To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Baltimore’s Center Stage theater company commissioned a group of playwrights and artists to create short one-act pieces answering just one question: “Who are you, America?”
Some of the provocative, lyrical and darkly funny answers can be found in “My America,” indie icon Hal Hartley’s swiftly moving omnibus of 20 three-to-four-minute pieces. Written by such luminaries as Danny Hoch, Lynn Rosen and Neil LaBute — as well as several relative unknowns — “My America” presents a gathering welter of impressions that, cumulatively, aptly capture the country’s mood in the late 21st century, whether by way of a young father ambushed by a sudden fit of patriotism at Camden Yards or a young black woman navigating the thorny issues of race, class, resentment and snap assumptions while reporting a hit-and-run driver.
Staged with spare, unadorned simplicity, “My America” makes judicious use of sound effects to establish convincing atmosphere. In Hoch’s monologue, called “Phil,” a friendly shopkeeper chats up unseen customers, gradually regaling them with a series of toxic, ultimately absurd ethnic stereotypes. (Ecuadorians and hipsters, it seems, have a penchant for public urination.) In another, a nervous homemaker encounters the mother of a dead soldier at the supermarket while shopping for her Fourth of July cake.
War, the financial collapse, social stratification and stagnation and thwarted aspirations are all engaged in a patchwork that, woven together, forms an eloquent expression of the gifts and burdens of living in a country that remains a contentious, confounding work in progress.
Some vignettes work better than others. A spoof on the beauty pageant contestant whose incoherent speech became a viral sensation feels glib and un-probing, and the ramblings of a Hmong immigrant visiting a classroom lacks focus. But there are soaring moments, too — arias of pain, anger, anxiety and optimism that gain force as they gather momentum.
One example is the collection’s second piece, a powerful interweaving duet by the spoken word duo the 5th L. Greg Allen delivers an equally bold, confrontational word-jazz solo constructed of patriotic bromides.
“My America” ends on a contemplative note, with a lovely narration by the great Kathleen Chalfant, paying homage to the national spirit at its most restless, ingenious and fiercely independent. “My America” wrings unexpected fireworks from creeping ambiguity, unease and stubborn, helpless hope. Long may it wave.
Unrated. Contains profanity. 78 minutes. Available via Fandor.