In the sixth grade, my then best-friend, Josh Rosenfeldt, punched me in the face during lunch. It was a long cafeteria with long plasticine blue tables that folded up in the middle to make space for book fairs and the tertiary assemblies. Josh, at that time and maybe now, epitomized a delicate masculinity that crumpled under challenge and would in duress immediately dive to the closest weapon available: often nonsensical tautologies that he asserted with laughter, crushing your rationality by the double insult of neither being able to be right nor being able to articulate why he was wrong.
Other times, he punched you.
I had swiped his face with a ketchup-covered french fry. My frustrations with him, often expressed with volume and language, had deteriorated and so I did the most degrading thing I could think of which was to bring him down to the floor of freakishness that I lived on. He was no longer the confident athlete he wished to embody. Now, he was an asshole with ketchup on his face.
I don’t remember the pain of a fist hitting my jaw or anything in particular afterwards. I remember the moment where the hot spud passed across his top lip, leaving a nuclear red smear, and his eyes, previously smug with easy power, were consumed wholly by a fury that is only found in those who realize how tenuous their power is and know that others are understanding how tenuous can also mean “fragile.” “Breakable.”
The moments following the punch I could not have blacked out because my will is synonymous with my spite and, especially after being punched in the face, spite is perhaps the only thing a person has that can maintain their wakinglife. It was certainly the only thing I believed I had apart from my imagination and my consciousness.
What I’m saying is that I was and I am an angry person and that despite being an angry person, who wanted with all my will to beat the shit out of Josh, tear his nose off his shit- freckle face, and kill him, I did not hurt him. I understood after that moment that Josh was not a friend and that our friendship was only the actions with none of the conviction.
But this memory is clear, moreso than many of the garbled half-songs of times before or after, especially of Josh. Maybe the only other thing I remember as clearly is when we stopped being friends and the feeling of other blood-boiling moments wanting to murder him. But that doesn’t matter right now.
What matters is that I have been punched in the face and I have wanted to kill people, deferring upon me a sense of community when Rasell Holt says that he thinks everybody should be punched in the face at least once, wrapping gauze around his hands. “I want to kill an audience member,” Stephanie Shum says, her rage both curious and righteous. “Youth in revolt!” Dawkins shouts, literally and figuratively fist-pumping.
This feels good to me. I love being roused up in safe places.
The Neo-Futurists “A Story Told in Seven Fights” is not a bloodbath of World War stature. Starting with Dawkins’ personal hero, Arthur Cravan (heard: “craven”), a pugilist (read: “one who punches”) and provocateur (read: “artist who punches”), the show then glides through histories of the Neofuturists’ aesthetic predecessors: the dadaists and the surrealists. The cast (none Neo ensemble members or alumni, excluding Dawkins) seem content to move through the show as actors, fuck the nonfiction aesthetic, with Holt playing the-famous-Black- Boxer-not-the-singer Jack Johnson that Cravan idolizes and Kendra Miller putting on Mina Loy’s face. But only sometimes. The performers swap roles like Pokemon cards: sometimes it’s important that Jen Ellison have Tristan Tzara and that Arti Ishak have herself. TJ Medel doesn’t really like Andre Breton so he’ll pass it over to Jeff Trainor, the fight captain.
This is a clever but old-fashioned roundabout to the Neos relatively strict creative rules of honesty: a play within a play. Director Tony Santiago and creator Trevor Dawkins step easily around the demand that people play themselves by using primarily actors instead of performers. Nobody is lying, they’re identifying, understanding themselves in the roles until they feel like they shouldn’t, used to both hilarious and numbing ends.
A powerful circumstance as the cast and creators grapple with moral deconstruction, creative destruction, athleticism and what it means to be an artist in the age of forty-five, congressional gridlock, and identity politics where every person is protagonist and pride is always on the table (white cis-folk, I’m looking at you). Dawkins wants to talk about revolution in all its messy details and it’s a bloodbath.
If I have let few subjectives loose, I apologize: I fucking loved “A Story Told.” The reasons I loved it are difficult to describe and they are then even the same reasons I suspect many others would hate it. Here are reasons I loved it that will be relatively inoffensive:
1) All members of the cast (Trevor Dawkins, Jen Ellison, Rasell Holt, Arti Ishak, TJ Medel, Kendra Miller, Stephanie Shum, and Jeff Trainor) are magnetic and honest as themselves and the characters they inhabit.
2) Gaby Labotka’s fight choreography will make you want to start some brawls in a nearby tavern. It alternates between messy and beautiful. The melee near the end specifically had me in awe.
3) The script that Dawkins has eked together is complex and uses its seeming naivete of history and story to highlight bigger questions about revolution, identity, the Neo-Futurists, and art.
But even this third point is contentious because it’s more experiential than literary. “A Story Told” spreads its writing thin in service of the liveness. Self-aware and unwilling to give a fuck, it runs quickly between history, kung-fu film, sparring, fighting, dada non-sequiturs, what good storytelling is, what story is, and whether or not narrative or art matter. It’s seeing Trainor and Ellison step between their roles and themselves, tackling both empathy and vulnerability while asking questions of what safety is. It’s seeing Shum threaten the same person five times over and then having the option to follow-through. Dawkins connects all the wires without ever having to say anything. The free association allows him to explore his frustrating fascination with founders and shut himself down as well as open himself wide open.
The Dadas were racist. Of course they were. Greg Allen pulled the rights to Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Of course he did. Jen Ellison antagonizes the rest of the cast with the ever-engulfing nihilism of Tzara’s intentions. Fuck founders. Y’know why? Because they start believe the mythology of the avant-garde: that in the stability of the next step, there are no other steps, instead embodying the same stagnancy that epitomizes white supremacy and the gender binary.
“A Story Told In Seven Fights” could at first glance read as self-absorbed, the functionless academic unbuilding of art or using the Neo-Futurist aesthetic to claim relevancy. Instead, “Story Told” challenges the style and demands more from it. It asks questions but gives no easy answers. There is a story, but it demands a wide variety of people (not just the white, intellectual, and mostly male) to tell it. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the show is how it acknowledges the difficulty of this prospect with absolute clarity and leaves us to sit on it. Maybe most importantly, it asks artists in the audience to consider our own work and what purpose it has or whether it has any. If we ask this of ourselves, we engage with the disempowerment that we truly suffer from: we live in an oligarchy, not a democracy. We have little impact on the nation, state, or even city we live in and there is no easy way to break away from this. Violence seems like a solution, but even violence has political connotations that reach past those who it is enacted upon: it reflects on the origin of its intentions.
This show is funny. And painful. And beautiful. Trevor Dawkins, Tony Santiago, and the cast have created something that expresses something in a way that cannot be expressed in any other way.
And isn’t that just the point?