Edit: Yet another guest post, this time by Bonnie.
Like most of Robert Ashley's operas, That Morning Thing - revived for the first time in more than 40 years last week at The Kitchen - is both touching and human in its impact, yet defies easy description. The three-act opera opened with “The Frogs,” in which four women, seated at opposite ends of the stage, stood and joined to form two duos. Clad in white, their sparkly glasses shone intermittently as they moved carefully about the stage. Meanwhile, four men at the rear of the stage spoke of numbers and phonemes while a Speaker spoke of frogs and the demise of language.
“Language could become obsolete, could be replaced with new modes of communication . . . language is the only bond between humans.”
In the second act, the singer Imani Uzuri spoke/sang the phrase "1, 2, 3, 4" with delicate inflection and pacing while “Blue” Gene Tyranny played synthesizer. A character known as the Dancer entered and struck various poses as a recording related graphic sexual abuse with the banality of a telephone conversation.
“I remember he put his gum in my mouth. I remember he put his tongue in my mouth. I remember he sucked my tongue. I remember he opened his pants. I remember he pulled my head down on it. I choked. . .”
In the final act, "Fast Forward," The Director answered a series of mundane questions from the Women, interrupted in each case by a loud buzzer. The Director moved gradually around a lighted grid on stage, finally ending with the question: “Why is it that it is so difficult to remember sometimes, but so easy to forget. Yet, when you really WANT to forget, it is so excruciatingly impossible?"
These are the sorts of obtuse questions that Ashley consistently asks in his operas -- questions as poignant as they are strange.
As the opera ended, four of the Women left the stage to join the audience. Onstage, the Speaker repeated the phrase “She Was A Visitor”over and over while the Women picked out a particular phoneme - "eee"; "ahhhh" ; "vvvv" - holding it for the length of a single breath. The audience followed suit, and soon the entire theatre was buzzing with sustained drones. It was thrilling and disturbing, all at once.
Even after nearly three hours, I was sad for the evening to end. Ashley’s creations are ART, but not artsy. They are conceptual without being academic. They contain great beauty, but no easy answers.