This week, the Columbia University School of the Arts New Plays Festival, which features original works by members of the 2018 MFA playwriting class, kicked off at the Lenfest Center for the Arts, where the first two plays of the ten-play festival will debut. One of those two shows is River Rouge, a riveting tale about workers, bosses, love, passion, industry, and art written by Andy Boyd and directed by NJ Agwuna, both of whom are MFA candidates. Bwogger Jake Tibbetts, who couldn’t turn down an opportunity to attend a play written about his favorite Trotskyist muralist, was lucky enough to catch the Thursday night premiere
The title of MFA candidate Andy Boyd’s newest play, River Rouge, may seem fairly self-explanatory upon first glance; after all, the majority of the play takes place at and near the Ford River Rouge Complex, which Diego Rivera visited at the invitation of Edsel Ford in 1932 in order to gain knowledge of the American capitalist mode of production so that he could prepare to paint his Detroit Industry Murals. One only needs, however, to see the first few minutes of the show, which begins with most of the players coming together on stage and singing “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie, to realize that the significant of the color “rouge” extends far beyond being part of the name of the play’s setting. This work, which focuses primarily (but far from exclusively) on the relationship between revolutionary artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and wealthy industrialists Edsel and Henry Ford, is quite open about where it stands politically, depicting factory managers as almost cartoonish villages and giving its revolutionary characters more than a few opportunities to sing songs like “Union Maid,” “Solidarity Forever,” “Bread and Roses,” and, of course, “The Internationale.” The show is red as hell, and damn proud of it, too.
What is perhaps most fascinating about what this show had to say on a political level, though, is that it refuses to oversimplify complex debates which were relevant in the early 1930s and which remain relevant today. While the tale is a framed as one in which Rivera’s (and Kahlo’s) Marxist view of the world comes into conflict with the realities of capitalist America, Henry Ford, played by Roger Lipson of the Actors’ Equity Association, rejects the label of “capitalist,” as he doesn’t feel that he is motivated by profit. (Marxists, of course, would find this argument laughable.) Edsel Ford, the president of the Ford Motor Company, is depicted as being somewhat sympathetic to Rivera’s views, even if his class interests are fundamentally opposed to the interests of the class that Rivera seeks to uplift through his work. Rivera, an avowed communist, is unable to stop himself from thinking about his desire to increase his revenue. Even when the show seeks to depict divisions that exist between communists and capitalists, those on different sides of those divisions are rarely if ever portrayed as one-dimensional ideologues.
Furthermore, throughout the show, the audience is given glimpses of arguments that take place between different factions of the organized left. Arguments often break out between Rivera and Kahlo about whether Rivera is serving the capitalists or serving the workers by painting his murals. Rivera, a lifelong revolutionary, is, in the middle of the play, expelled from the Mexican Communist Party for speaking out against atrocities committed by the Russian government (and finds himself initially unable to cope). Debates break out between union members about whether Stalinist forms of organization are preferable to anarchist tactics and about whether the union should put some focus on fighting for the liberation of black workers. Towards the end of the show, after a Ford worker who travels to the USSR to oversee a new factory is killed for speaking out against the government, Rivera abandons Stalinism, declaring that it is responsible for many of the same evils as the capitalist mode of production, and vows to pledge himself to Trotsky’s Left Opposition, but only after arguing with a few American comrades about whether Stalinism is any different from Leninism (and, by extension, Trotskyism). Boyd gives these conversations and debates the nuance that they deserve, and the work and the political statements that it seeks to deliver are all the more interesting because of that.
One doesn’t need to be a leftist of any stripe to enjoy this marvelous production (though my background as a socialist certainly made my viewing experience incredibly meaningful). Boyd’s script, as politically charged as it may be, doesn’t depend entirely on political discussion to move it forward. Throughout the show, Boyd balances moments of intense emotion, such as sudden deaths of supporting characters, explosive arguments between fathers and sons, and collisions between spouses who love one another deeply but struggle to view the world in exactly the same way, with a particular light-hearted humor that lands far, far more often than it falls flat. During a particularly heated argument between Rivera and Kahlo that occurs after Kahlo reveals that she is pregnant, for example, Rivera begins to cry out about mistakes that Kahlo has made, but Kahlo interrupts, telling Rivera that he, too, made a mistake—failing to “pull out.” Such instances of melodrama being interrupted by brief moments of levity occur throughout the play, making the script feel truly human in perhaps unexpected ways. This balancing act makes it easy for the member of the audience to forget that he is watching a scripted production rather than an interaction between a real married couple, or between two real comrades, or between two real members of a corporate dynasty. Even if the viewer has no interest in the political issues that Boyd brings to the forefront, the brilliance of his script, which is always lifelike but never dull, simply cannot be denied.
The question of the quality of the script, it should be noted, would be entirely irrelevant if it weren’t for the actors who bring it to life—and a few players are worthy of the highest commendation. Manuela Sosa, a MFA candidate who portrays Frida Kahlo in the show, is truly the most exciting actor to watch. She is nothing short of a commanding presence, captivating the entire audience every time she steps onto the stage. When, in the first scene, Edsel Ford (played with a transatlantic accent and a pep in his step by second-year acting student Yoni Bronstein) asks Sosa’s Kahlo if she knows who he is, she harnesses his pompous energy and uses it against him, responding to him with the very same question but with added emphasis when she points to herself. During a later exchange with Ford, during which Kahlo calls him a “racist” for calling native art “primitive,” Ford asks Kahlo if it would be possible for her not to take things so personally when discussing politics. “Politics is always personal,” booms Kahlo—and Sosa really seems to believe that.
Another standout performance was delivered by Javier Padilla, a second-year acting student. As Rivera, Padilla accurately captures the essence of the famed muralist’s unceasing inner turmoil. Caught in between his devotion to his art and his love for his wife, between his commitment to communism and his blooming friendship with a capitalist, and between his love of Leninism and his scorn towards Stalinism, the Rivera of this play lives in a state of constant internal conflict—and Padilla, who delivers some lines in a near whisper and others in a bellowing roar, does justice to this conflict by portraying Rivera as a man who is doing everything in his power to devote as much energy as he can to each of the things in life about which he is passionate, even when those things oppose one another.
Though these two main players steal the show whenever they appear on stage, they aren’t the only two who are deserving of special recognition. Daniel Stompor, who portrays five characters throughout the course of the show, gives an unforgettable and unsettling bit performance as Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-semitic priest and radio host who sought to organize a “Christian Front” to fight back against communism (and whose show Henry Ford often finds himself listening to, to his son’s dismay). His depiction of the famous fascistic radio host is just as riotously funny as it is disturbing, and, during the Thursday show, his appearances generated laughs and gasps in equal measure.
This delightful little play, which is just under two hours long (not counting a brief intermission), has something for everyone, or so it seems. Art buffs will love the discussions about Rivera’s murals, about Kahlo’s paintings, and about the long and winding road that we call the creative process. Fans of black box theatre will appreciate how the creative team was able to use little more than a large sheet, a projector, and a handful of chairs and tables in order to transform a mostly unadorned space into a factory floor, a crowded street, an art studio, a hospital, and a union hall. Those who like experimental modes of storytelling will like how the tale of Aaron Solokov, the Marxist Ford employee who travels to Russia, is told entirely through a series of letters that are read aloud by Kaitlin Kaufman (who plays Aaron) as she stands on a balcony on stage left, or how, in certain instances, the show uses original songs (like the hilarious “Speed-Up Shuffle”) to move the story forward. Those, like myself, who love singing along to trade union songs will have a blast doing, well, just that. Regardless of who you are, where your interests lie, or how much you know about Mexican art, American automobile production, or twentieth-century leftist politics, you are guaranteed to find something to like about River Rouge, a courageous production that is worthy of your full attention.
The last showing of River Rouge will be on Saturday, April 7th at 7:30pm at the Lenfest Center for the Arts (615 West 129th Street). Though tickets, which are free, have sold out, there will be a standby line.
River Rouge via Columbia University