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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | History thrown at you like a hard left hook is the signature move of Rebel Theater Company — and they’ve scored another jarring knockout with “Trail of Tears,” currently on the boards at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, an East Village venue as steeped in art and activism as its young resident troupe.
Every show from Rebel’s ethnically, sexually and generationally diverse ensemble, assures Indo-Caribbean American director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, is like a church service — but don’t interpret that as an obligation to place their work in a realm where the sacred is witnessed from a respectful distance.
“It’s like the black church,” he specifies in his opening remarks. “We want you to laugh, clap, cry. This is not Broadway. You are Downtown now. There is no fourth wall, and Patti LuPone is not going to take your cell phone away.”
Having mounted productions addressing the Black Panther movement and Hurricane Katrina (plus a racially charged Civil War-set “Romeo & Juliet” that predated the Confederate flag debate), this current offering from Rebel Theater — which excels at dissecting matters of color, class, gender and justice — connects the atrocities of imperial Great Britain, Nazi Germany, Kosovo and Darfur to America’s original sin.
Based on events prompted by President Andrew Jackson’s signing of the Native American Removal Act in 1830, “Trail of Tears” is told in the style of a satirical docudrama — a provocative and deeply unsettling mix when applied to the themes of forced relocation and genocide. “Heightened reality that is comedic” but also “rooted in a painful truth” is how they put it, and appropriately so.
Written by Thomas J. Soto, directed by Maharaj and created in collaboration with The Eagle Project, “Trail of Tears” has 16 actors playing dozens of entitled oppressors, traumatized victims and detached scholars, as well as historical figures who deliver telling outtakes from pivotal speeches.
As in past productions, much of Rebel’s impact comes from its strength-in-numbers approach — distinguished this time by having the multicultural cast skillfully phase in and out of personas and ethnic identities. Latinos and Blacks become Native Americans, while Europeans are played by the production’s five-tribe-strong contingent of Native American actors.
Music also has the power to change at will, as familiar spirituals and patriotic anthems are recontextualized. When “This Little Light of Mine” collides with a boisterous interpretation of “The Jeffersons” theme song, the former’s message of defiant individualism becomes oddly ambiguous. And when the group belting out “This Land is Your Land” transforms into a smug chorus line of high-kicking Rockettes, there’s no denying that membership has its privileges.
Another savvy device (deployed early on to great effect then largely abandoned) has the white wig of a preening, self-satisfied Thomas Jefferson used as a talking stick whose power is wielded by various cast members — many of whom appear throughout as part of a Greek chorus. In bandaged bare feet, cut-off jeans and blood-spackled muscle shirts, they pound the floor into a state of thunderous, near-vibration during the recurring motif of Native Americans chanting while on a death march (“Walk, Walk, Walk.”).
It’s the play’s framing device, though, that rescues “Trail of Tears” from the temptation to park itself in a place of righteous indignation and stay there. A girl who identifies as “Two Spirit (the Native American designation for LGBT) speaks about contemporary life on her reservation.
“Other ethnic groups are allowed to evolve over time,” she observes. “Why aren’t we?” Although Two Spirit existence was once a natural part of her culture, it’s suggested that the current atmosphere of intolerance is a symptom that exists alongside widespread alcoholism and diabetes. “One of the last stages of genocide, as you reduce a people to almost nothing,” she notes, “is for you to stand back and say, ‘Look at what they’re doing to themselves.’ ”
Along with a healing visit from her dancing spirit guide, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung, alternately and sincerely, in English and with Native American vocalizations — suggesting that those on the receiving end of America’s violent past can forge an identity without wholesale assimilation. That sliver of hope doesn’t exactly send you out of the theater on a high note, though, and why should it? This is a show that never wants you to forget that the land we occupy is “a nation built on a mountain of bones.”
Fri., July 17/24, Sat., July 18/25, Mon., July 20 & Thurs., July 23 at 7 p.m. Also Sun., July 19/26 at 3 p.m. At Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 E. Third St. btw. Aves. B & C). Tickets are $25 in advance (nuyorican.org), $30 at the door (students/seniors: $20 at the door). Artist info at rebeltheater.com and eagleprojectarts.org.