Lisa Ramirez Thrills with a Hundred Years of Disasters
by Barry David Horwitz
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. –T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)
In 1922, T.S. Eliot, an American living in exile in London, contemplated the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and the World War that had decimated millions of people.
These twin horrors gave rise to his breakthrough poem “The Waste Land.” Now, we are reeling again from Pandemic and War, a hundred years later. Can Eliot’s modernist poem enlighten us about how to respond to these disasters?
Oakland Theater Project has found a way to blend the horrors of then and now, updating the onrushing disasters of The Crash, The Depression, The Holocaust, and Forever Wars.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. –Eliot
In a shabby black suit, reminding us of Charlie Chaplin, Lisa Ramirez channels the inhumanity of 100 years. She has created a character to speak Eliot’s insights, as we sit in our cars at Oakland Theater Project.
Ramirez acts out “The Waste Land” in a big sand box, reacting to bombs, famine, and disease. We listen to her in our cars on 87.9 FM, in an eerie drive-in drama for today’s wasteland.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many. –Eliot
Behind her, movies on a giant screen invites us to savor startling images that reflect the resonant rhythms of “The Waste Land.”
If you have not heard “The Waste Land” recently, then Lisa Ramirez, dressed in tattered tux and shredded white shirt—has news for us. With rapid fire delivery and accents from Cockney to aristocratic, she re-enacts the history of a hundred years in front of familiar, chilling images—Hiroshima, Auschwitz, breadlines, and soup kitchens . . .
We see frenzied dancing in New Orleans, jazz bands, tanks, soldiers, sailors, shimmying flappers, trench warfare, onrushing locomotives, exultant Nazis, cheering crowds. Lisa Ramirez runs through the disasters of modern times in wide-eyed expectation—constantly surprised by the oncoming locomotives of disasters.
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent –Eliot
Ramirez helps Eliot puncture the pretentions of intellectuals. She embodies dancers and divas, depressed and depraved. She exposes feral capitalism that leads to more waste and poison.
Ramirez excels at connecting “The Waste Land” with US, finding drought instead of rain.
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show something different . . . –Eliot
When Eliot invokes the Hindu “Peace that passeth understanding,” Ramirez looks to us for affirmation and release. Her zany hobo runs for life in an Oakland parking lot.
At times moving and at times exasperating, full of the frustrations of wars and promises, we see clearly the booms and busts that Naomi Klein highlights in Disaster Capitalism.
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me into dinner, to get the beauty of it hot— —Eliot
Ramirez’s dramatic reading affirms the terrorization of the common woman, buffeted by imperial storms—she ends where we begin. With the magical touches of director Michael Socrates Moran, and the dramaturgy of John Wilkins, “The Waste Land” has never been so personal.
“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, co-created by John Wilkins, Lisa Ramirez, and Michael Socrates Moran, projection design by Erin Gilley. Drive-in Performances at Oakland Theater Project, at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, California 94612. Info: OaklandTheaterProject.org – to May 16, 2021.
Cast: Lisa Ramirez