Off Broadway Reviews
As America continues to spiral down a path of xenophobia, racism, economic inequality, and political division, it's not unusual to see artists try to figure out: how did we get here? Many look for clues in the present in order to potentially put a stop to what's happening in front of their eyes, while others turn to the past perhaps seeking to find the root and either cut it down and start anew or nurture it differently, expecting different saplings. In Strangers in the World (through April 6 at Axis Company) writer/director Randy Sharp has gone all the way back to 1623 to focus on a small Puritan settlement as they grapple with hunger of both the physical and spiritual variety.
We learn that the Puritans arrived in 1613 and have spent a decade trying to make a home in a land that's not theirs, but to which they feel they have a holy right. They speak of a "godless" city in the South surrounded by walls and allude to "savages" who terrorize them and must, therefore, be eliminated. When we first meet the surviving settlers, they manifest almost as ghosts appearing from among bare tree trunks (Chad Yarborough's minimalist set evokes a haunting dreamscape) to un-welcome a stranger that has recently arrived. His name is Olean (Phil Gillen) and even though he sounds and looks like them, they instantly distrust him and put him in a cage.
Olean explains he's come from a larger ship carrying salvation, but the Puritans doubt his word, leaving him to utter ominous sermons from his makeshift pulpit. Each of the settlers is an archetype of sorts, even their names (Killsin, Constance, Distance, Honor) suggest they embody types rather than individuals, allowing Sharp's oft-poetic words to set the stage for a morality play.
But to what end, one wonders, as the play seeks to depict, rather than question, the motives of a group of people who speak about God but have no compassion in their hearts for anyone who isn't one of them. The Puritans spend time condemning each other and the world around them for its sinfulness, but never question their role as invaders who destroy their God's other creations out of self-righteousness and entitlement.
During a time when major newspapers and magazines devote endless columns and investigative reporting to understanding the reasons why white evangelicals would vote for a President who represents everything the teachings of Jesus stood against, a play like Strangers in the World simply perpetuates the idea that establishing facts is more important than addressing them from a critical perspective.
It would've been more interesting to hear from the so-called "savages," who never appear onstage but whose presence lurks in the backs of the characters' minds. By choosing to merely refer to their existence through derogative terms, Strangers in the World continues the invisibilization of Native Americans in history, and since the play moves in metaphors, it also denies people of color in modern America from expressing their points of view. We already know Puritans and people in the far-right tend to be xenophobic, so why keep reaffirming their position? It doesn't help that the ensemble is comprised entirely of white actors, which, again, since the play is allegorical, wouldn't help in a claim of keeping "historical accuracy."
Unsurprisingly Strangers in the World leaves us with an open ending; the characters we met share a lineage with the people who still govern the country, the majority who oppresses and violates the rights of others while claiming to be oppressed themselves. This makes the play frustrating and infuriating; a reminder that it might be too late to go back and look at history through a lens of nostalgia and what-if-ness, and that artists with racial and socioeconomic privilege have a responsibility they need to embrace now.
Strangers in the World