Dallas — Ten young women in pastel tie-dyed T-shirts and black pants enter arguing. They take their seats in a row of folding black chairs facing the audience at the South Dallas Cultural Center's performance space. They fuss about the menu, about the people invited, about the safety of the surroundings. Everything. This cacophony of complaints rises to a crescendo, subsides, and one especially peevish girl asks, "Can I get a to-go box?" Blackout.
This compelling five-minute opening scene in Cry Havoc Theater Company's new devised work, From the Table: A Celebration of Food, is funny and familiar to everybody who gathers with family, friends and anybody else at the table to sit down and eat a meal. So begins a revealing, 70-minute work, a rising tide of tightly choreographed scenes, that touches on the history and wildly various expressions of our deeply societal and intimately personal relationship with food.
Welcoming patrons before the show on opening weekend, Cry Havoc Theater Company Founder and Artistic Director Mara Richards Bim spoke of the painstaking work that goes into the development of a devised work. The students drawn from North Texas high schools improvise themes and scenes, and work and rework their ideas into a script from a concept or idea, creating the work as they go. "Each 60 seconds you see onstage takes roughly 60 minutes to create," she said. The company's award-winning original works include a gripping Shots Fired, about the Dallas police shootings, and Babel, last year's provocative look at gun violence.
Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi, who also conceived the show's topic, organizes the narrative input from her ensemble along historical lines, with specific cultural aspects of eating woven into the larger canvas.
Jamie Adams' costumes help set the time period, and Aaron Johansen's lighting cues and Marco E. Salinas' sound design help us quickly follow the action over the many shifting times and table settings.
Two actors in loosely draped white fur costumes circle each other menacingly and then appear to rip into a carcass and tear the flesh off with their teeth, hinting briefly at the prehistory of hunting and eating raw meat. Nearly two million years ago, humans began cooking food, changing the evolutionary development of our very bodies, as Richard Wrangham famously points in in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
The music shifts from ominous drumming to the warm, exotic sounds of a mouth harp, as a circle of smiling young women move in a lovely pastoral dance into a market area carrying woven baskets of glossy tomatoes, collard greens and scrubbed potatoes.
Fast forward, literally. The cast disappears in the dark wings, displaced by three actors moving rapidly at a long table, packaging, peeling, moving food down an assembly line. Robot-like, they rush each other in their mindless, mechanical tasks. Following on the heels of the industrialization of food, the actors quickly move into a funny spoof of Swanson's TV dinners, as Ricky Nelson's "Mary Lou" fills the theater and a happy daddy pats his belly and declares, "If I keep up the good work, I'll get a promotion in no time!" Those were the days! Alas, a brattish kid is yelling on the floor, refusing to eat.
There's room for fun in the show, especially as the troupe sweeps us through the comic retelling of the fatal role of food in Grimm's fairy tales like Goldilocks in a blonde fright wig, a not-so-bright Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel, the ravenous siblings who devoured an entire ginger bread house, only to be swallowed up by the witch who baked it. One young narrator raises an eyebrow and remind us, "Don't take food from strangers." Uh huh.
Charming, too, is the ensemble's take on the culinary traditions of holidays, from New Years' party fare to the chocolates of Valentine's Day, when a scorned suitor tramples the flowers he brought to his true love. Sugar is prime at Halloween and Easter, and corny dogs and cotton candy gobbled at the State Fair don't go down all the way on the roller coaster.
The company moves us on, chewing and burping, right through to our modern addiction to fast food and our epidemic obesity and diabetes, the ugly results of too many Big Macs and late-night trips to Taco Bell. (One young Latina promises the delicious real thing if we eat at her table.) Funny and telling at once, three young women roll across their table/beds clinging to cardboard dance partners, big boxes of Cheez-Its, Fruit Loops and vanilla wafers. "I am lonely, so I eat. Calories wrap around me like a long hug," says one girl, hugging her body and describing her particular food disorder.
One of the most telling scenes in the show features four girls dancing before mirrors and singing of the food they put into the bodies they are looking at, the selves they sometimes loathe because others have judged them "not perfect." They sway to the love-hate lyrics of Xylo’s pop hit "I Don't Want to See You Anymore." This touching, terrific theater sings of how young people around us regard with suspicion and fear the very food they eat.
Perhaps the all-female cast that came to auditions influenced the development of the show, although they take on male roles during the performance. Certainly, many young men are as obsessed with protein intake, muscle-building and hyper-nutrition as girls often are with an idealized female form. This cast gives us a powerful insight into how our children model what we parents eat, but also refuse to consume what's before them if they choose a different path to community and food.
The talented and energetic cast is drawn from Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, W. T. White High School, Skyline High School, and I. M. Terrell Academy for STEM & Visual and Performing Arts in Fort Worth. Hats off to Mary Bandy, Paige Bowman, Victoria Gonzalez, Isadora Lilly, Ava McKay, Zion Melaku, Emma Myers, Carla Rosales, Brooke Schlegel, and Zoe Williams.
Cry Havoc partners with Cafe Momentum for this production. The young men and women in the internship program, teens coming out of juvenile facilities, set a hearty table for the cast and crew and audience following the performances. What a perfect communal close to an evening given over to nourishing our minds and bodies.