by John Stoehr
At Thursday's inauguration of the historic Memminger Auditium, I bumped into Thulani Davis, the librettist of Amistad. We talked about the opera's Trickster God, a character inserted into the historical events of the slave ship mutiny in order to raise a tragedy of history to a tragedy of mythic and, therefore, operatic proportions. The source of the idea came from the Mende people living in what's now Sierra Leone.
Among their religious figures is a god who likes to mess with human affairs. You see this archetype in various forms. He's Loki to the Norse, Coyote to many Native Americans, Odysseus to the Greeks (though he's not a god). The Mende god is powerful but fallible. He's been known to forget that he's a even god, to fail foreseeing what the consequences of his actions will be, and to not really care about any of it. "Gods are greater than men," he says in the opera, "not nicer." The trickster is a foolish god. He must admit he's a fool to achieve transformation into something else. For instance, Thulani said, to gain enlightenment.
When she said that, I thought of Monkey: Journey to the West. That character's journey aims for redemption (Monkey has been a very naughty monkey) but also enlightenment: He and his cohort finally gain an audience with the Great Buddha who awards each his own enlightened honorific (Monkey is the Great Monster Killer, or something like that). More to the point is that Monkey is a fool, a trickster. He, too, is powerful but not very interested in anything worthy, like the wisdom to do good and avoid evil. He just wants immortality. Thulani said that a fool has to admit to his foolishness to gain enlightenment. That's what Monkey does.
So is this the year of the Trickster?
One more anecdote and you'll see there's something to this theory.
The cabaret troupe 1927 loves to play with that gray area between what's real and what's represented as real. The company is an updated model of the Theater of the Absurd for the 21st century. In an interview, founder Suzanne Andrade suggests there's security in the knowledge that our experience of absurdist theater is merely an illusion. But when that knowledge comes into doubt, as when characters "step out" of movie screens (as they do in the show Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), insecurity can be unsettling.
Funny but also disturbing. Andrade said: "For us, there's an opportunity for something clever and tricksy." During a segment, performed on Saturday night, called "My Old Aunt," Lillan Henley, the pianist, tells us about what the old girl used to say: "If you look in the mirror too long, you'll see a monkey." Sounds like the year of the trickster to me. Or maybe it's just the year of the monkey.