Timothy J. Guillot’s We Fight We Die, directed by Jiréh Breon Holder, at the Cab this weekend, can be accused of the old “bait and switch.” It begins as what seems to be a mythopoeic rendering of a street artist, Q (Julian Elijah Martinez), complete with a chorus in masks (Isabel Richardson, Andrew Williams, Taylor Barfield, Emily Zemba) sounding assertive couplets, then becomes something much less interesting, though well-intentioned. The best part of the play is that opening as we see Q making epic-scale graffiti art while the cops are closing in, the chorus is commenting, and the projections by Yale School of Art students flash across an eye-catching set (Jean Kim) of mirrors and cinderblocks and painted shapes and slogans.
Guillot’s idea of where to take this tale is straight to clichéville, with Bradley Tejeda doing all he can with Wits, the loveable, doting, simple-minded sidekick patented by Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, and Chalia La Tour, trying even harder to do something with her role as Evil Bureaucrat, or Mayor. You know before the night is out there will be revelations of domestic violence or some other familiar trope of the hell that inspires the reckless flight of the rare artist, especially the kind that has to shoulder socio-economic grievances. Those grievances should be enough to fuel the anger and art of Q, but, no, we need soap-opera melodrama to top it off.
Along the way you may find yourself wondering about things like: why Q, who very reluctantly accepts a community service art project to stay out of jail, makes it all about Wits, then doesn’t level with the guy; and why Wits, shut out of that place wherein he did find much favor, should go to his bro’s enemy to strike a deal. It all seems an excuse to give the Mayor more speeches as if they actually say something. Q and the others speak in couplets except when they don’t, and it would be great to have a bit more of Q representing. Instead he becomes a sort of conscience-stricken con-man, conning his brother, conning the Mayor, and bringing down tragedy upon himself.
This is one of those Cab shows where, if you can ignore the script, you can still find things to admire. I’ve already mentioned that great set backdrop, and the playing space is spare but effective, with just enough sense of the ruins of a classical past mixing with the ruins of our casuistical present. The art projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson) and the work of Yale School of Art students—Devon Simoyama, Quinn Gorbutt, Jordan Casteel, and Awol Erizku—add much visual interest, as does Joey Moro’s Lighting. Martinez’s performance is well-choreographed, with very expressive body language and voice mannerisms that are ultimately the best part of the role. And Tejeda is nothing if not memorable as Wits, the role that is the heart of the play, which Tejeda plays with a convincing naturalness.
More naturalism and fewer efforts at artful vocabulary would help We Fight We Die, a fantasy about street artists that aims to be a thought-provoking piece about community art, censorship, art’s outsider authority, and other matters to stimulate classroom discussion, but, to my mind, gives short shrift to effective dramatic situations.
We Fight We Die By Timothy J. Guillot Directed by Jiréh Breon Holder
Dramaturg: David Clauson; Set: Jean Kim; Lights: Joey Moro; Sound: Gahyae Ryu; Costumes: Sydney Gallas; Projections: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Technical Director: Samantha Lazar; Stage Manager: Steven Koernig; Producer: Annie Middleton; Yale School of Art Consultant: Jordan Casteel; Featured yale School of Art Muralist: Devan Shimoyama; Featured Yale School of Art Graffiti: Quinn Gorbutt, Jordan Casteel; Artists: Devan Shimoyama; Awol Erizku
Yale Cabaret March 27-29, 2014