Post-traumatic stress disorder: playwright Kamal Sinclair Steele and Universal Arts could never have imagined how this condition at the core of their new play about race relations would gain such a harrowing immediacy for New York audiences. As the two narrating "Tour Guides" (Audrey Amey, Marc Goldhaber) of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome described the condition - that crippling mixture of fear, paranoia, anger, and depression that can follow a period of acute violence or victimization - the chilling parallels with the World Trade Center disaster were impossible to ignore. Though this new drama looked at four hundred years of black/white history as the source of our collective trauma, the harrowing ordeals of recent weeks were never far from mind. That's not to say that our newest national horror somehow trumps or invalidates the play's premise, or makes it inappropriate for those still struggling with the here-and-now - quite the contrary. Universal Arts' therapeutic use of theatrical performance as a tool for exposing, understanding and ultimately re-imagining destructive patterns of emotion and thought may be just what the doctor ordered as the nation, our city, and the theatrical community begin to grapple with an awful aftermath.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome weaves together a variety of source materials into a loose collage of lectures, short scenes, historical re-enactments, personal confessions, music, dance, sound effects and projected images. Principal among sources is the work of sociologist Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary, whose theories on "Axiology and Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome" endeavor to rationalize many of the differences between African-American and European-American cultures. Dr. DeGruy-Leary's argument (in a nutshell) posits that the short three-month growing season in prehistoric Europe has rendered European-Americans - thanks to bygone prehistoric necessity - time-sensitive, forward-looking, and obsessed with efficiency, hierarchies, and the acquisition of objects, while the year-round warmth of African climates has translated into a more fluid, holistic, and spiritual approach to life for African-Americans. The incompatible value systems of these two cultures collided in the slave trade; we, as a nation, continue to suffer from the traumatic and manipulative methods through which white slave-owners deliberately brutalized and manipulated the fears and loyalties of their captives, all in the name of stabilizing and maximizing the output of their plantations. Some of the premises and conclusions of the drama seemed far-fetched or ill-proven. But still, even as it strained credibility, the discussion was always straightforward, honest, and ambitious - never simplistic, heavy-handed, or preachy.
There was no set to speak of on the stage of the Henry St. Settlement Experimental Theatre, and little more than street clothes for costumes (designed by Juliana Winger). Jim Milkey's lighting, Leo-Coltrane Marcelin's sound design, and Brian Steele's slide projections provided some additional setting and context. But mostly, the drama rested on the able shoulders of Universal Arts' versatile ensemble, who invested the presentation with passion, power and unflinching commitment. Obie-award winning director Robbie McCauley has orchestrated this patchwork of a play and her diverse, talented cast into a provocative and inspiring theatrical exploration which dares to suggest that we, as a nation, can identify, understand and move beyond the traumatic stresses of our history. A comforting and inspiring idea: now more than ever.
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Copyright 2001 Jonathan Shandell