The Emperor Has No Costumes

Try to follow me on this one:

Once upon a time, there was a globe-trotting Polish journalist named Ryszard Kapuściński. In 1978, he published The Emperor, consisting of a series of interviews he apparently conducted with a cavalcade of Ethiopians, waxing poetic about their bygone empire and its former emperor.

A slight wrinkle: he made it all up.

Though ostensibly based on personal observations accrued while he roamed the world, Kapuściński basically used a distant country as an unverifiable exotic locale through which to comment on Poland’s repressive regime, who would’ve censored any direct sociopolitical critique that questioned their practices.

In 2016, London’s Young Vic, Manchester’s HOME, and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg mounted a co-production of Colin Teevan’s stage adaptation, currently receiving its New York City premiere at Theatre for a New Audience. Directed by Walter Meierjohann, this new play is technically structured around actor Kathryn Hunter bringing to life this succession of fictional Ethiopians, but the thematic meta-narrative probes the nature of theatrical illusions.

This one-woman template mirrors Kapuściński’s fiction. Since he obviously wasn’t striving for an accurate account, his tale, at least here, becomes a sort of theatrical representation of our relationship with historical records. What other art form so embodies the ephemeral truth of the past; every performance is here one second and gone the next, with no trace except the subjective memories of the observers. Through their purported recollections, Kapuściński’s voice breathed life into a fallen king and kingdom.

Kathryn Hunter’s chameleonic voice achieves the same. Hunter matches the malleability of Kapuściński’s written voice with her own theatrical one, altering its cadence, pace, rhythm, and tenor to capture every approach to life touched upon in The Emperor. Though her physicality of course varies based on the dictates of the shoes she’s metaphorically filling, there’s a consistency to her movement that feels of apiece, an aesthetic furthered by her static costume, with its broad shoulders dwarfing her lean physique, making her look like a puppet. She moves like a marionette, animated by an external puppeteer.

This singular cohesiveness serves as a reminder that the people she’s playing are not in fact people, but creations, products of the active imagination of puppeteer Kapuściński (and, for that matter, everyone involved with this production).  Even one petit person, no matter how small, can paint a canvass that encompasses many more souls than just her own.

And yet, this theatrically-idealistic bent never totally separates from its dark undercurrents, which increasingly pollute the stream. Remember, we’re still in the realm of fiction passing as fact. Even if we were to believe the tale being spun before us — Kapuściński’s contemporaries did — we can’t forget that the participants’ extreme emotions regarding their homeland may cloud their judgement of it, and lead them to exaggerate for effect their perspective. If first-person sources can’t be trusted, who can be? History may seem like a solid narrative to us in the rearview mirror, but it’s always told by as unreliable narrators as Kapuściński himself.

And Hunter’s no more trustworthy; who believes the stories of a shapeshifter? Periodically, text explaining the history of these people and this place are projected onto a series of scrims, appearing blurry in their repeated layers, reflecting the multiplicity of illusions intrinsic to any recording of the past, or even present. We all may be privy to the same objective events — the original text of life — but in our subjective tellings, we forever alter them for future historians. Who creates our conception of other times and lands, and how authentic can they possibly be? Recorded history is someone’s projection onto the past, and someone else will always be left out of the picture.

Here, that void is represented onstage by Temesgen Zeleke. That’s right — this is no solo spectacle. Zeleke’s very presence, as an Ethiopian, initially marginalized as just the silent companion relegated to providing her with musical accompaniment, calls attention to the racial politics of this performance: Hunter’s a white westerner physically colonizing African bodies (it’s a study of empires, after all). Her portraitures never devolve into racial stereotypes, but any treatment of The Emperor in 2018 must wrestle with its origins: a caucasian writer fabricating the voices of people of color, in a way stealing their agency and turning them into artificial puppets for his own aims; call it literary colonialism.

Though Zeleke barely speaks for most of the duration, his dynamic live music constantly juxtaposes her attempts to dominate the narrative, similar to how Kapuściński forcibly shaped his country’s perception of faraway foreigners without their participation. How can one person, especially an outsider, quite literally speak for an entire population?

There’s a reason Zeleke ultimately rebels against her charade; he even gets the last word. When one voice attempts to control many by playing emperor, his or her empire will soon crumble (never fear, wokesters: The Emperor’s view is intersectional; don’t overlook the gender commentary latent in a woman donning the patriarchal caps of the cabinet of men who almost exclusively populate this 70-minute extravaganza). Storytelling has all too often been a tool wielded by the powerful to sugarcoat, and whitewash, the impoverished truth that the powerful want to mask to retain their position at the top.

Note how this production taps into the themes of Kapuściński’s original text and, in translating them to the stage, takes advantage of the particularities of this new medium to deepen them in ways not attainable on the page alone. Today’s rampant screen-to-stage adaptations should take a page out of The Emperor’s book.

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