Living Theatre revives famous gritty production of the 1960s
By Lucy Komisar
Kenneth Brown’s play The Brig is a numbing expression of the banality of institutionalized cruelty exercised by the U.S. military. It’s based on the author’s own experience as a prisoner for 30 days in a Marine Corps brig at Camp Fuji, Japan, in 1957, during the Korean War. The play was first staged by the Living Theatre in 1963, and its gritty social realism reflects the essence of the company’s political mission.
A cell with five double-decker bunks is enclosed by a chain-link fence, and the area outside, concrete floor or gravel exercise yard, is separated from the audience by barbed wire. Ten men, who have committed unknown, apparently minor infractions, are confined for up to 30 days to suffer dehumanizing treatment at the hands of guards who punctuate their disapproval with punches to the stomach.
The first irony of Judith Malina’s direction occurs when a black officer calls a white inmate boy. It summons up the tradition of white men treating black men like dirt. In fact, the officers call the men maggots. Or they call them by numbers, never by names.
The guards turn basic minutiae of life – dressing, showering, shaving, smoking – into opportunities for control and humiliation. The inmates must pull on boots, then take them off and step on them (they are not allowed to touch feet to floor) to put on their pants. Eyes must gaze straight ahead.
When the men move, it is in double time, knees high, arms raised with fists near chins. When they leave the cell, in double time, they must shout requests for permission to cross white lines painted on the floors between spaces and enclosures.
Inside the cell, they stand and silently read the Marine manual. Outside, they do chores, swabbing, scrubbing or mopping the concrete floor.
There is a Nazi sort of order, efficiency and gratuitous cruelty. It is surprising when one bursts into the Marine Hymn. Is that meant as satire?
The spectacle is a macabre dance. One can see how the cacophony of voices, the repetition, and the tension seared and stunned audiences more than 40 years ago.
The only one who reacts normally is a man who freaks out and is put in the hole, where he screams, My name is not 6; my name is James Turner!
Curiously, Brown said at the post-play opening night reception that the men locked in the brig didn’t feel they were being subjected to cruelty. They believed they were being duly punished for infractions. Perhaps the military had the acceptance of cruelty built into them.
In a director’s note, Malina says, In The Brig we see the discipline and the training to obedience that suppresses free will and makes it possible for good-hearted young women and men to commit the atrocities that armies everywhere commit. Through the bio-mechanisms of the drill and the enforcement of the absurd precision rituals, a mind-body adjustment is made, designed to overcome their natural humanitarian qualms.
Malina and her late husband Julian Beck founded the Living Theatre in 1947. The Brig is the first production in the company’s new home on Clinton Street, in the arts and café district of the Lower East Side.
The Brig. Written by Kenneth H. Brown. Directed by Judith Malina. Starring Johnson Anthony, Gene Ardor, Kesh Baggan, Steven Scot Bono, Brent Bradley, Brad Burgess, John Kohan, Albert Lamont, Jeff Nash, Bradford Rosenbloom, Jade Rothman, Isaac Scranton, Joshua Striker-Roberts, Morteza Tavakoli, Evan True, Antwan Ward, Louis Williams. Designed by Julian Beck & Gary Brackett.
The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street. (F train to Delancy St.) Thu-Sat 8pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: 2:15. Through July 8, 2007. $30. Pay what you can on Thursdays. http://www.livingtheatre.org/
Photo 1 original cast; photos 2 and 3 by John Ranard