JACK & is a fitting show to start TBA. Kaneza Schaal mixes theater, stand-up, dance, projections, music, and ritual, encompassing the full spectrum of acts you might see at the festival. In the performance, Jack (Cornell Alston) is an ex-con working at an industrial bakery who one night decides to bake his wife a cake. What starts out as the story of a man trying to accomplish a simple task morphs into a dream-like meditation on aspirations of the formerly incarcerated.
Opening with mostly straightforward stand-up/storytelling structure, Jack relates a few anecdotes about his time in prison and a guy who kept a tiger in his apartment that almost killed him. While this framework is important to the show, JACK & is not a show about the prison industrial complex. Rather, it's about Jack’s aspirations. He compares prisoners to goldfish (a goldfish in a bowl is always onstage through the show). People stuck in one place long enough learn everything there is to know about that place. They get bored. Tthe outside world becomes what’s most interesting. But when they finally make it into the world, it’s a lot different than they thought it would be.
While Schall has created a piece about aspirational dreams, she structures the show around unconscious dreams. Part I feels grounded in the modern world, but each progressive section becomes more and more unreal. Part II transitions to Jack’s home, where he starts the cake, and shifts into a parody of the 1950’s sitcom. Here Jack struggles with his new life. Schaal draws the archetypes of the well-meaning-but-incompetent husband and the vacuous housewife as the performers play to the audience. Jack’s attempts to bake a cake are met with an increasing number of mishaps. The task of baking a cake becomes the struggle for respectability—for which minorities and formerly incarcerated people constantly struggle.
In the third and final section reality gives way. After a short R&B number during the transition, Jack and his wife attend a cotillion. While normally a highly formal Western event marking a person’s entry into high society, this dance is overseen by a masked figure in a John Canoe (or Jonkanoo) festival costume of red, orange, and gold scraps of fabric. The goldfish bowl is projected live onscreen as Alston and his fellow performers dance to a mixtures of classical ballroom and John Canoe drumming. Fake smoke pours from backstage.
There are a lot of disparate touchstones in this work. Some, like The Honeymooners, are easy to identify. While others, like John Canoe or the abstract paintings of Agnes Martin might be lost on some. Understanding these touchstones isn’t necessary. Schaal is using them in a way that helps the audience understand their meaning, even if they're unfamiliar. As JACK & progresses, the audience starts to see how they have been threaded through the entire show.
Finally, exhausted from his struggle, Jack lays down in the middle of the stage in his tuxedo. He then realizes he forgot about the cake he was baking. It actually turned out perfectly. Afterwards, the audience is invited onstage to share the cake with the cast and crew (it was a good cake!).
Though Schall is explicit in what her show is about, and what’s influencing her, the constant shifting form makes it hard to really take in JACK & right away. Instead the show stays with you as you leave the theater, a dream you puzzle together, another life you got to live. It's like a lingering pleasant sweetness in your mouth.
We'll be blogging about TBA 2018 every day of the fest! Keep up with us at: portlandmercury.com/tba