Folk-rock singer-songwriter Cameron Seymour converted to Sufi Islam and became a vocal critic of U.S. politics and consumerism. She subsequently became convinced that she was being monitored by various government agencies and developed a reputation for paranoid rants and emotional breakdowns during her performances. After staging a farewell concert for her given name, she disappeared and was rumored to have moved to Morocco, though she was never heard from again. Years later, her daughter Mary, who had been adopted by Seymour's manager, Burt Fern, set out to come to terms with her mother's disappearance and document both Moroccan Sufism and the concert that marked her mother's final public appearance.
Actually, none of this ever happened. But if it had, it would have made a compelling subject for a documentary. As a fiction, it would make a compelling subject for the increasingly popular faux-documentary genre. Set loose in real time and in three dimensions on the stage at St. Ann's Warehouse, it has become Must Don't Whip 'Um, a fascinating and highly entertaining hybrid of genres and media, written and composed by Cynthia Hopkins and featuring her real-life band, Gloria Deluxe.
Much about Must Don't Whip 'Um is difficult to describe, but it is essentially a theatrical staging of a fictional documentary film. Because the "film" in question has a rock concert as its primary subject, the show is also a musical performance. Between songs, there are voice-over segments, montages of still images, and clips of backstage bickering, all projected above the stage but all filmed in real time. Sometimes the filming takes place in full view of the audience and sometimes it is partially obscured, as in the scenes that are filmed against a green screen just offstage. The flatness of the screens is offset by the physical presence of the actors, as well as the diaphanous curtains and shimmering lights that dominate the production design.
This intentional division of the audience's focus allows for some clever effects. Early on, an argument between Seymour and her manager takes place first offstage and then onstage, and is simultaneously projected as video. The placement of the cameras and the way the image is edited cause the performers to appear to be facing each other onscreen when their backs are turned to each other onstage, and vice versa.
What is most remarkable about the production is that even with all the cleverness, all the nested layers of narrative, all the techno-fetishism, and all the coy flirtation with politics and cultural criticism, the result never feels flip or self-congratulatory. It is a rare achievement when a show with this much going on conceptually is so affecting and emotionally engaging.
While the very concept of the production is soaked in irony, Hopkins performs with such conviction and commitment that Must Don't Whip 'Um is simultaneously a parody of the faux-documentary form and a tribute to the real thing. Even as Hopkins is poking fun at self-important musicians with messianic aspirations, she also seems to be exploring the elusive mystique and charisma that drew her to take such figures as her subject in the first place.
The music is unquestionably the heart of this production, with songs that sound like a cross between the Mamas and the Papas and Antony and the Johnsons. Indeed, if Antony and his peers are in your music collection, you should probably check out Gloria Deluxe, regardless of whether you make it to St. Ann's Warehouse to see the show.
In their publicity materials, the producers at St. Ann's state their intention to present and produce "innovative theater and concert presentations that meet at the intersection of theater and rock 'n' roll." Given that focus, the hyper-theatrical brand of hipster rock epitomized by Hopkins and her band seems to have found the ideal venue.
Must Don't Whip 'Um is the second in a series of shows that make up a larger narrative. While I didn't catch the first installment, Accidental Nostalgia, I have no intention of missing whatever Hopkins comes up with next.