"Things really took a turn after that rape" is something I said aloud on Friday while standing in the living room of a former crack house.
We have to get there first, though. Siri reluctantly guides us to the ramshackle West Dallas residence, which sits on an overgrown plot behind Babb Bros. BBQ in Trinity Groves, an old and still undozed neighborhood whose survival I'm silently rooting for as we park.
We're here to see what caustic concoction writer/director Thomas Riccio has cooked up in the new Dead White Zombies production T.N.B., a theater project billed as "an absurd tragic comedy exploring and exploding the African American male," set in an old stash house. Previous experiments by DWZ have taken us into abandoned warehouses, so "drug den" is a logical progression for the troupe. They get their rocks off occupying unconventional spaces.
They also like playing loose and fast with narrative. In the last production (w)hole, we roamed the dusty corners of memory and time -- wandering into and out of various connected plots, peppered through a massive warehouse. Here, on Poe Street, things tighten: The audience moves freely through the lower level of this home, colliding with five different actors. Occasionally they offer food or ask you to scoot over and make some room for them to sit on that couch. Mostly, though, they keep to themselves and play out the cosmic destiny of the T.N.B.'s protagonist, Spooky.
I figure this is a sound deal. If things get dull we can always take a walk and score. Reviews are more fun to write when you think you have eight arms.
It smells a lot like cat piss in here. It's probably the carpet. Or maybe it's seeped deeper than that -- penetrating the floorboards, the walls. If that's the case -- if it's in the wood -- you'll never get that stink out. Regardless, an oddly cheerful woman in an apron is cooking collard greens in the kitchen and now I'm hungry. And yes, I'm damn conflicted about that.
Looking around the rest of the space, this home -- converted to an interactive theater -- is staged as cozy, minimalist thrift. The stained couches, 2Pac poster and assorted bric-à-brac are entirely expected. They seem designed to be captured and shuttled off by social media. Then the woman who signed us in pops her head into the musty living room, explaining that we're encouraged to use technology. Go ahead and take pictures, Tweet about it, she assures.
Sure enough, everyone here is viewing the show through their phones. The woman next to me is Vining the guy in the ski mask: It moves from him flipping a record to break-dancing to eating Oreo cookies in the kitchen. A local fashion blogger sits in the corner, filtering pictures of the actors snorting lines off the coffee table. Adding to that media infiltration are the less predictable props -- heaps of insidious technology scattered throughout the house itself. It's everywhere, and exists in direct conflict to the other shoddy, un-pawnable decor.
The walk-through stage is laid out in a wrapped, doorless loop of dining room, living room, more living room and kitchen. Upstairs is off-limits, according to the white bed sheet expressing the division. Instead, the stairway serves as a semi-permeable membrane -- a theatrical portal that allows characters to materialize from the Up High. When between transports it's a transmission site for projected images of civil rights leaders and assorted rebel defiants.
Flat-screen TVs hang parlor-style in every room, displaying live-feed surveillance footage piped in from the other three options. Some over-the-top stereotypes explode around me as the cast of actors splinter off, depicting a heavy-handed, quickly shifting view of thug life. It's told by two "twin" brothers -- one black, one white -- who seem to be equally strong manifestations of their respective roles as the Black Black Guy and the White Black Guy.
Are we meant to relax and watch this event unfold through a remove as we edit our photos and post them to Twitter? Are we guest stars on COPS? Will I break down, say "fuck the urine" and eat those collard greens while watching this thing on television? Who knows? It's Friday night with Dead White Zombies. Anything could happen.
T.N.B.'s plot reads more linear than the theater collective's past endeavors, while still remaining vague enough for us to match it against our own philosophical sputterings. Even its titular acronym is open to interpretation, according to the show's author, a decidedly white guy named Thomas Riccio.
"It could stand for Typical Nigga Behavior; Total Nigga Bullshit; The Nasty Boys; Taking Niggas Bitches; Top Notch Banter or Tooted n Booted," he says, depending on "the moment and your take."
Regardless, it's intense. Guns are brandished. Everyone's yelling. Someone gets raped immediately next to my out-of-town guest. And the lead character gets saucy with his very kind, coupon-clipping, Oreo-dealing, greens-cooking mother.
The protagonist is Spooky, played by theatrical shape-shifter David Jeremiah. As best we can piece together, someone is dead. He seems haunted by it. There are sirens and visits by police and even an upbeat plot turn where we move outside, into the backyard, and he's seated in an electric chair. Oddly, it's the funniest part of the production; it boarders on slapstick. But once he gets back inside he's angry and fearful. He's running away from what got him here -- in stolen Nikes. And somewhere during that fearful chase he's become a blatant amalgamation of feedback cliches.
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In fact, Spooky's struggle is all anyone in this house is talking about. His mother (Becki McDonald) laments that "he needs this gangster drama," and love interest Charleene, played stunningly by Rhianna Mack, notes directly to the audience that he's searching for community in a mimicked, artificial culture. When Spooky finally absolves himself, coming clean about his past, this purgatory snow-globe gets shaken, culminating in a spaghetti Western that travels outside again, this time into the street.
The whole thing is uncomfortable. I instinctively seize up as the expletives detonate around me -- "nigger," "fuck," even a few "cunts" and "bitches" touch down. Plus, that rape just comes out of nowhere. But recoiling in response to unpolite things is what we're meant to do here. And then I wonder why I'm not more offended more often.
The culture being represented here by Dead White Zombies isn't a true examination of the first-person black experience. It's a chopped-and-screwed projection, a stew of media shock value, foie grased into us by film studios and television execs who have never rented a home that reeks of cat piss.
So why does it still hold the power to make us recoil and buckle? Because DWZ's bringing face-to-face the stereotypes we watch numbly from our couches but feel uncomfortable discussing publicly. They're doing it in the loudest, most aggressive and grittiest way possible. They're dousing it in urine. They'll even put a rape right next to you. You'll probably just Vine it. T.N.B. runs Thursday through Saturday until June 22.