JULIA performance review Feb 17, 2016
by Isabella L. Price
When I came into the theater to grab the seat that I had reserved for myself earlier in the evening, it was taken. Laughing, white faces were sitting in my seat, and instinctually I knew not to raise a fuss, to find a seat elsewhere. When I looked around the only people willing to let me sit with them, were the only other black people in the crowd.
This is everyday life for me. I know my place, especially in white spaces. I know not to fight for myself and not to call people out, even when they offend me. This is the life of someone who feels like an outsider, of someone who is just trying to make it by in a space they don’t feel entitled to, this is something that for many white people, goes unnoticed. But for the sake of Julia we delve directly into it.
Going into Julia I thought I knew who I was going to identify with. The play being an adaptation of August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie, a much lauded, notoriously misogynistic work about an upper class woman’s relationship with her father’s valet. It centers on classism, sexism, and ends in the big climax of the titular character’s suicide. I’ve never had the (mis)fortune of being forced to read it in a graduate literature class, but I can imagine it’s a real uplifting read. The work presented at On the Boards is a Brazilian adaptation that places the characters in a more contemporary time and puts the added strain of race onto the already loaded and doomed relationship of Julia.
The timing of this performance falling on Valentine’s Day weekend was not lost on me, by the way.
As stated above I thought, as a woman who knows the source material, I knew who I was going to empathize with. Julia, the tragic figure at the center of the whole play was a woman mistreated and forced by the restraints of a patriarchal society to end her own life. But in this performance Julia is a privileged, white, spoiled, abusive, confused brat who spirals downward towards oblivion and needs only a slight push towards the edge. The valet, Jelson, is a black man whose desire for power extends toward sexual subjugation to Julia. To be honest, they are both foul characters. But, despite myself, I felt an empathy towards Jelson. Here is this person, a black man, who believes his station in life is beneath whites, but because of his education he seeks to supersede that boundary and define his own station in life. It’s the pull between what he sees in himself versus what he knows society sees in him. His feelings of unworthiness and inferiority turn into violence and sexual domination over Julia as a bid to get her on his side. In his pathetic attempts to win over Julia by being affectionate with her, I saw a man of desperate means who uses the only things he has to try to attain what he wants. In a world where people are unfairly granted privilege, do the underprivileged have any rules on how they should achieve what they want? All's fair in love and war right?
Earlier in the night a friend had seen a man of Middle Eastern background with a white woman as his date. “The American dream”, my friend remarked nodding towards them. “Of course”, I scoffed. The goal many brown and black men have is of landing a blonde white woman on their arm as a source of pride. Look at what I’ve won. What I’ve learned. I am no longer the field hand, the chauffeur, the nigger. How much higher can I get? I’m fucking your daughter. This mentality, at least in the states, can be traced back to times of slavery. The sexual advancement with the daughter is a comeuppance to the father, the master of the house. It’s a spit in the eye to those who put you beneath them, a unique combination of the privileges of being male and the oppression of being black. I looked for the couple in the crowd to see if they were shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they watch Julia call Jelson a nigger and spit in his face. The black woman beside me was the only one I noticed responding, with throat noises and sighs of disgust and perhaps, some sort of personal recognition. I knew what he was going through, few brown people don’t. The constant reminders, big and small, that no matter how much you do (or who you fuck) you're never going to be good enough. You’ll never be on “their” level.
The only notable moment of reaction from the audience was when a bird was seemingly beheaded on stage. A trick sleight of hand that an actor immediately exposed to the shocked audience. The actors constant breaking of the 4th wall and direct addressing of the audience was both delightfully funny and anxiously nerve wracking. We didn’t want to be pulled into this scene of domestic tragedy but we were also voyeurs, looking from the camera’s lense into the intimacy of strangers lives. It was uncomfortable the whole way through, the kind of discomfort that makes you unable to tear your eyes away but unable to do anything to stop it.
At once, towards the end of the play, our actress asks for help, she asks the audience to tell her if she should kill herself, like in the original play. No one answers. For the entirety of the play Julia has not once called for the control of the camera action, not once has she yelled ‘cut’ or ‘action’, repetitively she asks “What do you want from me? What should I do?” from which she gets no answer. Reaching directly out to the crowd, this woman receives no rescue or reprieve. She barks orders to Jelson like a dog who won’t sit fast enough, but is constantly looking for the men (Jelson, the camera man, the guys on the soundboard, her father) to tell her what to do. She knows Jelson is beneath her socially but psychologically she is broken. She is perhaps suffering from a mental illness (it's hinted that her mother tried to kill herself) or she is just a confused teenage (why they threw in that she was underage was an unnecessary stake in this) girl, who needs a man to put her in her sexual place.
The play asks more questions than it solves. With the constant breaking of the 4th wall it pulls you into the middle of the conversation, even if you’d rather not. It keeps you guessing. Who holds the power here? In a world of gender and race based inequality the only one with real power is the father, whose presence is felt even though he’s not in the performance. He is ever present, a god who makes the characters afraid and alter their actions, he is a white man of course. And in order to defy him, they destroy themselves, all the while he isn’t even on stage. This is the painful revelation of contemporary society that makes Julia’s source material still relevant. Those of us who live outside of privilege will continue to act out our oppressions on each other while looking everywhere but up. Perpetuating power and hierarchies while doing the most damage to each other. Julia hits hard because there are no winners, no one can be saved, no one deserves it. You leave the theater feeling like someone really did kill that bird.
It asks the question, who’s seat did you steal just so you could sit a little further to the edge? Was it worth it? Did you find the answers you wanted? We all have certain privileges, we all step over others to get what we want. Does this mean we are not deserving of the things we get? Does it mean that we are just as bad as our oppressors? Julia gives no answers, because the answers are those we have to figure out ourselves, each and everyone of us.