The politics of collaboration

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

With all due respect to composer Kurt Weill and librettist Maxwell Anderson, the story wasn't the most important thing happening on stage Saturday night during Lost in the Stars at UCLA's Royce hall.

It's not that the story wasn't relevant.

Lost in the Stars is a rarely performed 1949 musical theater piece adapted from the novel Cry, the Beloved Country. It tells a tale of racism and fear in the early days of South African apartheid. On one level, it’s the story of a black man searching for his wayward son only to discover that his son has killed a white man and will die for it. On another level, it’s the story of a society ruled by fear and hate.

It's not that this isn't a tale we need to hear now, but there was something more profound and necessary happening on the Royce Hall stage.

The director Anne Bogart hinted at it in a pre-show panel. She said,

"When you go to see a play, you actually see two plays at the same time."

"Your pre-frontal cortex is watching one play which is the story. And you follow the narrative and that's all very interesting and meaningful.

"But on a deeper level, as a human being, you're experiencing another story. And that's the story of how we're getting along. What differentiates the theater"

She says,

"It's the one art form that asks the question, how are we getting along and how can we get along better? So every production that's worth its salt is about a social system that is in danger."

"On an [even] deeper level, you'll also experience how a group of performers are getting along together. And that's something you can't fake. In a rehearsal room the politics matter."

While the politics in the play were devastating, the politics that moved me were the politics of collaboration.

Here was a co-production created by three companies the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, and SITI Company. It was forged by artists of different disciplines: onstage not just actors but opera singers and the members of two different choirs joining together to create a single whole. The result? Thirty-eight bodies, black and white, coming together, moving together, singing together to take care of a social system in danger.

We can quibble over whether this story of apartheid is a fitting way to give voice to racial politics in America today. We can disagree about whether the narrative lives up to the beauty of the music. We can even wish that the power of this beautiful chorus, in both the musical sense and the classically Greek sense, had had a greater role in the drama. Those are small ideas.

The big idea, that the production tackled and Ms. Bogart pointed us to both in her pre-show conversation and the ensemble’s work onstage is, "how are we getting along and how can we get along better?"

Art -- whatever the genre -- that helps us grapple with that difficult question is more essential now than ever.

Lost in the Stars played at the Center for the Art of Performance in Westwood this last weekend.

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo: © Reed Hutchinson