It's not easy to wrap one's head around the work of theater troupe Dead White Zombies (DWZ), but why would it be? It's the brainchild of Thomas Riccio, a University of Texas at Dallas drama professor, world traveler and metaphysical hobbyist who's all about bucking convention.
DWZ always engage the audience during their performances, which are not prescribed and do not follow a written story. Riccio prefers to call them instigations; the audience is as much a part of the play as the players themselves.
Most recently, in the fall of 2016, DWZ staged "instigations" in public places like Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret and Trader Joe's. The aim was to jar the public into a more metaphysical way of seeing the world.
“We all learned from this process and became comfortable and confident instigating conversations of the weirdest and most absurd sort with the public," Riccio says. "That information provided the inspiration for the more formal presentation of Holy Bone."
He's calling the work those public instigations inspired, Holy Bone, unprecedented in its scope. The event was conceived and written by Riccio and co-directed by Riccio and Shelby Allison Hibbs, and begins at Tacos Mariachi in West Dallas.
From there, people will be sent on an immersive journey in groups of six every 10 minutes beginning at 7:30. Performances are limited to a small group of 56 and will run through May 27.
"Audiences will go through a series of tests, teachings, dialogues and experiences as they maneuver through several different venues," the event page reads. "The immersive journey will begin with whispered questions and divination to determine an individual's map to the reality that exists just outside of our perceptions. Each of the 14 stages of the initiation will offer another inquiry, insight and experience."
If you're under 13, or uncomfortable walking or being alone, you shouldn't attend, it says. And if you don't like incense, you may not have a good time.
As with all of Dead White Zombies' work, it's a challenge to explain what the work is exactly. Riccio isn't much help.
"We are bombarded by so much information, much of it external, superficial and lacking a depth of consideration. Our lives increasingly sped up, mediated and structured, and ordered by technology, determining who and what we are." he says. "Holy Bone is about being human again, about considering that we are on a journey every day. We are now cosmic hunter-gatherers that must be alert, nimble, mobile, and when necessary, subversive.”
Riccio likes theater, he teaches it, but he says that's not really what Dead White Zombies are up to.
"Theater, along with ritual, performance art, installation, meditation, media, sound and drama therapy, are all languages we apply," he says. "We live in a mobile and transitory world, the form of theater – people sitting in the dark watching the illuminated mind – is a bit of a relic.”
There’s nothing wrong with with relics, Riccio clarifies. They just have a limited range of expression, and so don't always satisfy in a world that demands deeper and more meaningful participation. And Dead White Zombies is all about participation. Their goal is catharsis, provoking emotion and engagement with a story.
“The performance is a real life metaphor of your life, once you engage, for better or worse, it is something you will carry with you," Riccio says of Holy Bone. "Or maybe not, that is up to you.”
Any explanation of his work that you get out of Riccio isn’t going to be satisfactory. That’s his point. The communion with the piece is what drives the answers.
And people clearly respond to it once they've seen it. Holy Bone will be presented thanks to a grant from the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs; and Butch McGregor, a longtime friend and supporter of Riccio and DWZ, as well as a managing partner in Trinity Groves.
Holy Bone, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Saturday, May 27, Tacos Mariachi, 602 Singleton Blvd., $20, brownpapertickets.com
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