‘Us/Them’ at UMS explores life for children in a harrowing world
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–The morning after seeing the opening night performance of BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions’ Us/Them – presented by University Musical Society (as part of its three week No Safety Net theater series) – my nine year old daughter, Lily, heard about Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon’s resignation on the radio, on the heels of convicted pedophile and gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Lily listened as her parents grumbled and said, “It’s about time” in response.
“Why?” she asked. “What did she do?”
There was a pause, as there always is, while my partner and I exchanged looks, silently weighing the risks and benefits of exposing our child to humanity’s potential for cruelty and awfulness. But with Us/Them fresh in my mind, I decided to take on the struggle of providing an age-appropriate, broad-stroke explanation.
Because Us/Them is, at its core, about forging a way to meet kids halfway when it comes to talking about harrowing, painful topics like terrorism. Specifically, it tells the story, from two children’s point of view, of a nightmarish 2004 hostage incident in Beslan, Russia, which involved Chechen rebels holding twelve hundred people – mostly children, mothers, and grandmothers – inside a school for days. By the crisis’ end, more than 300 people had died.
Us/Them’s two young adult actors, Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, first appear on stage with chalk in-hand, and they proceed to precisely, spiritedly map out the Beslan school’s campus on the floor and back wall, which has rows of what appear to be coat hooks. They tell us about their town, and its close proximity to Chechnya, where, they report, “the men are all pedophiles” and “the women have moustaches.” (Getting a sense of the regional tension yet?) But soon, the two actors are running up and down the aisles screaming incomprehensibly, and though we can’t understand, we experience the chaos and confusion that Beslan’s children surely did when their school suddenly became a torturous prison.
This makes Us/Them sound like an unwieldy, depressingly dark piece, I know, but it’s not. For despite the profoundly bleak event it chronicles, the 60 minute piece has surprising amount of humor and levity, largely thanks to its child’s eye-view. Van Houtven keeps trying to upstage Parmentier; the two vehemently argue over small details while telling the story; they comically wriggle out of clothes in the hot gym (while keeping their hands in the air) in an attempt to cool off; and they run and nimbly jump around wires that they’ve quickly, meticulously draped across the stage at all angles, making a carefully constructed human spider web that, with the addition of a handful of black balloons, ultimately present the haunting image of a series of bombs set up by the terrorists in the school’s gymnasium.
So, even when what we’re observing on stage (carefully choreographed movements, drawing with chalk, pick-your-own endings, and children’s quicksilver moods and voiced thoughts) looks and feels light, a threatening, chilling undercurrent underscores it all.
Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs, at times feels like a dance/theater hybrid, so integrated is the storytelling with the actors’ expressive movements (which include the impressively smooth construction of the complicated wire web). Both actors masterfully execute the piece’s choreography – Van Houtven’s primary training was in dance – and manage, through their vocal delivery and expressions, to become children before our eyes.
BRONKS, a Belgium-based theater company that specializes in children’s theater, has attempted to do something courageous, maybe even subversive, by way of Us/Them. That is, they’re giving young people credit for already knowing more about the world than we like to think they do, and suggesting, by extension, that they could possibly, meaningfully contribute to the larger human conversation about what currently ails us.
And even if they can’t, would knowing more about humanity’s darkest corners help kids to cope in their own times of crisis? I’m not sure, and “Us/Them” certainly doesn’t offer any definite answers.
But it has inspired me to keep trying to answer my daughter’s tough questions as truthfully as I can.