Resistance (Photo: Peter Yesley)
Sister Sylvester’s newest show, Maps for a War Tourist, is “A Performative Essay” about the theater company’s failure to make a play. The company’s abortive attempt centers around the journey of a young Turkish woman called Ayşe Deniz Karacagil, a protester involved in the Gezi protests in 2013 in Istanbul who ended up joining the PKK, considered a terrorist organization by some nations.
For a list of reasons that include Jake Gyllenhaal and the fact that Deniz’s story continues to change, it became emotionally, theatrically, and politically impossible for them to zero in on Deniz’s tale. Instead, framed around Deniz, this essay and performance focuses on the many kinds of journeys people take today across time and space, the ways ideas and commitment to ideologies travel, and the radical acts of tortoises. It also stars two of these languid actors in a half-shell.
As with much of Sister Sylvester’s work, the framework of the shows and the dramaturgy underneath them are not always the most obvious theatrical avenues. But that’s what keeps me coming back. They are not coy about their thought processes. Quite often the work involves explaining to the audience what they are attempting to do in uniting disparate concepts through an unusual visual language. This narrative guidance in Maps is central to the show. Only occasionally does the depth of the subject matter and the stretched tendrils of ideas get out of their grasp.
Far from a dry lecture, Maps utilizes abstract and concrete images to support the storytelling. The performers take turn (with Kathryn Hamilton, founder and director of Sister Sylvester, taking the lead) in reciting the text on the side of the stage while performer Kelsea Martin manages some stagecraft and the enclosure of the two tortoises. There are projections on a massive screen—text, images, and live footage of close-ups on the thespian terrapins. From documentary to poetry and mythology, a variety of storytelling techniques are woven together throughout.
Deniz was arrested at the Gezi protests for wearing a red scarf—a color associated with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party). She was detained and threatened with charges that would have carried substantial jail time. She was held with known PKK operatives awaiting trial. When she was released on bail, she was smuggled across the border where different reports had her joining the PKK or the YPG (the People’s Protection Units). The PKK has been viewed as a terrorist organization by the US, whereas the YPG has been seen as an ally. The PKK have violently clashed with the Turkish government for decades over establishing an autonomous state for the Kurds. However, with the rise of ISIS in the region the PKK have been seen as possibly a force to help the US and others fight back against the Islamic militants.
With this background, the show zooms in on the blurriness around borders, divisions, sides, and alliances. One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist and vice versa. Or wait long enough and the definition of terrorist and ally might change. As they trace Deniz’s movements around Turkey and Syria, they look to their own: honing in on a Syrian playwright who escaped the bloody conflict in his country and is living in exile in Istanbul, a Turkish director (who I interviewed in 2014) who has moved between New York and Turkey, and Hamilton who heads to Central Turkey to meet with Deniz’s family.
The piece traces the literal lines and the ephemeral trajectories of these artists lives. From pen on paper, to digital mapping apps, to the haunted images our minds associate with places, there are many ways we record our movement in space. Theater is certainly another. Maps makes an effort to emphasize that life is full of these complex, contradictory paths.
Not all the stories in Maps are as strong or sharp in the telling. The connections drawn between American Marxist-Leninist/Anarchist Murray Bookchin and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, were hard to follow. The filmed interludes of having the Istanbul-based artists physically draw maps, made sense in concept, but in reality, slowed the momentum without giving us a greater understanding of the men themselves.
But because of the ongoing conflicts in Turkey and Syria, acts of terrorism worldwide, and the political upheaval in the US, the piece has an immediacy to it. With documentary material and real lives being depicted, the show can be emotional and rattling. Happily, with the challenging subject matter, they do interrupt the seriousness with lighter segments focused on the turtles.
Overall, Maps refuses to trade in black and white. Instead, the show smartly has us consider the gray areas of narrative, politics, violence, and conflict.