Early in “Meditations on Nationalism,” a play that receives its premiere from Baltimore’s Quarry Theatre this week, the voice of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump will be heard bemoaning the state of the country and promising to make America great again.
Moments later, a voice-over of Adolf Hitler from a radio address in 1933 will fill the room, promising to make Germany great again.
Not subtle, perhaps, but subtlety is hardly the aim of this new stage work, which was devised by members of the company under the guidance of artistic director Ryan Clark.
“I woke up on Nov. 9, 2016, very depressed and, like a lot of people, shocked at the outcome of the election,” says Clark, a Baltimore-born assistant professor and program coordinator for theater and media performance at Stevenson University. “I wondered what I could do as an artist to address what happened, specifically the nationalist fervor and rhetoric at Trump rallies during the campaign.”
Clark, who launched Quarry Theatre in 2011 with an experimental work about John Wilkes Booth, hit upon the idea of a theatrical project that would examine what he describes as “the underbelly of nasty nationalism.”
He envisioned the project as a means to “do a compare and contrast, juxtaposing the Make America Great Again movement against historical examples of nationalism in places like Nazi Germany or Cambodia, where it didn’t end well,” Clark says.
Last July, an open audition drew “a pretty good turnout of like-minded artists,” Clark says, and the four chosen actors added their voices to the months-long process of fashioning a script.
Local composer Patrick Alexander signed on to write an original score for the show; it will be performed live by a four-piece ensemble.
By March, enough material was completed to hold a workshop at Stevenson.
“We took the feedback from that back to the drawing board,” Clark says, “then spent the last couple of months finishing the piece.”
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The play is constructed out of vignettes — labeled “movements,” akin to a classical musical work — that deal with recent and distant events.
Throughout, the four actors observe, participate in or react to Trump’s speeches (his Inaugural Address and first address to Congress are among the texts), as well as video projections designed to provide a continual whirl of fragmented images.
“The actors try to figure out their journey through all of this,” Clark says. “Sometimes, they catch the nationalist fervor; at other times, they are horrified.”
Audience members may react strongly, too, especially to the play’s gruesome narration about atrocities committed during the ethnic war in Bosnia, a war steeped in nationalistic issues.
There are also passages filled with quotations from the Bible. These seem particularly prescient given recent citations of that book by government officials defending treatment of parents and children seeking entry to the U.S. along the southern border.
“We are seeing the dangers of nationalism right now with the detention camps, which I think is a direct result of the America First movement,” Clark says. “But we won’t add material about the camps into the play. We’re locked in right now to [the script]. The play may have a life beyond this weekend. Maybe it will be possible to take it to some festivals. We could [revise] it then.”
Without any additions, the work holds plenty of provocative material.
“I want people to have a moment of reflection about the consequences of nationalism,” Clark says. “It is not an optimistic piece. But I hope it will inspire people to vote in 2018 and 2020, to ask themselves who are we going to be as Americans in 2020?”