guardian angel

Surely, at this time of year, there can’t be such a thing as too many angel references, can there? And, surely, there can never be too many guardian angels, can there? In that spirit, I carry on with my discussion of the angels in Tim Miller’s Rooted.

The performance begins in media res, with Miller describing himself in front of Homeland Security a few short years ago, about to push the door open for a meeting to determine whether Alistair will be granted a green card, feeling anything but safe or secure. We don’t get the narration of what happens after he pushes open that door until almost an hour later. What happens in between is the stuff of drama.  I can imagine creating an advertisement for the performance that reads: Marriage! Performance Workshops! Cardiograms! Ancestry.com! The Civil War! AIDS activism! FM radio gods! Guerrilla Theater! All tucked together in one performance. Don’t Miss it!

Well, most of you have missed it, but it is the work of this blog to help you experience it. So here we go.

How could such very disparate subjects be together in one show? Standing in front of Homeland Security leads Miller to think about the experiences that have led him and Alistair and their dog Frida (who is described as relieving herself on the Summons that has called them to this most unwelcoming building) to this moment. The connecting tissue among these experiences consists of angels. Yup, angels. In Rooted, various angels make guest appearances. There’s Miller’s reference to the play Angels in America written by Tony Kushner.  There’s also a city clerk with the first name of Angel. And then there’s Miller’s great-great-grandfather whose last name is Angel. A professed “synchronicity queen,” Miller can’t resist weaving these angels into his piece.

For example, after describing himself in front of Homeland Security poised to open the door, Miller shifts to describing himself years earlier on the day of his marriage ceremony to Alistair. He is peeing in the men’s bathroom at city hall moments before he is about to be wedded to his beloved on the very day after DOMA has been overturned. In addition to realizing that city hall is located on WORTH Street, a word newly resonant on the occasion of the law recognizing marriages between people of the same sex, suddenly the words “we will be citizens, we will be citizens” come to him. They are words spoken by the character Prior Walter in Tony Kushner’s ANGELS in America (about to be revived on Broadway starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, by the way). Then, when Miller walks out of the bathroom, who does he bump into, but Tony Kushner himself!  Bam! Synchronicity! And then, bam again, Miller finds himself standing before the city clerk, ANGEL Lopez, who will conduct the marriage ceremony. And because there is another angel in his life, his great-great-grandpa William Shepard ANGEL, and Miller just happens to have his 1865 marriage certificate in his possession, he can shift the narrative from the day when he and Alistair sign the certificate that legally recognizes them as a married couple to the story of Billy Angel’s transformation from Civil War soldier to married man.

And, just like that, Rooted transforms itself into a reflection on ancestry – the ancestry of the US which must come to mind as soon as you say the words “civil war,”  Miller’s own personal ancestry, and the ancestry of theater. Miller’s narrative shifts again and now he is telling us the story of his trip to New York State for a performance workshop where he took the opportunity to also travel, by tiny rental car, to the Yates County Historical Society to find out more about his ancestor. This search for information about his grandfather is also tied to his desire to “rub the two certificates together” – his marriage certificate and his great-great grandfather’s – to see what they release.

What they release, in part, is a moment of crisis. But in order to understand that, Miller has to tell us about his cardiogram. Because, like all of his performances, Rooted also has everything to do with the body. We come to realize what Miller realizes which is that ancestry isn’t just something that resides in the files of historical societies or in the data bytes of ancestry.com. It is also something that takes root in our bodies. In Rooted, it is the heart that features large, because the men in Miller’s family, except for Billy Angel, have a history of heart disease. And so, after a performance in a theater named after a cemetery in which he is convinced he is having the beginnings of a heart attack, he makes an appointment to have an echocardiogram. Seeing the picture of his heart beating away leads him to reflect upon how Billy Angel was able to survive Antietam and to marry and live a long, long life. But Miller is not yet ready to move forward. He needs to do something else in his narrative. He needs to interact with the audience. Because, after all, audience members have hearts too. And so, Miller whips out a stethoscope from his pocket so he can listen to the hearts of his audience members up close. What does he hear? It depends upon who is in his audience. On the night to which I refer, the body maps performance had just occurred and many of the participants were in the audience so, as Miller puts the stethoscope up into the air to calibrate the beating of the hearts, he tells us he hears “the hearts of the beautiful artists I worked with all week and I can hear their hearts.”  It is only after reflecting upon his marriage ceremony, his great-great grandfather Billy Angel, his echocardiogram, and his relationship as a performer with his audience, that Miller is ready to recommit to living, not fearing, life, and ready to charge forward with open arms, proclaiming “I will root myself in my life.”

And then, just like that, we are an hour into the performance and we have traveled full circle (Miller gestures as such with his right hand) back to the beginning and Miller is once again poised in front of the door of Homeland Security. Only now he, and we, are ready to open that door armed with the twelve photo albums documenting the life he and Alistair have made with one another as well as the ancestors—guardian angels of a sort–who have created them. And we are ready for the news that, yes, a green card is possible in this case (but not in lots of other cases in which couples are ripped apart and hearts are broken in two). And we are ready for the finale of the piece as Miller imagines himself and Alistair hand in hand ready to step into the future.

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