“Those days like one drawn-out song, monotonously
promising. The quick step, the watchful march march,
All were leading here, to this room, where memory
stifles the present. And the future, my man, is long
--Amiri Baraka, “Letter to E. Franklin Frazier”
The Builders Association has a long, fruitful relationship with the Wexner Center, and a dedication to making art that’s deeply tied to the moment. Sometimes that timeliness works beautifully, sometimes the headlines aren’t digested enough into the art – for what it’s worth, I loved Alladeen and mostly liked Super Vision, and I think I’ve written here about my disappointment with their most recent work to play Columbus, Continuous City.
It took me a while to write about House/Divided, partly because I don’t blog about work, I don’t intend to blog about work, and I’d need to get HR clearance if I wanted to blog about work. But I work for a large bank in mortgage servicing. And I’ve had family members and close friends foreclosed on and/or given loans they didn’t have any chance of paying back in the first place. So maybe I had an extra layer of personal resonance with the subject matter, but I think I can review this without saying anything about my work instead of theirs.
House/Divided was developed with the Wexner Center and particularly looking at foreclosures around the Weinland Park neighborhood, just South and East of the OSU Campus. If people out of town know that neighborhood for anything, it’s where the Short North Posse, familiar to readers of F.E.D.S. magazine or Vickie Stringer books, were based. That’s also the neighborhood where Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, recently gave a speech at a newly remodeled elementary school.
Three mostly distinct strands are braided in House/Divided – Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the foreclosure of a specific house in Weinland Park, and the overall state of the financial meltdown (at first symbolized by a handful of cogs in a bundling/mutual fund bullpen and loan originators and then through Alan Greenspan). Obviously, not all of these strands are equal, and they’re not all quite as well-developed, but the effort’s worth a hell of a lot and when they do work together it’s the most moving thing I’ve seen all year.
Grapes of Wrath is the spine of the piece and it’s handled incredibly well, pared down to the perfect moments to show the characters are distinct people but also as representative of conflicted hope and desperation and what happens when hope rots in your throat. Also, it’s good that they knew what of Steinbeck’s structure to not use. They didn’t go through Tom Joad’s killing a man, or that famous speech, which would’ve been incredibly distracting and I had a pang they were going there when they followed it so closely, through Rose of Sharon’s stillbirth.
The set is perfect – a house built in four rotating sections with elements of an actual foreclosed house inside, a bathtub, a wall that’s been stripped (for copper? for wire?), some piles of clothes and rubble, on top and some older furniture on the bottom, and screens that can come down over it for the purpose of video, with a bank of computers over to the side for the contemporary call center/bullpen sections.
In the Grapes of Wrath section, the video is good, the music is very good, and the use of these very specifically minimalist sets is perfect. The beginning of the drive, what many of us remember from the book and almost certainly sticks out from the John Ford movie, is handled with the staircase as the car, perfectly simple and understated but still giving the impression of isolated, cramped, people on top of each other for miles. As well, the moment when Ma Joad tries to haggle with the company store and the representative’s face is projected right above them, bigger than the entire bottom half where the physical action is occurring, and watching his face change as Joad fixes herself in his mind as an individual, watching him soften, is one of the most stunning in the entire piece.
Neither of the modern strands is quite as successful but suggesting the dramaturge/writers with TBA aren’t as strong as Steinbeck seems a little like an unfair comparison to expect. That said, the big picture stuff is mostly excellent. The Lehman Brothers “conference call” could’ve been taken from an actual transcript from one of those conference calls – I’ve no way of knowing if it actually was – and the disposition of Alan Greenspan that ends the piece, which I’m pretty sure is taken from transcripts, where, again, you see his face struggling to maintain composure and explain the comforting aspects of ideology even in the face of such an epic repudiation of his own – “I put too much faith in the bank’s interest in self-preservation” is dead on.
The Weinland Park stuff is okay but feels rushed and more like ciphers than characters. There’s a sequence where a customer is arguing with a “mortgage assistance” call center worker who is trying to tell him that his mortgage is a pool loan that feels incredibly false and in sharp contrast to the incredible wordless dismantling of the house set occurring concurrently on stage. That was my complaint with Continuous City, there were no people to grip onto in the spectacle. There are people here but the modern people aren’t quite thought through enough, it’s closer, but the Steinbeck props it up a lot.
That said, those are minor gripes compared to the way my chin dropped into my lap at the set changes, the company store scene, the images of everything practically drowning in a stock market crawl during the Lehman Brothers meltdown, and especially those closing moments with Alan Greenspan intercut with sound and video of a flood coming. It’s a vital, moving piece I encourage anyone reading this to see if it comes to your town.