But he also imprisoned journalists and professors who criticized him. He added a clause specifically targeting lesbians to Malawi’s vague but sweeping morality laws. He ousted a foreign minister for questioning his ability to govern. He purchased a luxurious private jet even as his people languished in poverty, purportedly launched a smear campaign against Vice President Joyce Banda, and systematically eliminated any opposition to his brother Peter’s becoming the next Mutharika to take Malawian high office. A friend of mine wrote, in the understated style of Malawians, that his country ‘is going through economic challenges, no fuel, no forex, and increased threats to human rights defenders by the government’ just before nineteen of his countrymen were killed during anti-Bingu demonstrations. At least they knew their enemy.
On Thursday April 5, the same day as Bingu's demise, I went to see an astonishing production of Jose Rivera’s Massacre (Sing To Your Children) at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. It’s terrifying.
Seven average small-town Americans have taken justice into their own hands, and forcibly removed from office a community leader called Joe. Very forcibly in fact, with knives and machetes and ice picks. None had ever done anything so brutal – of course they hadn’t! - but Joe had it coming. When he first came to Granville, USA, he’d brought prosperity with him. But peace of mind came with a price and, over time, Joe pushed each of his would-be killers to a very personal edge. He’d been responsible for deaths, disappearances, chronic illness and failing business. Really they had no choice.
So this band of amateur killers – a car mechanic, a teacher, a single dad – had good reason to lure Joe to his death at a secluded slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town… didn’t they? Decked out in strange disguises that are simultaneously pitiful and frightening, splattered with hot red evidence, and in various states of hysteria, shock, and/or denial, they lock themselves in the slaughterhouse with Joe’s dead body just outside. They hash it all out, relive the gory details, scream, vomit, dance triumphantly, and congratulate one another on their bravery. Who knew the revolution could happen so fast? Dear God, they’ve taken down the devil himself!
Or have they? Soon they begin to question what, exactly, has just taken place. Paranoid, hyper-alerted by every creaking tree or snapping twig outside, they wonder whether Joe is really truly definitely undeniably dead. Doubt creeps in, resentments come out, good citizens turn on one another other. Someone gets put on a meat hook and slammed into a wall. And then things get really scary.
Having cut down their enemy, Rivera’s ad-hoc vigilantes are forced to confront something much scarier: their darkest secrets. Their own worst fears. Everyone has an inner demon or two. There’s nothing like mob justice to bring out the monster in us all. The undeniable spectre of Joe works its way past the slaughterhouse’s barred doors and puts seven tortured souls through a metaphysical meat grinder in quick succession.
Maybe. Exactly what's happened is open to some degree of interpretation, but one thing’s clear: there's no escaping Joe. When we try, he asks us whose betrayal has made our freedom possible. Just when you think you have him vanquished: surprise, motherfucker. You know what they say - Satan’s greatest achievement is convincing us that he doesn’t exist.
Like all of Rattlestick’s shows, Massacre is a nearly visceral experience. It’s dirty and loud, there’s sweat and screaming, vomit and blood and blood and blood. It’s gruesome.
And it is one of the most beautiful plays I have ever heard.
Call it slaughterhouse poetry, or horror-music maybe. While Rivera’s story cuts us open and rips out the secretly still-beating savage inside, he mesmerizes with his words. Even, and maybe especially, the goriest passages in the play are so beautifully crafted I was seduced even as I was repulsed. It’s a weird feeling, to be both horrified and so pleasantly enthralled all at once. But Rivera’s language is that richly layered. It is blood-soaked stuff. Exquisitely crafted. Scary good. Distressingly beautiful.
Rattlestick’s season thus far has just been extraordinary. Even the least interesting show in their ’11-’12 line up was pretty awesome. So it’s no surprise that Massacre’s ensemble cast is mind-blowingly good. Jolly Abraham, Brendan Averett, Dana Eskelson, Jojo Gonzalez, William Jackson Harper, Adrian Martinez, Sona Tatoyan, and Anatol Yusef all deliver powerhouse performances; athletic, nuanced, full-to-bursting. Scenery by The Ken Larson Co. is more than murderously evocative; it’s also all kinds of kinetic, providing director Brian Mertes with a myriad of ways to scare and delight. What Mertes does with the close quarters is amazing. It’s like he’s thrown several wild species into a single small cage and in the carefully orchestrated chaos that ensues, they dance even as they devour one another.
But for me the star of this show is Jose Rivera. His words broke into me, choked me up, wrung my heart, and fucked me like a dagger. While the story of Massacre is keep-you-up-at-night ugly, the play itself is so achingly gorgeous that I feel ridiculous typing words about Rivera’s words. I can’t tell you how it feels. Just go get gutted.
On Monday April 9, after five days of government stonewalling, Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda was sworn in as President of that nation. A champion of education and women's rights, she’s long been the single beacon of hope for a people struggling not only with rampant disease and endemic poverty, but also with chronic despair. Malawians have since been jubilant. Even Bingu's former supporters are sallying forth into the new era. My Malawian friend's facebook status reads, ‘For the first time it felt good to sing the Malawian National Anthem.’
But I’m scared for him, and for his countrymen.
Yes, things are looking up. And really Bingu was not exactly Mugabe or Amin. It was always rather difficult to pin down his crimes. But it was just within that grey space that his power lied. It was insidious, the way he soured people against each other. In a resource-starved country where the national courts still try people for witchcraft, it only takes a single seed of doubt to grow a briar of hate and resentment. People like Bingu – and figures like Rivera’s ‘Joe’ – can reap a bumper crop with nothing more than a word or two:
"We all know how powerful our thoughts are. Our thoughts make the world."
Without a common enemy to blame, the people of Malawi, the citizens of Granville, all of us really…we only have each other. Or, even more terrifying, ourselves. We're our own worst enemies. We're the devils we least know.
Massacre (Sing To Your Children) through May 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 224 Waverly Place, New York, NY 10014. 212-627-2556 or www.rattlestick.org for tix and info.