Walking into the Yale Cabaret last night down Prospect Street from above the Divinity School after 10 p.m. and back after midnight, I didn’t see many pedestrians about. There were, however, numerous police cars—both New Haven and Yale Security—hanging about, keeping an eye on the mostly vacant streets. One could feel a bit paranoid about surveillance, or one could feel secure—protected from the various urban threats lurking out there in the darkness. Does a police presence make you feel more afraid or less? Well, that might depend on what demographic of race, age, gender, and income you fit. And that answer plays into the theme developed in this week’s Yale Cabaret show: keeping the streets around Yale safe means casting a suspicious eye on anyone who doesn’t match the profile of racial privilege that most Yalelies—though not all by any means—meet. Street Scenes, conceived by MFA Yale student and installation artist Maayan Strauss and Colin Mannex, a DFA candidate at YSD, is based upon the all-too-frequent email missives the Yale Community receives from Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins.
The missives—a number of them are read verbatim by the company—consist of details about assaults and robberies that take place in the vicinity of Yale. In addition to giving Yalelies the what and where, Higgins asks for anyone with further information to come forward and generally recommends Yalelies not go about alone on foot, but avail themselves of transportation the university provides free of charge. At the very least, Higgins warns, use caution and be streetwise on these streets.
The performance piece Strauss and Mannex have created, aided by co-director Jessica Rizzo, a dramaturgy student at YSD, interrogates the assumptions that these communiques express, even if only implicitly. The dramatization of the confrontations described is highly stylized, with the role of victim and perpetrator distributed equally amongst the multicultural cast of three males and three females. The readings of the missives is flat and unemphatic, and most of the play’s dialogue consists of the earnest natterings of various pairs as they try to express—in self-consciously liberal academese—their unease with the implicit racial subtext of the missives, usually with one of the duo holding forth and the other nodding and uh-huhing.
Intermittently, the company gyrate in place as though automatons trapped in repetitive movements. In the background, projections of a few familiar New Haven street corners play, depicting slow-mo pedestrians while the ambient noise of the streets flows around the audience. It all seems so benign! And yet…
In the final segment, we hear the voices of victims and their responses to what happened to them yanks away, to some extent, the well-meaning sociology-speak of the discussants: we realize that what Higgins reports to the community is an event that was first reported to him. These aren’t simply texts for a course on the semiotics of crime reporting, but little bits of life—and in one case, death—that are happening around us all the time.
And yet, even there, the play grimly suggests, the Yale community remains largely untouched, aware of a certain unease now and then, but nothing major, more inclined to blame the messenger than to understand the real message.
Street Scenes Conceived by Maayan Strauss, Colin Mannex Directed by Colin Mannex, Maayan Strauss, Jessica Rizzo The Yale Cabaret November 10-12