People often wonder where artists get their material and ideas from, what makes them write a specific line instead of another. With Annie Dorsen's Democracy In America , such mystery is gone. The entire show was available for purchase. In the months preceding its opening, anyone could go online and buy something—text, music, movement—that would ultimately end up in Democracy in America . The result is a collage of ideas and thoughts from individuals across the country. The purchases were varied. David N. bought a “Starring You” credit in the program. Harriette D. bought Rhett Butler's famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.” A student at St. Ann's Academy bought the zombie dance from “Thriller” in slow motion. The variety and seeming disconnectedness of each element of the piece was used to illustrate Alexis de Tocqueville's (author of the great book Democracy in America ) question regarding how a nation could be assembled from a large group of individuals.
Initially, connection seemed unlikely. The show started with a word, spoken by the performer Anthony Torn, followed by a movement executed by another performer, Philippa Kaye. A sinking feeling that this show may simply be a parade of words and images from across America appeared. However, that feeling was put to rest as the performers began to gel the purchased fragments together. Kaye and Okwui Okpokwasili do the Thriller dance while singing “Soldier boy, oh my little soldier boy.” A striptease is followed by an ad for the contemporary dance venue Joyce Soho. A little girl recites a rather grown up poem on video while Kaye dances with fans to Ride of the Valkyries .
There is no grand overarching theme that appears among the fragments—the fragments themselves are the theme. Dorsen did not intend for the piece to be a statement on America's culture or politics. However, statements are inevitably made throughout the piece. Two poster sized images of Abu Ghraib hang from the sides of the cube shaped set. One is labeled “theater” and the other “not theater.” The images, while an embarrassing reminder of America's recent missteps, raise the question of just what is theater these days? It could be anything from two people discussing politics loudly in public to a traditional Broadway show. It could also be, for the guards at Abu Ghraib, the act of torturing and photographing prisoners. Yet, by labeling one image theater and the other not, the definition is further blurred.
The visual and performance aspects of the show are effective. The set is simple: a raised square platform with poles on all four corners and a video screen stretched between the rear poles. The three performers each have their strengths: Okpokwasili in singing, Kaye in movement, and Torn in his delivery of the lines. Together, the three meld into a cohesive ensemble when called for, in a way similar to America itself. Individuality remains yet the performers are working as a unit.
Democracy in America offers an accurate portrait of America—comprised of the good, the bad, and the plain embarrassing. As an experiment in form and construction, it works. The decision to let the collected purchases speak for themselves, instead of attempting to manipulate a meaning from them, is an admirable one, as it creates an authentic image of what de Tocqueville described.