Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hot buttons and tender buttons: 'Human Rites' examines tissue issues (and more) in Phoenix world premiere

Aristotle described it a couple of millennia ago: the point in the drama where everything reverses suddenly. The device makes for a hairpin turn in "Human Rites" as a pitched verbal battle between a black American university dean and a white professor shifts to a drastic new level with the entrance of a third character, a brilliant graduate student from Sierra Leone.

Michaela and Alan: Two academics at vigorous cross purposes.
Seth Rozin's "Human Rites" needs this peripeteia, as the Greek philosopher described it, giving the example of the worst possible news King Oedipus could get in the tragedy that has made his name and fate immortal. Rozin's long one-act is receiving its world premiere this weekend to conclude Phoenix Theatre's 2016-17 season. Performances continue weekends through Aug. 13.

Seen Friday night on the intimate Basile Stage, the drama benefits from the audience's closeness to the action. With a play so heavily focused on issues, the interpersonal conflict behind an academic set-to needs to be proved upon our pulses.

The audience is seated on three sides of a marvelous Bernie Killian set representing the dean's office. Michaela is a matronly, self-possessed academic well-positioned to deliver some sort of payback to Alan, a professor of cultural psychology. She broke off an affair with him years ago, and finds herself newly provoked by his study of African women's attitudes toward genital circumcision in four countries.

In the fraught atmosphere of today's higher education, unanimous class objections to the professor's findings of support for the ritual practice must be answered. The dean is sympathetic to the students' viewpoint; he, of course, is fiercely defensive of a paper intended to open his forthcoming book. Nothing must come between a professor and his book, as many of us well know.

Lydia confronts Alan with the limitations of his intellectual grasp.
Rob Johansen and Milicent Wright, two veteran Indianapolis actors who never seem to have an offhand moment onstage, are perfect choices for the roles of Alan and Michaela. They are sturdy and intense in voice and movement throughout. They are feisty when confident, and put equal energy into moments when their characters' confidence flags. A wise theater teacher of international reputation, Patsy Rodenburg, has written about an actor's need for "athletic thinking."  Johansen and Wright display that in abundance.

The audience feels the intensity from Alan's fidgety pacing in Michaela's office as he waits for her to finish talking just outside with a young woman he doesn't know. That woman, Lydia, will turn out to introduce "Human Rites"' peripeteia. She enters the scene as Michaela's intended ally, under recruitment to overlay Alan's study with results that will presumably show that the practice of female genital mutilation (as its opponents invariably call it) is feared and resented as an invasive exercise of patriarchy, supported by ignorance and cultural backwardness.

Passionately enacted by Paeton Chavis, speaking with an apparently flawless African accent, Lydia expresses a worldview that throws that of her academic superiors into a cocked hat. As different as her quarreling elders are from each other, they turn out to be wearing the same set of Eurocentric blinders. How that plays out cannot be revealed here. The argument goes over a cultural landscape marked by polarities: Are women subject to the ritual shamed or enlightened? Does the practice involve sacrificing dignity or pleasure? Are there degrees of shame and enlightenment as a result? A spectrum of dignity and pleasure?

In less able hands, the conflict laid out before Lydia's entrance could have hit the stage like a lengthy version of one of those concise essay pairs at the top of a USA Today op-ed page, arguing opposite sides of a particular issue. Rozin always presents the audience with more than a wordy debate — even though the topic lies at the crux of gender identity, empowerment, and sexual politics. Scoring rhetorical points goes only so far, however, in presenting characters onstage.

Thus, emotions and the professional amour-propre of Alan and Michaela are tangled up in the legacy of their old romance. Now: ashes or embers? Their intellectual and career stature can't be separated from that experience. Nor can Lydia's independent academic ambitions be accounted for within Michaela's and Alan's frames of reference, as is quite clear right up through the play's zinger of a last line. Rozin keeps his duty as a dramatist uppermost, even as the polemical stew simmers.

The usual finely woven mesh of the Phoenix production team sustains and enlivens the three-way conflict at every point. Rozin, Jadhawani, and the able cast have fleshed out a topic that inevitably makes the political personal. We need the kind of discussions "Human Rites" embodies.

A recent poll showed that an alarming portion of the electorate believes that higher education's effect on American society is negative. I hope most people continue to disagree, because what embroils the academy — some of it messy and self-defeating —  is often essential to a clearer understanding of the world and one another. If we ever reject the challenge of arriving at that understanding, we will be in unimaginable trouble. And that's when colleges and universities will have decisively failed and merited our disdain.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]