The classic mantra attributed to Frederic Jameson still bellows throughout cultural criticism: "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Thus suggesting capitalism's sleeper hold on our collective imaginations is locked in tight. Yet, what if we aren't so helpless? What if this perceived helplessness is also an inhibitor? For, as Slavoj Zizek claims, "What if the way we perceive a problem is already part of the problem?"
Split Britches's play Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) seeks to be a corrective to our
apocalypse fetish. Co-founders Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver seek to create "a gap between the before and after." The end can wait; the show must go on.
From the very beginning, UXO introduces something the characters of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" did not have—agency. While the play parodies Kubrick's film (libidinal generals calling for the purity of our body fluids not excluded), the absurd and the earnest are but brief interludes to the larger cast: the audience.
The audience members are active participants throughout the play. Shaw and Weaver ask that the audience set their phone alarm for 60 minutes and once those 60 minutes are up, they are instructed to cry out the declaration, "It's over," "It's finished!" or "It's done!" A select few of the oldest members of the audience are invited to be part of the “council of elders”. Prompted by the question, "What's on your mind?" the elders go around and share what they are worried about and what they wished they could have done earlier in their lives.
This blurring of spectator and actor is a technique described in Augusto Boal's "Theater of the Oppressed." Boal deemed those included in that blurring process as "spect-actors" and they have an unpredictable yet empowering role to play. Boal said, “One knows how these experiments will begin but not how they will end, because the spectator is freed from [their] chains, finally acts, and becomes a protagonist.” Similarly, the spect-actors (council of elders) are freed from their chains of the chaos of our current political climate. Instead of internalizing
the latest incoherent yet ominous tweet from our president, the council members cathartically release their anxiety and are also heard and affirmed by the presidential Weaver.
Here is where the unpredictable can happen, for grievances and desires can vary from person to person. Thus, this variability ties into the theme of the play. As Weaver proclaims on stage, "We don’t know where UXOs are exactly, what energy is left in them, what would happen if we uncovered one—we just know we should be careful with our curiosity.” Yet, it is through the council of elders's discussion of worries and unfulfilled desires the unpredictable negates the predictable—the end of the world.
During the council's time sharing, the graphics on the screens in the background show a map of the world. Casualty numbers are reported in next to flags of various countries and also lights flash across the world indicating where bombs were dropped. The world is seemingly ending while the elders self-disclose. Yet, it is the activity and agency of the elders in the foreground. The unexplored anxieties and desires—the personal—ultimately make the larger political climate a subordinate. The council becomes the commanding officers. If the path to imagining a future is long and arduous, it starts with empowerment and disarming the helplessness inherent
to apocalyptic scenarios.
Once the 60 minutes are up, the rest of the audience declare the end amidst a chorus of cell phone timers, yet, it is not the end of the play. There's catharsis to revel in and possible solutions to the political scene to discuss. Shaw, Weaver, and the elders all keep on going—and ultimately, so do we.