Transubstantiation: Bones Become Feathers

Can the magic that occurs in the theater be recreated in the classroom? You betcha. Not all the time, but more frequently than you might expect and it has everything to do with the commitment of the student, and often, with the power of the solo performance format. Though I have reached the age when I forget all kinds of things like names, I still remember a student performance that occurred four years ago and lasted a much-too-short 7 minutes.

The student chose to perform part of a short monologue play written by Naomi Wallace. The title of the piece is The Retreating World, and it is part of the larger work entitled The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East which is comprised of three short but devastating and exquisite plays. In The Retreating World, the speaker, Ali, is an Iraqi who begins by talking about birds and specifically about the pigeons he has collected but has had to sell as food as a result of the Gulf War and the US-imposed sanctions. The piece is not just about pigeons, however, because soon it becomes apparent that when talking about the pigeons – how they move, how they appear, what lore surrounds them – he is also talking about what has become of his family members and friends as a result of the Gulf War and the imposed sanctions. The birds are allegorical and allow him to talk about things like his grandmother being unable to get the medicine she needs for her chronic illness or how his best friend, Samir, was hit with an anti-tank missile right before his very eyes when they were in the process of surrendering themselves to the US soldiers. All that Ali has left of his best friend is that vision of “a piece of his spine” sticking up out of the ground. 

The Retreating World is a deeply powerful and haunting piece and part of that power has everything to do with the ending when, as the speaker talks about having gone door to door to collect the bones of the pigeons he has had to give away (“I go to their homes and ask for the bones”), he takes a pail, shakes it so that the audience hears what sounds like must be hundreds of, if not thousands of, bird bones, and then tosses the contents of the pail out into the audience…BUT instead of BONES flying out over the audience, FEATHERS come out in their place.

It is an amazing moment for all kinds of reasons, but two of the most important reasons for me are, 1) the piece ends not in anger and vengeance as Ali’s monologue has led us to believe and even want, but rather in something more powerfully cathartic because it is transformative, turning vengeance and violence into something more ethereal (hard not to connect those feathers to the wings of angels) and hopeful, and 2) because it seems to me to distill the absolute essence of theater which is its magic. A magic we fall in love with every time we “ooh” and “ah” over special effects such as when Mary Poppins or Peter Pan fly out into the audience. Or, more simply, a magic we fall in love with every time the curtain goes up and we clap because a set has been created with such attention to detail (a working sink, rain falling outside a window, a staircase upon which characters climb up or down, or even an elevator that moves up and down) that it convinces us to believe in the world it has created even though that world does not exist except in the two hours or so of the performance. Stay tuned for the next post wherein I will describe the magic created by a student when he performed part of The Retreating World.

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