Created, Designed & Directed by Theodora Skipitares
Produced by La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in association with Skysaver Productions
Off Off Broadway, Multimedia Performance
Runs through 3.6.22
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street
by Regina Robbins on 2.23.22
Dancers and puppets in Grand Panorama. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: This challenging and inspired multidisciplinary piece focuses on the life, words and ideas of Frederick Douglass and helps us to view him, and Black History, through a different lens.
We observe Black History Month in February because it is the birth month of two men whose actions made a tremendous impact on the course of African American lives: President Abraham Lincoln and journalist/orator Frederick Douglass. One of these men also happened to be the most photographed American of the nineteenth century—and it’s not the one whose image is on the penny.
Grand Panorama, a dreamlike new performance piece playing at La MaMa, is an exploration of photography and how its development changed how people see one another; specifically, it examines how this revolutionary technology was used by Douglass and other Black Americans to challenge racism and assert their own humanity. Created by longtime La MaMa associate Theodora Skipitares, the show employs stagecraft both traditional and contemporary, including dance, live music, video, narration, and many, many puppets. It's fascinating, funny, and moving.
If Grand Panorama were nothing more than a deft dramatization of Douglass’ long and incredible life, it would be worth seeing. Indeed, the biographical episodes it depicts—including an account, in Douglass’ own words, of being thrown out of a “Whites Only” train car in Massachusetts by a violent mob—are gripping drama, enhanced by the uncanny charm of Skipitares’ puppets (manipulated by a skillful ensemble). But the piece goes deeper than that, asking questions about identity and representation that are as relevant today as they were when Douglass pondered them over 180 years ago. “We colored men so often see ourselves described and painted as monkeys,” he reflected in one of his public addresses. “Those who have prejudices will be compelled to admit that they are looking at a man when they are looking at his photograph.”
Other notable African Americans also recognized the power that a photograph could confer, and Grand Panorama includes some of their histories too. Abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth (in puppet form) explains how she supports herself by selling photo portraits to her admiring public; a “moving panorama” shows us how Nate Biddle, a former slave, became the first casualty of the Civil War; and author/activist W.E.B. DuBois ushers us into the 20th century with his “Exhibit of American Negroes,” which debuted at the 1900 World’s Fair and showcased the diligence, dignity and diversity of Black Americans.
Grand Panorama concludes by bringing the audience into the future that Douglass, Truth and DuBois would never see and could hardly have imagined—a twenty-first century where photos can be taken by virtually anyone at any time and sent anywhere in the world within seconds. Has photography lost its ability to empower the powerless, becoming instead a tool of manipulation and control? The show ultimately declines to answer definitively, and this demurral feels like something of a cop-out. But even with a noncommittal ending, Grand Panorama is an experience worthy of its central character: multifaceted, adventurous, witty and memorable.
(Grand Panorama plays at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, through March 6, 2022. The running time is 1 hour without an intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door ($20 advance, $25 door for students & seniors). For tickets and more information visit lamama.org.)
Grand Panorama is created, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares. Music composed by Mazz Swift. Choreography by Christina CocoMotion Smith. Assistant Choreographer is Reggie Brown. Set Design by Donald Eastman and Theodora Skipitares. Lighting Design by Eric Norbury. Costumes by Ramona Ponce. Video by Kay Hines. Puppetry Direction by Jane Catherine Shaw. Animation by Shradda Tiwari. Nick Biddle Panorama by Klara Vertes and Trevor Legeret. Stage Manager is Karen Oughtred.
The cast is Jorge Ariel Blanco Munoz, Reggie Brown, Eleni Daferera, Jayson Karr, Abdoulaya Koita, Jane Catherine Shaw, Alondra Soto, Mazz Swift, Rita Tuitt, and Kimori Zinnerman.