly engaging and unsettling performance as Tilikum, a free and powerful creature slowly realizing the existence of his shackles. He carries the weight of this incredibly physical play for 90 minutes, leaving the audience absolutely galvanized. Sigrid Sutter is a perfectly cast foil as his handler Dawn, and she gives a perfectly-pitched performance; bubbly, vivacious and opaquely naïve. Matt Fletcher plays the Owner, a one-dimensional baddie there solely to wreak havoc. Like the scores of many women and POC actors before him, Fletcher brings his A-game to a role that is essentially a prop.
The best kind of bitingly effective satire, TILIKUM’s daggers land painfully and often. As Dawn moves through the steps of breaking a wild animal, the play evokes imagery from slavery and KING KONG to comment on the exploitation of black men by white women that sets the audience back on their heels. Thankfully director Lili-Anne Brown masterfully pushes and pulls between bitter truth and raucous humor, providing the audience with a lifeline to prevent them from drowning in malaise.
Watching TILIKUM in a mixed audience (black and white and what seemed to be the entire Jeff Committee) served as a curious example of art imitating life imitating art in real-time. As the barbs of the play landed, a small group of mostly POC women began to suck their teeth and testify, clearly emotionally moved by the material. As their exclamations continued, a small group of Caucasian audience members began to vocally express their displeasure at the disruption and chastise the other group.
Some aspects of black culture consider vocal expression during an emotionally powerful performance to be a compliment. White theater culture largely dictates that even the strongest emotions should be expressed internally until the play is finished. Who deems what is rude and what is not when cultures collide? Who should defer to whom? Is it ethical to require feeling humans to witness depictions of brutality while holding their emotions at arm’s length? As this mini-disagreement about respectability politics unfolded during this play about race and power dynamics, the irony lay foul like yesterday’s fish.
Paying slight homage to the recent 2016 movie ARRIVAL, TILIKUM is just as much about communication as it is about race. Can words truly introduce people to their own brutality? At what point does a misunderstanding become willful ignorance? Elements of well-executed music, dance, poetry and fable break traditional theatrical storytelling boundaries to help craft the imagery of the ocean and to speak the emotions that have no words in this fantastical conceit. How does our past indicate our future? What happens when we are unmoored from our past? What is the nature of love?
The show contains a multimedia element that is well-integrated into the overall story. Unfortunately, this is one place where the financial limitations of a small production company are painfully apparent, as the rendering of some of the graphics are not as sophisticated as they could be, having the appearance of 90’s Clip Art. A handful of moments are so heavy-handed as to be silly (one sound cue for the Owner, in particular, is simply ridiculous, another piercing sound cue is too loud), but overall the show effectively sweeps the audience from high to low to high again with a vicious pacing like the waves in the ocean. The show is so engaging that any problems melt away quickly.
The end of the play is staged a bit abruptly and feels as if there is another act waiting to be told. And perhaps that is the strongest hallmark of a great story; it leaves you thinking, the story continuing to write itself in your mind long after the curtains have fallen.
TILIKUM is a game-changer, a masterfully written, sophisticated play full of subtleties and brutalities told in a refreshingly unique method, performed by a cast of talented actors that clearly trust each other enough to tackle such electrifying material. TILIKUM is worth your time and money, as I guarantee that you will not see anything else like it this year. A cursory glance might leave the uninitiated viewer with the impression that this is a play about SeaWorld, and a second viewing may be required if one wants to ensure that they actually understood what the words mean.
Sideshow’s TILIKUM plays at Victory Gardens through July 29. Tickets and more info at www.victorygardens.org.